How to write a book

How to write a novel to an outline and still be creative

8108383545_0a63c2bddf_zAs you may have seen from the interwebs, I’ve finished the first draft of Ever Rest – which I’ve been announcing with giddy hullabaloo because I’m relieved to have got to the end.

I wrote it with an outline, but even so, it changed a lot in the telling – and this is what I want to talk about today.

Planning v pantsing

Hands up: who’s a planner? And who writes by the seat of their pants?

Planning versus pantsing is supposed to be one of the great divides between writers. On the one side we have systematic processes; on the other, an argument for natural connection and creative flow.

But it is possible to write with a detailed outline – and go with your instincts. An outline isn’t a straitjacket.

Indeed, Ever Rest started to bust its sleeves as soon as I got typing.

The first was the point-of-view characters. I originally nominated three. Pretty soon there were two others. Perspectives galore, who weren’t originally planned for.

Four main characters completely defied my expectations. I thought I knew who they were, but when they got on their hind legs and talked they acquired unexpected dimensions. They then did a thing they weren’t supposed to, which shook up the entire third act.

And this was a book I’d planned (more here about my writing process).

Wasted plans?

It might seem as though all that dithering with cards and marker pens was wasted. I might as well have made it up day by day. But no; I still stuck to the plan.

Before I put my cards into order for writing, I knew them very well. When my characters took me by surprise, I knew which scenes could be shuffled into better positions. I also found new gaps, and scribbled more cards. And I wrote the last section backwards from the end.

So an outline doesn’t bind you to one path through the story. It does, however, provide a useful framework. A lot of storytelling is form and structure, crescendos and revelations. Without this, you might write your way into an aimless wilderness – which is one of the dangers when we make it up as we go. An outline keeps that mechanism in order; it is a safe space where you can interpret, experiment and follow inspiration.

And despite my deviations, I realise the book is, in essence, what I was aiming for all along. My outline was a series of wishes thrown into a well. The writing made them come true.

My tips for using an outline creatively

  • Stick with your outline – it was made with an awareness of patterns, structure and themes. It imposes coherence and shape. But adjust to take advantage of new insights. You may find you can use events you’ve planned in a better way – give them to different characters or shuffle them to new positions.
  • If you want to make a drastic detour, make a list of the pros and cons. Is Mary the murderer after all? Spend five minutes making a list of the consequences if she is.
  • Some writers use an outline up to a point – then abandon it as inspiration shows the true direction.

But don’t feel that the previous work was wasted. It wasn’t. It’s what got you here.

Thanks for the pic Axisworks

nyn1 reboot ebook darkersmlThere’s more in Nail Your Novel about writing outlines and using them creatively.

Do you outline your novels? If so, how strictly do you stick to them? If you don’t outline, how do you work? Let’s discuss!


40 thoughts on “How to write a novel to an outline and still be creative

  1. Actually, I wrote the summary of my first novel, first, then put an outline 😀

  2. I plan the major beats of the story (using Jami Gold’s best sheets and the explanation for said beats from Story Engineering by Larry Brooks). I have also ended up adding a POV when I realized certain information was hidden to my protagonist but was needful to keep a reader engaged. Even when I truly know my characters, they surprise me by saying something unexpected or taking a detour I hadn’t planned. Sometimes these scenes stay with the story or shake up the order, and sometimes they end up in the cut scene file during the rewrite. None of it is wasted, however, if it gives me a better understanding of my character and how to write them so the reader bonds with them, too.
    I think you have to have the bare bones of your story or else you will end up rewriting the whole thing. I have outlined an entire book before, but I found it made me feel like I’d already told the story, so I moved on to the next idea eating at my soul. My current process is the compromise that keeps me writing until the first draft is executed.
    Thanks for sharing your wise insights.

    1. Sharon, it sounds like you do as much experimenting as I do! And I agree with your comment that this all helps us understand the characters, their world and what we should make them do. Or should I say, what we should show them doing – as they seem to do it anyway!

  3. My process is similar to yours, Roz. I plan how the book will go, and the final result is generally faithful to the plan. I don’t plan down to the scene level, although I always have several critical scenes in mind before I start writing. (These are usually the scenes that inspired me to write the novel in the first place.) I mostly feel my way through the story from beat to beat, letting the characters drive how things progress.

    I think we’ve talked about this before, but James Scott Bell calls this approach the Headlights Method. You know your destination, but you don’t exactly what each scene will look like until you get there.

  4. Your timing for this post was impeccable – I finally finished the plot outline for Innerscape about 3 hours ago. I have to say, however, that I did not begin plotting until about 1/3 of the story was written.

