The real question should be: when do you outline? Ask the average person, anyone who’s sat through a 7th grade Language Arts class, and the answer will likely be before writing. We’re taught to choose the main idea. Break it down into sub topics. Add details. The point is to organize your thoughts. Plan. See where your writing is going before you start. It makes sense. And if you’re writing an essay, it’s definitely a good idea.
If you’re writing a book, you’ll want to organize your ideas by chapters and/or scenes. A few weeks ago I heard a writer speaking at a conference about how he creates a detailed outline. He charts out his scenes in advance, logically arranging the sequence of events—introductions of characters, plot twists, action, etc. It takes him two or three months to do, but when he starts writing the book, it comes fairly easy. Each day he refers to his outline and sees what scene he needs to write. He stressed that his outlines are not written in stone. He even showed us a sample that included cross-outs and rearranged elements. But overall, he sticks to it. He’s written all of his books this way, and he’s been very successful using this method.
I’m sorry I can’t go into more detail about how to outline a book, because it’s not the way I write. I must confess that I was one of those students who wrote the outline after writing the paper. (Let me say here that I don’t believe that any particular method for writing is better than any other. Interview ten writers about their process and you’ll get ten different answers.) My suggestion is to experiment with a variety of ways, cobble together bits of what works for others until you find what works for you.
So how do I write a book if I don’t outline first? I begin with a vague idea of where the story is going. I know the end, or at least what seems like the logical end. And I simply write toward it. Maybe “simply” isn’t the right word. There are painful days when I feel like I’m slogging through each sentence. But there are also days when everything flows out. (Here’s something interesting: when I read back over what I’ve written, I can never tell which parts were hard to write and which parts were easy. It all blends together. Which is just weird, but I digress.)
If you've read my other posts, you know that I set a word count goal each day, usually 1500 words. I think in terms of scenes and I concentrate only on the scene I’m working on that day. Occasionally I worry about where it’s all going. Especially when something pops up unexpectedly. Why did my main character do that? for example. Or where the heck did that person come from? But I just keep going, having faith that when I’m ready to start the next scene I’ll know what to do. E.L Doctorow said once that writing a novel is "like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as the headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way."
Writing like this is a little scary. But I just keep plugging away at my 1500 words. Usually around day twenty (I have no idea why this is) something happens. I know what’s going on and it all starts to come together. Suddenly the words are spilling out. The tension is building and I can see the final scenes rising up out of the foggy ether. Now I’m eager to start each day because I want to see how it’s all going to play out and the only way to know for sure is to write it.
So where does the outline come in? Here’s the strange part: it comes when I’m “finished.” I write the last word. Print out the big mess of the first draft. Then I put it away in a drawer to marinate. (That’s how Stephen King describes it in his book On Writing.) I don’t look at it for at least six weeks. Later, when I pick it up, I read it like a reader. No red pencil in hand. I just want to see what I have. Yes, it’s a mess. But there is a real book buried in there and now that I see it, I can begin my outlining process.
I write out my big questions—what are the main ideas driving my story? Who are the main characters? What are the internal and external conflicts? I have a general sense of this while I’m writing, but you’d be surprised how things change over the course of writing a book. Sometimes what you’re really writing about doesn’t hit you until page 100. I list out the scenes I have on index cards and I literally spread them out on the floor. Every scene must contribute to the overall story; otherwise it needs to go. Or maybe I need to add a scene (or fifteen) where essential elements are missing. Once I’ve done that, I make my outline.
Now I can start my revision.
Seems like a lot of work, I know. When I spoke to the writer at the conference who outlines first, he looked at me like I was crazy. But after talking we realized that he does his logical work on the front end and I do that work on the back end. We both have to revise. Both methods take roughly the same amount of time.
Whichever method you choose, here’s a final word from the inspirational folks on the NaNoWriMo site:
“All the books we've loved started out in a similarly imperfect form. They're called rough drafts for a reason. No one gets a novel totally right on the first pass. This is true whether you give yourself a month or a lifetime to write the first draft. There's an adage in noveling that you can revise a bad first draft into a great book. But you can't revise a blank page into anything but a blank page.”