Some semblance of normality is starting to trickle into my life at the moment, so I can at least blog about some things. I've never written an advice before, especially one for writers, but I felt I had to after reading the blogs of some writers on Absolute Writers.
Some published and unpublished writers don't do it.
Well, I'm going to tell you now – you need to do it.
Eschewing outlines doesn't make you smarter than those who embrace it, and it doesn't make you more awesome or the greatest writer ever because you can visualise your plot from start to end almost seamlessly. Every decent writer can do that. It's not nearly as difficult as you think it is.
Outlining helps you understand your plot in ways you never thought you did, which in turn aids the transition from idea-I-dreamed-about to written-and-completed-book – the real challenge for any writer.
Let me explain it to you like this. (For those of you studying at university level you'll probably grasp this concept better.) While tackling your dissertation, you know you're going to write a report at some point. So the smart and professional thing to do is research as you go along, writing down whatever useful information you stumble across. When the time is right, you gather your research – the outline of your report – and because that outline gives you a broad perspective of what your final report should encompass, writing your report isn't as difficult as it should've been. You probably won't use everything you uncovered from the internet and books, and you may add some new stuff to your report that never graced your outline, but your journey to completion will still be so much less stressful.
Now I know what some of you are thinking: "I don't have to sift the internet for material to write my book, at least not to a large extent. All I have to do is sit down and write. Research isn't required!"
But you're wrong. You do have to carry out research for your book, though not necessarily by looking at websites or other books. The real Information on your book is stored in your most personal library – your head. That's where your ideas reside. That's where they're bouncing about, waiting to be plucked. And that is where you must go. They're scattered, disjointed, and raw, like crude oil. What you need to do is take that crude oil and transform it into petrol, and you do that by outlining.
It's not enough that you've concocted some brilliant idea for a book: "Oh man, I have this totally awesome idea about a boy who is a wizard but he doesn't know it. He wakes up one morning and discovers he has magic powers and decides to save the world when an evil sorceress kidnaps his little sister as a plan to bring about the apocalypse! Wow – rock on!"
Yeah – awesome, dude. Really awesome. But:
- How does your MC discover his powers?
- What's he doing at the time he discovers his powers?
- Does he turn to anyone when he finds out he can make things disappear with his mind?
- If he does, do they teach him how to control his gifts or try to manipulate him or try to stick him in a mental institution?
- How does his sister get kidnapped?
- What is she doing at the time she gets kidnapped?
- Are they really close that he'd be willing to risk his life to save hers, and if so how are they close? (Just because she's his sister doesn't mean they're BFFs. Plenty people hate their sisters, or don't love them enough to embark on crazy adventures.)
- Where were his parents at the time of his amazing discovery? Or at the time of his sister's kidnapping? (Are they even alive?)
- Does he turn to anyone to join him on his adventure – friends, other siblings?
- Does he travel to a different world?
- Does the world have languages?
- Blah, blah, blah?
- Blah, blah, blah, blah?
- And plenty, plenty other questions.
So many questions.
So many important questions.
Questions that, while you can sit down and think up their answers, you may never remember to address them, because you had no outline to remind you. Then you finish your "awesome" book and send it out to your betas, and your betas come back saying things like, "Yeah, this is cool, but how come your MC didn't think about going to his parents first?" or "What happened to the dog weapon he found in page 3? He had it all along, didn't he? So why didn't he use it to easily finish off that baddy in page 16, instead of wasting time from page 4 to page 14 trying to learn all that hard magic?"
Little plot holes emerge. Soon you find yourself trying to patch things together, and the more you patch, the more your plot rips, until finally you have to rewrite the whole thing.
Then there's the classic my-novel-sags-in-the-middle problem. Your idea about Wizard Boy is crazy awesome, because:
- The first few chapters will focus on his discovery of magic, how his sister gets kidnapped, how he and his family react, and his decision to go on some insane magical adventure to save her. A great opening – will surely leave readers breathless.
- The last few chapters will centre on his use of magic to defeat the evil sorceress and liberate his little sister. Oh, the action – so riveting, so out of this world. Your readers will be clamouring for a sequel.
- The middle chapters will ... um ... er ... will talk about ... well ... his training ... and some other stuff that you don't really know right now but you're certain you'll know when you get there.
If you had an outline you'd have a good idea of what the middle of your novel would look like, and if the middle is rubbish, you'll know where to add new plot devices to spice things up.
Be aware, outlines do not prevent plot holes or other writing related problems. They minimise these problems by getting you to think really hard about your plot – if it's actually something you should spend days and months writing. True, the idea of a wizard boy trying to save his sister is awesome, but then you don't want to get to chapter 15 and realise you actually don't have that much to write about, because your idea just doesn't have enough meat. That's something an outline would have told you before you went about wasting your time.
There are some accomplished writers who don't write outlines, you could argue. They just sit down and write, and in the end they produce classics. You know what else? Albert Einstein came up with all those physics theories and solved those complex physics calculations without using a calculator. Doesn't mean we all can.
In the end, no one's going to give you a "Best Book that didn't require an Outline" award, and similarly you won't get an extra score in your exams for not using a calculator when everyone else did.
The end product – a book with a great plot – is all that matters. Be smart.