Why I Can't Outline My Novels

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 14.472% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

I am, as they say in “the biz,” a pantser.  I don’t plot anything; I just find an interesting starting point and get to writing.
This is a high-wire act, rife with failure.  Neil Gaiman once likened it out leaping out of a plane and hoping you can knit a parachute on the way down.  And I have the smashed wreckage of many stories that I could not find an ending for, including one sad novel that devoured half a year of my life before coughing up blood on my vest.
Yet I am currently rewriting the last third of a novel, after someone In The Biz pointed out that the last third didn’t fit with what had happened before.  (Oh, the plot made sense, but thematically it’s like Dorothy went to the Land of Oz and then jetted over to visit Christopher Robin; the last third wasn’t bad, but it was addressing entirely different concerns than the first bits.)  So I made a detailed outline (10,000 words!) and ran it by some very smart friends of mine who’d read the book for me, and they agreed it was pretty good.
Writing the actual words has been a vacuous hell.
As it turns out, I write to see what happens next.  And knowing what happens next, all the bits afterwards are boring transcription: I’m left with all the tedious details, the equivalent of choosing camera angles after the actors have been cast and the sets built.  And some really get off on selecting camera angles, there’s nothing wrong with that, but for me I know what they’re going to do and they can’t vary all that much from it because it’s a quite good outline, so now what?
This novel will make me gain weight, as the only way I can force myself to write it is to promise myself a large glass of chocolate milk when I am done with the day’s work.  And nothing is better than a large glass of chocolate milk.
Oh, there are little surprises, enough to keep me going: here’s a need for a secondary character, here’s a scene that turned out more powerful than I’d envisioned, and of course I need my protagonist to be more active in his fate.  (Always my problem in early drafts.)  But in general, this is loathsome writing to me, a thing I find mechanical and hateful.
Many outline their plots wonderfully.  Every time I’ve tried, it’s ended in disaster.  My inner muse doesn’t like being bossed around, and I guess I’d better let her run amuck.
Which is the real lesson for all writers: There’s nothing that works.  There’s only what works for you.  Find it.


  1. Lisa Nohealani Morton
    Dec 5, 2013

    Yeah, pretty much this. Once I’ve outlined a story, I lose all interest in actually writing it. I’ve *told* that story already; why would I want to go and tell it again?
    I’ve gotten to the point where I can note down a headlights-in-fog sort of version of what the path ahead looks like, but too many specifics and my brain just goes “nope”.

  2. Charlie O.
    Dec 5, 2013

    There is a middle ground you might consider. For each of my novel’s I’ve written a treatment, 20 to 40 pages, written in storytelling prose. When it’s done, I put it away and write the novel. Most the scenes in the treatment don’t make it to the novel. New themes and actions develop, but the treatment helps me develop a focused sense of where I want to go so while I’ll write to see what happens next, I’ll also know where I’m going. It’s like creating a map and the novel is actually driving the road and seeing what’s really there. If I’m going to Boston, I’ll end up somewhere in Massachusetts, rather than veer wildly off course and end up in Florida.

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