It’s a question I am asked a lot. “Do you use an outline?” The answer? Yes and no. I tend to have a very vague outline in my head when I set out to write a story, blog or novel. I have an idea of what points and pieces I want to hit—action, character development, beginning, middle, and ending, but I don’t lay it out on paper. I tend to let the story evolve organically while keeping those points I want in the back of my mind.
I have compared writing to music before, and this is another time I think the comparison is apropos. When a writer begins, like a musician learning an instrument, there is a lot of practice involved. You don’t pick up a violin and magically begin to play Mozart. You practice, you run scales, you learn music by rote, often bar by bar until you have learned an entire piece. Then you set out on another and another, until one day you can sit down and pick up the violin, open music you’ve never seen before and “hear” how it should be played, catch the nuances on the first or second time, then refine from there.
Writing is very much like that, you can’t sit down the first time at a computer and magically produce Pride and Prejudice. It takes time. First the scales—practice pieces focusing on one aspect of writing, character, action, dialogue. Once you are gaining mastery there, it’s time to branch out and open that first piece of “music”—a major project of some kind. A multi-chapter story or novella, perhaps even a novel. The first time, consciously—even physically—outline the work. Sketch out the details (like the bars in a piece of music) then write each as you go.
After working through several stories, you’ll find that the pieces are starting to develop more organically. The outlines will become more and more vague—from spelling out each major point and action to just an idea of where the story will begin and how it will end. The characters won’t need to be fully described before you begin, they will build their own melody as you write.
One of the hardest parts of writing is the idea that you must practice before you can “play” a major piece. It seems so simple, you communicate every day, you write emails, SMS and texts, you might even compose letters as part of your job. You read books and stories, so it is easy to not practice, to not learn the scales, before attempting to write a piece without that hard work in place. But, as easy as it seems, tt’s also not something to ignore. Practice is important, very important. Giving yourself a day or two a week (or month depending on time/how much you write) to write stories that you never intend to publish—ones that are to hone your skills, help you build characters into believable people—is vital. It’s not a waste of time, it’s just like running scales and using practice pieces before working on that performance piece. In music you do it every day, in writing you should as well.
To outline or not to outline? The answer is yes—to both.