Top 5 Reasons to Outline Your Novel
The battle between outlining and freestyling (I refuse to call it pantsing) will rage on long after I’ve shuffled off this mortal coil, but I offer free advice for those impressionable writers still on the fence. If you are just getting started, there are two basic camps when it comes to writing a novel. There are the freestylers who sit down, write and hope for the best. And there are those who use a novel outline to make sure they know what they are writing before they begin.
I’ve had opportunity to mentor several aspiring authors over the years. A few of them are now making a tidy second income from their writing. The one constant that separates the success stories from the failures was outlining. All of the successful authors I know, who actually make money from their fiction, use plot outlines in one form or another.
There are, and always will be, exceptions to the rule. There will always be those few who can, through raw talent, sit down and turn out a novel without forethought. These rare individuals instinctually understand plot and are able to build a story ‘on the fly’. But they are the exception. Attempting to recreate their success is like looking for lightening to strike twice in the same place. Unless you possess this rare and inviable ability to instinctually tell stories with prefect structure (and you probably already know if you are), you would do well to have some sort of outline in place before you sit down to write.
Here are the top 5 reasons to have an outline before you start writing your novel.
With an outline, you know where you are going and how to get there.
For most authors, especially beginning writers, the biggest barrier to publication, is finishing a first draft. There are few reliable statistics, but the vast majority of people who sit down to write a book, never finish. Somewhere in the ballpark of 30 out of every 1000. The problem? They get lost in the weeds in the middle of their own novel. I hear this complaint from new writers all the time. They sit down to write, the beginning goes okay, and then they loose momentum. They don’t know what should happen next, or their story starts wandering off in different directions.
Starting with an outline, saves you from stalling out halfway through a 400 page book. You’ll know where the story is going next. As an added bonus incentive, having an outline will tell you whether or not you’ve got enough material for a full fledged novel, a novella, or just a short story.
An outline will reveal plot holes before you begin.
Many aspiring authors sit down, churn out an 80k to 100k word novel and hand it to a friend/spouse/co-worker expecting glowing reviews, only to have holes knocked in their story. There is no worse feeling than working for months, even years, on a book to have someone point out a huge problem in the story structure which you missed while caught up in the rapture of composition.
Having a plot outline will give you, and a few trusted beta readers, a chance to go over the story arc and make sure that there are no gapping holes in your plot before you actually sit down to write it.
Outlines reduce the amount of re-writes you’ll need.
Ah, the dreaded re-writes. Every author that I know loves the processes of writing a first draft, when the story is fresh. That’s the fun part. If you don’t enjoy writing the first draft, this is probably not the job for you. But something happens as soon as you type ‘the end’. The story looses immediacy. By that time, you’ve wrung every last drop of creative energy from your brain and the story, as far as your frontal cortex is concerned, is finished. The work is done. No need to bother with it anymore. However, experienced writers know, the actual work is just getting started. Once the first draft is finished, you’ll need to do a second draft, and a third. In fact, if you are anything like most writers, you’ll likely spend more time in the re-writing and editing phase, than you will on the first draft. Authors who write instinctually, frequently need the second draft of the novel just to work out all the continuity errors.
The more time and attention you give to your plot structure before you actually start writing, the less effort will be required when it comes time to edit your novel. Authors who try to freestyle a novel frequently require six or more drafts before the book is ready for publication. Authors who rely on a story outline usually only need three: the first to put the overall story on paper, the second to improve the styling, and the third to polish the manuscript. That difference equates to months of hard work.
An outline improves readability.
Have you ever read a novel and the story just seems to wander? You, as the reader, find yourself treated to long blocks of text where characters ruminate on things that have no bearing on the story? Minor characters wander on stage to perform actions which, in the end, had no effect on the plot progression? When you finally get to the end of the book (if you get to the end), you realize that the story could have been 250 pages instead of 600, but the author stuffed the book with a lot of fiddle-faddle that didn’t really need to be there?
If you’ve had that experience (and most readers do sooner or later), you were more than likely reading the work of an author who failed to use an outline.
An outline gives your story more structure. It helps move the narrative from point A to B in a logical, consistent, and (most importantly) timely method. This in turn helps keep the reader more engaged. The reader might not consciously recognize it, but their subconscious brain appreciates the tightly structured organization of your novel and it enhances their enjoyment of the story. This is why authors like James Patterson need to rake in their earnings with a backhoe. His sentence styling might not win any awards, but his ability to craft a tight story arc is second to none.
An outline will improve your productivity.
Authors who freestyle, often spend a lot of time at the beginning of each writing session staring off into space wondering where the story goes next. The most reliable estimates show that these authors spend anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes every time they sit down at the keyboard, trying to figure out what to write. Let’s say you type 50 words-per-minute. That navel-gazing will cost you anywhere from 750 to 1500 words a day! Even at slower typing speeds, you would still be spending large tracts of time pondering story developments when you should be writing.
Authors who use outlines, sit down at the keyboard, consult their outline and then dive right into the action. They know where the story is going. It eliminates the need to stare out the window for fifteen minutes, trying to figure out what your characters should do next.
Life is busy. Most writers struggle to carve out the time needed to sit down and put words on paper. With full-time jobs, kids, bills, and all the other issues crowding our modern lives, time is a precious commodity. With such a hectic schedule, why waste valuable time gazing out the window, when you could be writing? Start with an outline and then get busy!
If you have never used an outline before and don’t know where to begin, download Literary Rebel’s FREE ebook, Crafting Fiction Vol.1: Hard-Boiled Outlines. Written by our very own, William Miller, Hard-Boiled Outlines is a simple step-by-step guide to building dynamic story outlines. It is our gift to you!