To Outline or Not to Outline, That is the Question. . .

by Cheryl Zach

With due apologies to Will….
Some writers call it jumping into the mist–that is, you have the idea and you just leap into the writing, with no outline to guide you. Other writers pale in horror at the prospect of starting a book with no concept of where they or their characters are going. When I took a decade off from writing for teens and children to create historical romantic adventure for grownups, the first few books (penned as Nicole Byrd) were written with my daughter, Michelle Nicole. (Later she felt overwhelmed by life and small babies–hers–and I went on as Nicole Byrd by myself, with good wishes all around.) We had similar writing habits–except for plotting.
I have the kind of brain that jumps from point c to point g, then maybe back to f and on to p. That used to drive Michelle bananas; she wanted to go from c to d to e to f, much more logical, I admit. But my brain wouldn’t work that way, probably why I’m not a plotter, but a pantser–another nickname for ‘flying by the seat of your pants.’
I do know where my characters are at the start and where I expect them to end up (once even that changed, and I had to call my editor and explain meekly that–honest to goodness–my main characters wouldn’t do what I wanted them to, and the book was going to end differently than I had expected.¬† However, that book, RUNAWAY, became an award-winning YA novel.) I know the conflict that faces each character, I know their backgrounds and motivations. From there, it’s a matter of following my characters and seeing where they lead me.
Right now, I’m working on a YA novel, and the middle is frustrating¬†me because I’m a little unsure of where it’s going. That’s the problem when you don’t outline–but as I said, it’s not really a choice. Some writers profit by having a chapter by chapter outline, and they relish its security and guidance. Some writing books will tell you a plot outline is totally necessary. But some authors just don’t work their best from an outline, if they can make one at all. (Yes, from long practice I can fake a synopsis for my editor when I need to. But trusted editors understand me well enough to know the story will take its own direction.)
For me, the most important thing is knowing my characters inside and out, knowing where they’re coming from and what conflict/problem they are facing. Then I just watch to see what action they will take to overcome the obstacles, and how they will grow in the process.
In this book I knew my main character had to end up in Egypt but wasn’t totally sure why. She has a big problem–her mother has been abducted, and now her whole family is in danger. (Always ramp up the conflict, heighten the peril as the story progresses.) How is my MC going to rescue her mother and defeat the Baddies? I’m not yet sure, but I can’t wait to find out–it’s sure to be exciting!
Stay tuned, and good luck with your own plotting, whether you outline or not. : )

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About Cheryl

Cheryl Zach has published over 50 books, mostly for young adult and middle grade, some for adult readers as Nicole Byrd. Her YA titles include the Southern Angel series: Hearts Divides ( which won the Virginia Romance Writers Holt Medallion), Winds of Change, A Dream of Freedom, and Last Rebellion. Her YA Runaway won the RWA Rita award, and she is a member of RWA’s Hall of Fame.
A military brat, she changed schools 10 times in 12 years, won a National Merit Scholarship, holds a B.A. and M.A. in English and taught school before stopping to write full time. Born in TN, she has lived in TN, TX, GA, on the MS Gulf Coast, in southern CA, in Britain and Germany and has visited most of the other states and several other countries. She has spoken at schools and workshops around the country.

4 thoughts on “To Outline or Not to Outline, That is the Question. . .

  1. This resonates. I started April Kihlstrom’s Book in a Week with a general idea of there it was going. It’s a sequel so I knew a lot about my main character. Since it’s a romance, I knew there would be a HEA
    Upshot: It turned into Book in a month and I had NO IDEA where my character planned to take me. No where I planned to go, I assure you. I cannot plot. My characters do it and it’s a terrifying ride.

    • Don’t I know it! Fortunately, I’m a great believer in the parts of the mind that you can’t control, which often work on the problem when you aren’t aware. Of course, giving myself a good kick in the pants and making myself sit down at the computer instead of moaning about it often helps, too. : ) I’ve finally gotten some ideas going for my middle of the book and am writing again–about time, too.
      Good luck.

  2. An outline would likely help. Middles are always hard. I usually have to stop and examine my characters more closely. Sometimes introducing a new secondary character can help. And always look for ways to up the ante–i.e., increase the tension, make the problem/conflict even harder to resolve.