To Outline or Not to Outline…Is That the Question?

“Do you use an outline when you write?”
Every time I’ve gone to a writing seminar I hear this question, which puzzles me because I don’t believe it’s what the asker really wants to know. What is really being asked is if writers should use some system to structure their work, whether it’s an outline, software, poster board with index cards, or any other method.I asked several authors, including my co-WinRs, if and how they organize their writing.
Madeline Gornell doesn’t outline or use any formal system beyond a character list. “I ‘wing it,’ develop, build, and go back to fill in as I go.”
Andrea Hurst, author of The Guestbook, Always With You, and the soon-to-be-released Tea and Comfort(in addition to several works of non-fiction), varies her approach with each novel according to what she feels is needed.  “On my first book I knew the beginning and the end and did deep character and setting work. On my second book I knew only the very beginning and end and it just poured out. On my third and current book, I have outlined in detail the scene points and overall plot ahead of time and it seems to work well.”
Gayle Bartos Pool favors some organizing techniques, but adapts them to each project. “I have used an outline before and it worked fine, but I usually just write as I go. I do maintain a timeline to keep the action straight and it keeps the characters from bumping into each other unless I want them to do that. And I do write biographies for my main characters.”
Bonnie Schroeder works with ‘The Snowflake System’. Although she didn’t purchase the software, she follows the general approach. “You start with the germ of an idea and gradually flesh it out through several iterations, including detailed chapter and character summaries. The most valuable thing I got from this was the ‘Scene Spreadsheet’, which has really helped me see where everything happens and where there’s no conflict, etc.” For more details, go to: www.advancedfictionwriting.com/articles/snowflake-method/
Rowena Williamson juggles two historical fiction series – Castle Caorann and Ryan and the Redhead – and is working on a sequel to her popular YA book, Escape To The Highlands. Despite her substantial workload, Rowena doesn’t use any system. “I can’t really plot without getting feedback from my characters.”
“I outline my stories in my head and I always know where I’m going,” said Audrey Mackaman, author of two YA fiction series, Murder Most Magic and The Dream Cycle.
Jacqueline Vick always uses an outline. “With a mystery, there is too much backtracking to clean up clues etc. without one. And it’s too easy to go off on tangents and get away from the plot.” She begins by taking notes and making up a style sheet – a quick reference tool for things she always needs to look up.  “It helps keep track of names, places, grammar problems that pop up for me personally, hard to spell words, etc.” Although this system has worked for her in the past, she is currently trying out Scrivener software. “I’m going to give that a shot with the next mystery I write. It’s gotten good reviews!”  For more information about Scrivener, go to www.literatureandlatte.com/scrivener.php   
I think it’s very individual, this writing process,” said Heather Ames, whose publications include the romantic suspense All That Glitters, contemporary romance The Sweetest Song and Indelible, the first in her mystery/suspense series. She tried using an outline to give her writing group an idea of where Swift Justice (the sequel to Indelible) was going, but the story strayed in another direction. I’ve never used any of the writing programs. I’m a freewheeler.” 
What about me? I began writing my first novel with the idea of seeing if I could do it. I had no plan or outline, just a character, an incident, and a vague sense of the plot. I’m pleased with it now, but it took over a decade to finish. I’ve often thought outlines would speed up the writing process and now begin each book with a synopsis of the story, but I rarely stick to it. I rebel against micromanagement, even self-imposed. My second novel took only four years to complete, so I guess I’m getting faster.
From this small sampling, it appears there is no consensus. Some writers deem systems necessary to keep them on track. Others find them inhibiting; they prefer to let the story flow. Many hybridize the process; they use timelines and biographies to keep the details straight, or work with a beginning and an end, and let their creative instincts fill in the rest. And a few do whatever they find works best for a particular project. Maybe that’s what draws us to writing stories that appeal to us. We prefer having the freedom to follow our muse and only use organizational tools if we need help with our characters or plotting. Or as Rowena Williamson put it, “I couldn’t hold to a book-a-year schedule. My books would go downhill if I did that.”

Do the Details Matter in Series Writing?

I remember an author on a panel saying that writers MUST get every detail right, from street directions to building descriptions. If not, readers would riot and complain.

I admit I’ve run into this scenario. I used bolero instead of bolo for a tie description. I didn’t catch it. The editor didn’t catch it. Three proofreaders didn’t catch it. But one reader caught it and left a nasty note on Amazon reviews. He said I was “just sloppy”. I immediately changed it and uploaded the revision, but I couldn’t thank the guy who had caught my mistake because he didn’t leave contact information. So, it does happens.

However, I would like put up an argument that, if readers love the books, they aren’t going to stop reading if they catch an inconsistency, and as my example, I’ll use Rex Stout, author of the Nero Wolf/Archie Goodwin novels.

In the course of reading every novel, novella and short he ever wrote, I’ve discovered many contradictions. Archie Goodwin smokes in one novel and says that he doesn’t smoke in another. He also says that he’s never seen  Inspector Cramer actually light his cigar, yet in earlier stories, Cramer puffs away.  The list goes on.

It gives me a giggle to be so immersed in his world that I catch these things. It seems as if Mr. Stout was so involved in the world of his current story that what came before (or might come after) didn’t hit his radar. I don’t consider them sloppy mistakes. They just feel like one more eccentricity of the characters coming down through the author.

One of the reasons that these changing details don’t bother me is that they don’t affect the core of the characters. Archie still complains about Wolf, while at the same time admiring him. He easily falls for females, makes smart-mouthed comments, and loves being the right-hand man of the smartest detective around. Wolf is still an Immovable Object  (Archie’s words, not mine), and he continues to take delight in cuisine and no delight women. (Though he claims to be neutral in the latter.)

I’ve put a disclaimer in the beginning of my Frankie Chandler, pet psychic, novels.  Breeds are not always capitalized, and grammar  aficionados would be quick to jump on how I capitalize all breeds. I do it intentionally out of love and respect for my furry characters.  I wouldn’t recommend that writers ignore the details, but if the world they create and the characters who inhabit that world are intriguing enough, I think that readers will let the occasional slip-up slide.

If your memory is a sieve (it will happen eventually to most of us), you can always keep those details in order by using a chart, or a style sheet. In fact, I recommend that you do. Track locations, names, dates, and anything else that you’ll need to refer to at a later date. If you have the skill of Rex Stout, discrepancies can be charming. For the rest of us, well, we might be considered “just sloppy”!