CharactersEpiphaniesPearls of (Almost) WisdomThe ClearingThoughts On Writing

Doing What I Should Have Done, A Little Later Than I Should Have Done It

I started a new project today: Outlining my book. 

“But Anne,” you say, “isn’t that something you’re supposed to do before you write a book?”

Yes, dear Readers. Many authors do outline their novels before they type so much as a title page, and for lots of people, this is a wonderful method of completing a first draft quickly.


Every time I have attempted to outline a plot, I spend hours and hours working out every little detail and making sure I know exactly who my characters are and what they are going to do… and then, somewhere in the middle of Chapter 2, my boat gets totally rocked. Sometimes, it gets capsized. How, you ask?

Because, as any true writer will tell you, characters are unpredictable entities. You never know what they’re going to do. Take, for example, Natalie Watson. She’s my protagonist in The Clearing, and for most of the book, she’s incredibly mild mannered, nerdy, shy, etc. but then as I was writing her, all of a sudden she let this guy have it. I mean, she lit into him, and it totally came out of nowhere. I was shocked, Natalie was shocked, the guy was shocked… and Natalie has never been the same since.

Did I plan for her to lose her temper like that? Definitely not. Do I like what it’s done to her as a character? Oooooh yeah.

Sometimes, characters I didn’t even know existed will pop into my story completely unbidden, and will throw everything for a loop. I don’t plan them, I never see them coming, but then suddenly, there they are, adding their own unique little twist to the story. And so I have to write them in, and by the end of it I’ve wadded up my carefully thought-out plot outline and started to just wing it.

This can make for some seriously awesome plot development; however, it can also put you right in the middle of the very hole I’ve dug for myself.

Due to my lack of outline, and given the point I’m at in the editing process, I’m having a lot of trouble remembering where I gave a certain piece of information, what color this character’s eyes are, whether or not I remembered to replace a block of text I cut… you get the picture. I can’t remember what I’ve told the reader and what I haven’t. I don’t know if I’ve contradicted anything or if I’ve explained everything correctly.

Thus, the long overdue outline has come back to bite me.

Tonight I went through my first three chapters and made lists, chapter by chapter, of all the important elements that are revealed in that chapter. I’m also noting how and when I describe my characters, because I can see them in my head, but the reader can’t. I’m making notes about things the reader learns about each character – their little quirks, nuggets of information about their pasts, etc.

And you know what I’m wishing?

I’m wishing I would have done this as I wrote. Clearly, the pre-emptive outline doesn’t work for me, but what about outlining as I write? Why didn’t I ever try that?

So I guess what I’m saying here is that if you’re writing a book, try to keep track of all the little pieces of information you give your reader, and keep up with where you say it. Doing this will make your life a lot easier once you start going back for Round 34 of editing and you can’t even look at your manuscript one more time, much less actually read through it to find where you said something.

And to my NaNo peeps: Did you finish??

10 thoughts on “Doing What I Should Have Done, A Little Later Than I Should Have Done It

  1. Anne – I can't outline in advance either! It takes the fun out of it for me. I do have a general direction in my head, but that's about it.

    I actually planned to do an outline while I was writing this time, but.. it was nano and I didn't have the time. I'm looking forward to going back through it once it's done & seeing just what happened when – I think I messed up a few clues to the mystery.

  2. Just finished my first novel nano style, which is to say I passed the 50,000 word mark but it's not really done yet. I'm with what you're saying. I didn't make an outline and I started losing track of what was what. When I go back through to edit, it'll be interesting to see how many errors are there. Kind of like Jemi said, I may have messed up on plot points, but it's kind of fun to see where the story takes me. And like you said it's interesting to watch the characters develop minds and personalities of their own.
    But, yay, I did it! Put my winner logo on my blog site already and printed my certificate and have it hanging on my wall.

  3. Man, I am so impressed with all you NaNo people! I mean, I "entered the contest" and "won it" but I already had my book finished, so it was kind of anticlimactic. You guys rock. Keep it up!

  4. Anne, this sounds so much like me! I always attempt to outline first, but it never turns out as I first pictured it (in fact, I generally never even bother finishing my outlines any more!) My real outline comes after I've written the story. So to make the final outline a bit easier, I now summarize each chapter as I go along in the headings (I generally keep a separate file for each chapter and compile after the first draft is finished). And when I introduce new characters, I make note of it on an excel spreadsheet I keep for character info. I also keep a list of changes–so, for example, say I stsrt out by giving my MC red hair, but change it to brown in Chapter 3, I'll make note of the change & what chapter I made it so that I know I will need to change it in chapter 1-2. And I keep a list of things to come back and edit as well. I'm sure there are more clever methods, but that's about as organized as I get.

    I'm so glad that I'm not the only one. I was beginning to think I was a doomed writer because I don't do things like you're supposed to.

  5. Oooooh I love your take on this! As you know, I'm going for a complete outline for my next novel – but the outlining while your write is an excellent idea.

    With Shattered (recently finished WIP) I kept a running document called "Book Info" (so creative right?) And I summarized each chapter as I wrote it, to remember some of what I'd written. But the details you write about (eye color, etc) still eluded me because I wasn't thorough enough! Fantastic post 🙂

  6. I'm such an outliner. I couldn't be a "pantser" to save my life. The devil is in the details for me.

    I keep adding to my story skeleton as a go along. It gets pretty fat by the end of my first draft.

  7. I finished my NaNo too! 🙂 My book is now about 208 pages long and essentially written. Now I just need to edit the heck out of it. I am worried that is going to take longer than writing it…

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