By Karin Beery
I love outlines. It started in high school, and I mastered them in college. When I started writing for a local newspaper, I struggled with my articles until I busted out the Roman numerals and outlined my rough drafts. Then the articles practically wrote themselves.
My confusion started when I wrote my novels. I wrote my first novel in six weeks, no outline. I just sat down and wrote, never thinking about the details. My second novel, however, didn’t flow. I wrote two versions with so many holes that by the time I finished my final draft, I’d thrown away over 90,000 words.
My gut reaction told me to outline my next novel. It worked for articles, it should work for books, right?
I outlined my next manuscript, and something peculiar happened – I only followed it for the first few chapters. Then the story ran off in different directions. Whole chapters summarized themselves into a few paragraphs. Situations that took two lines in the outline stretched into multi-chapter events. In summary, the outline failed.
So where does that leave me? Most writers classify themselves as outliners or SOTP (seat-of-the-pants) writers. You can find dozens of articles extolling the virtues of each, but I don’t fit into either clubhouse. Should I outline, or free-write?
I recently read Organic Writing by Steven James, published in Writer’s Digest and it changed my perspective. He doesn’t focus on technique. Instead, it’s all about the story.
So how does one write organically? These are James’ ideas through the lens of my understanding.
1. Re-evaluate what you’ve heard about story. Know what every story needs, and put it in there. James says, “When you’re informed about what makes a story work, you’re never writing from the seat of your pants.” That doesn’t mean you don’t write freestyle, it just means you know what you need to include before you start typing.
2. Let narrative forces, rather than formulas, drive your story. I’ve got lots of diagrams and ideas about the writing doors, bridges, acts, etc. The problem comes when I try to fit the story into those molds, rather than letting the story tell itself. Forget the formulas.
3. Follow rabbit trails. “Without serendipitous discoveries your story runs the risk of feeling artificial and prepackaged.” Enough said.
4. Write from the center of the paradox. You need to know the backstory, but you don’t need to write it. Start in the middle, with the action, and go to the end.
5. Trust the fluidity of the process. It’s okay to abandon the outline. It’s also okay to start with idea and watch the story run off the page. Just go with it.
These revelations relieved the pressure of identifying what type of writer I am and freed me to sit and write, even if that means a great outline that I abandon midway. It’s okay to follow the story, where ever it leads. After all, it’s the reason I’m writing.
Karin Beery is a freelance writer/editor/coach, wife, care giver, and homemaker, Karin Beery has published over 350 articles in various periodicals, in addition to writing her novels. With a degree in English and five years of experience as a freelance writer and editor, Karin offers proofreading, editing, and coaching services for writers at all levels. She is an active member of many professional organizations, and is well-versed in publishing standards and requirements. She specializes in business writing and fiction (strange, but true). You can find her online at:
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