I’ve been selling books for more than fifteen years and learning to write novels even longer. Of all the author readings and Q&A sessions I’ve hosted (and attended), one of the most common questions among beginning writers, even curious readers, is this: Do you start with an outline?
You’ve heard the pros and cons. An outline helps organize your thoughts and prevents you from spinning your wheels and traveling down dead-end storylines. The flipside, of course, is that constructing an outline boxes you in and limits the possibility of discovery, which is the most creative and rewarding part of writing.
First, it’s important to note that there are no ironclad rules to novel writing. Every writer works differently and stumbles upon his or her preferred method through trial and error. The novel, rather than writing advisers, should tell you what it needs.
The traditional term paper outline, with its Roman numerals and letters, is helpful to organize a finite amount of information, but a novel is more amorphous. I couldn’t begin to collect a novel’s potential in an outline, though I certainly understand the impulse. There’s something terrifying about the blank page and its stark white emptiness. What could you put there that anyone would want to read?