I’m going to let you in on a little secret. I don’t use outlines.
I can hear the voices now. “If she doesn’t use them, why is she doing a post about them?” Just because I don’t use them now, that’s not to say I never have used them, I just don’t any more. I’ll go into the reasons why not a little later.
Basically, outlining is setting out the main events of your book and working out the plot from beginning to end. It can be a single page, shopping list of events, a series of post-it notes or index cards, or it can be a comprehensive, multi-page document that will keep you on track.
The point of outlining is to help you with the actual writing of your book. There are many, many ways of doing this:
Make lists. Start with a list of your characters. Then list the goals of these characters. Next, list the things that can help them reach their goals, followed by the things that will prevent them from reaching their goals. Make these lists as detailed as you like.
Use index cards or sticky notes. Have a card with each character’s name at the top and a few notes about them, including their goals. Then jot down your ideas, one per card, including goals, obstacles, and conflicts. Next, spread these cards out in front of you – stick them to a piece of Bristol board or pin them to a cork board. Now start listing the scenes suggested by these notes and again, one scene per card. Once you have this done you can shuffle the cards in whatever order you think suits your story best.
The Snowflake method is based on the theory that you start small and then expand. You begin with one line about your novel then expand it into a paragraph and continue to expand it from there. At one point you will be using a spreadsheet to help with the detailing, but this is not as intimidating as it sounds. Learn more about the Snowflake method HERE.
Mindmapping is essentially information generated around a subject using a diagram. The central topic goes in the middle of the page and then the spokes become the key points from that topic, and from those spokes, more detail emerges. You can find out a little more about the benefits of a Mindmap or download free software for creating one here: FreeMind.
Writer's Digest offers a plethora of PDF worksheets to help you get started: worksheets, idea maps, scene cards ... all you have to do is fill in the blanks. While it's geared to help you write your novel in 30 days, there's no reason why you can't take more (or less) time as needed. You can find the index HERE.
Now, when I say I don’t outline, I mean that I don’t write down my outline. I work everything out in my head, going over the basic story again and again until I get it “right.” In fact, if I don't know how a story ends I won't start it in the first place. Sometimes the ending is crystal clear in my mind, sometimes it's only a vague sense of resolution, but I have to know where my characters are going to end up.
One of the reasons I stopped writing my outlines down was, and I’m sure I’ve mentioned this before, I get distracted easily. I’d start writing an outline, then I’d segue into character sketches (pages and pages of character sketches), then these little vignettes would start popping into my head regarding these characters and naturally I’d have to write them down so I didn’t forget them, whether they were pertinent to the story or not. Next thing you know I’d be drawing maps, and . . . well, you get the picture. It started to become a time sink.
The other reason I stopped writing down my outlines is that I could never seem to follow them and I’d think that I should and the whole thing would become frustrating. While I have to know how my story begins and ends (in my head) before I can start writing, I’ve found that I like the story to take its own course from point A to point B and I find using a carved in stone (or written on paper) outline too restrictive for this.
But that’s just me. Outlines, when used wisely, can be a great help to a writer. So don’t do as I do, do as I say. Give outlines a chance. You never know, now that I’ve become more disciplined (which means a little better at avoiding distractions) I just might give it another shot myself. :-)