Writing

To Outline or Not to Outline: Writing a Novel Starting in the Middle


The last couple of months I’ve been brewing ideas for a new novel, and I feel like I am finally ready to start something new. After a sad attempt at starting at the beginning (the writing was feeling really forced and just not there), I jotted down the first scene that came to my mind, and I loved it–it felt really natural and got me really jazzed about the project. The only problem is, I’m not sure where I’m going from there, whether this is now the beginning or somewhere in the middle, or possibly even the end.

I’ve read a lot about the writing process and there seem to be two major camps, Camp One: Outline, Outline, Only Geniuses Don’t Outline, and Camp Two: Let the Characters Lead You and Enjoy the Ride (Even if You Have to do a Million Revisions). I’m not sure where I fall–for the first novel I wrote, right out of college, I stuck to an outline religiously, adapting and re-outlining if there were even small changes. I had a calendar of events, a list of scenes, detailed character descriptions down to what magazine each player read–everything. I wrote it in four months with about a year of revisions. For the second, I tried outlining again–I wanted to so badly–but it just wasn’t working. It was like one of my favorite quotes about writing was truly playing out: “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way” (E.L. Doctorow). It took me a good two years to write, plus probably six months of revisions, though I’m not sure if that is even accurate, as there was so much starting and restarting and jumping back and forth that it’s hard to even remember. But it had a plot that I just don’t think I would have been able to come up with in outline form. It came together in a way that I don’t think it would have if not for the crazy, hair-pulling process.

All that said, I now feel like however I write number three is going to define my process. I really want to be the organized writer in Camp One, dutifully sitting with my characters, world-building, and letting an idea bounce around until I’m ready to write The Perfect Outline, but I’m starting to believe that that’s just not me.

Fellow writers–do you stick to outlines or prefer to just go where the keyboard takes you?

One thought on “To Outline or Not to Outline: Writing a Novel Starting in the Middle

  1. I work my outline, but my characters definitely end up leading it, which leaves me revamping my outline. I figure as long as I know my main scenes, my characters can figure out how to get there.
    I love the quotes on your website. Now I am off to check out your page on revising for some tips. 🙂

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