You’re going on a trip. (I know that’s hard to imagine in 2020, but just do your best.) What do you do?
(A) Check out every book from the library on your destination. Search the web for tips and reviews. Map out your exact route and come up with an itinerary of “must-dos.” Failing to prepare is preparing to fail, after all.
(B) Do a quick Google search, get a few ideas of what to expect and what to do. Put the address into your GPS, but keep an eye out for interesting side roads. The fun is in the journey, right?
So… which are you? And what does this have to do with writing? Simple: If you answered (A), you’re probably an outliner. (B), more likely a fan of free-writing.
Which is better? Does a chapter-by-chapter blueprint take the spontaneity out of the creative process? Or does failing to have a proper plan lead to frustration and unfinished manuscripts?
There is no definitive answer. Every writer writes differently. And, sometimes, every story requires a different approach. I have one manuscript where I outlined every detail of every chapter, even sometimes including parts of conversations. Another story, I just had general headings–this needs to happen in chapter three, or this location is the setting of chapter twelve.
Now here is the real dilemma: How do you know which method is right for you and your story?
I wish there was some conclusive answer: If you’re writing in third-person, then no need to outline. Or: You’re writing a fantasy? You’d better get a new notebook for all the outlining you’ll be doing.
But it’s not that simple. So many factors affect whether or not outlining is right: The writer’s personality; his/her schedule; whether there are distractions; if a story has a multitude of characters; if it’s a general idea or a mental movie, complete with beginning, middle, and end. The list can go on and on.
But here is what I’ve found: An outline is not a list of commandments. If you deviate, you’re not going to be sent to the Writer’s Underworld.
Personally, I find that a map is helpful. I work a full-time job and have a lot of commitments. If weeks pass between writing sessions, an outline jogs my memory, reminding me where I’ve been and where I’m going. That doesn’t mean, however, that, once I get writing, I can’t let my characters take over. More than once, I’ve been surprised where a story has gone. Characters that I planned to be in the background assert themselves and are suddenly indispensable.
So, yeah, I admit that, overall, I am type (A) from the choices above. But that doesn’t mean that I won’t veer off on an interesting road. It is possible to plan and also enjoy the journey.