    I’m definitely more pantster than plotter, and my first drafts always begin with a character or three, and something emotional. In Innerscape the ‘something emotional’ was the image I had of a dying woman saying goodbye to her home.

    Inspiration kept me going for quite a while …until I realised a sci-fi story needed something more than an interesting world and some intriguing characters, in short, a plot.

    I found the plotting very hard, I always do. Now that I’m through to the other side, however, I’m glad I put in the effort because the story is finally /right/. It flows from the world, the history and the motivations of the characters without feeling contrived, or predictable. At least I hope so. Now I just have to finish writing this thing. 😀

    1. hi Andrea! That’s a very familiar pattern you’re describing there. I’ve got a novel in a drawer that I started in that way and then got irretrievably lost with. Actually, it might be retrievable but I haven’t set about it with my tools yet.

      What you’re describing is the ‘effort’ side of writing. Although it’s a nice pastime, and making things up is fun, it’s also a discipline and there are certain elements that come more easily than others. Some writers I know are great at plot – but character and emotion are alien to them.Congratulations for buckling down to do your idea proper justice.

      1. Oh! Dust off that story – you’ll be amazed how it looks from your current perspective!

        And yes, it’s remembering the fun of creating that keeps us going during the slog part of things. Sadly plot equates to work in my writing. God but it feels good when it all falls into place though!

  5. I’m sorry for being late to the party, but I’ve been busy…plotting my WIP. I actually have two outlines, and am trying to decide whether the Mid Point should be yet another disaster (Plot Points One and Two are disasters) or whether it should be a False Victory.

    Based on all the work I’ve done to make the character arcs match up with the Story Points, I am stunned pansters can do that without working it all out in advance. And, making sure I get the right POVs, goals, conflicts and disasters into each scene, how could I keep that all straight if I didn’t know, beforehand, what I was trying to do.

    I think the pansters must just be more talented than I am.


  6. I can’t imagine writing without a detailed plan it’s just the way I do things. In my case I’d say the creativity goes into the plan. The actual writing is fun,but it’s the work part of the process.

    1. Lesley, you’re right – planning is a very creative process. As is editing. I often think that writers are the kind of people who think of the perfect witty rejoinder 25 hours after it was needed. Fortunately this slow-maturing subconscious is perfect for the work we do.

  7. First up, congratulations on finishing the first draft!

    I love the fact that your characters got up to things they weren’t supposed to =o) That sound like a sure sign that you knew them well enough for them to go rogue.

    I’ve only ever retro-fitted plans to existing scenes or chapters which had got away from me, but even that has proven useful.

    1. Thanks, Jon! Indeed the first draft feels like it’s been a bonding experience – like when you get comfortable with a bunch of people you didn’t know very well. There’s still much to do, though.

  8. Hi Roz,
    as one commenter on a popular TV series (which is based on a series of slightly differing books) wrote – you can get to the same point taking different routes…
    When the third act got so shaken up, did you experience a situation where you’d simply have no use for scenes you had already planned?

    1. Hi Jamie – yes, you definitely can. And (to continue the metaphor) if you know one route it frees you to experiment with another!
      I do now have several scenes that won’t be used, but I have them in note form. I’ve now got enough distance that I’m starting to realise where the remaining holes are, so the unused material might be a good starting point.
      But with my previous novel, Lifeform Three, I junked the entire third act and never used any of it.
      There’s a lot of wastage in writing…

  9. Very late to the party. I am a pantser trying to be more of a plotter. It does save a lot of work later on if you have a clearer and more detailed grasp of the story going in. What I do is to start with a premise, POV characters and about a dozen milestone events that move the story from point A to point Z. Like you, I always make mid-course adjustments. I find in my WIP that I am beginning to second guess myself. I’ve worked over the beginning chapter five or six times and I am still not happy with it. My crirtique friends suggested moving up a scene where the MC finds herself in crisis not the inciting incident but a precursor to it. I may try that next. Oh the joys of the revision process.

    1. Hi Chris! Do you find you enjoy the revision process? I love the phase where I have the novel in a form where I can shuffle scenes around, adjust emphasis, make it better. And beginnings seem to take more wrangling than any other part of the book. When I’ve finished, I usually rewrite the beginning yet again. Onwards!

  10. Great advice. I like to outline a little but bounce from tangent to tangent as I go along. It sometimes derails my writing but that’s what second drafts are for I suppose (o:

  11. Great post! I’ve been teaching a novel writing class for years. In it I teach them how to outline, but always tell them to use it as a guide if the story takes over. It is always a useful exercise whether or not it is used.

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