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Outlines: To Plan or Not to Plan?

When I write, I always struggle with these questions: Do I lay out everything in a character’s life and story from birth to death in elaborate detail before I even begin writing? Do I chart out a character’s likes, dislikes, appearance, name (etc.)? Do I write an outline like my teachers and professors always told me to? Or do I let the muses have their way with me and struggle through each sentence as if my blood were made of ink? Do I let the story flow freely from my eager fingertips?

The answer is both, neither, and sometimes. It depends on the story. Treat your story like a living thing. What does it need? What do you as an author need? I used to tightly plan and characterize each thing down to maps, charts, character sheets, and backstories for each and every character. But I found that this sucked the life out of my stories and made me stop writing. I would write the beginning and end and give up on the middle. Why write the middle when you already know the ending?

To make myself discover the world as my characters discover the world and to make it through a full first draft, I stopped planning and charting. I don’t know how the story will end or even sometimes where it begins, but there are a few things that I do to make my life a little easier. When writing fiction and fantasy, I find that I can’t keep track of every character running through the wild landscape, so I usually end up jotting down rudimentary lists of names and sometimes attributes or a timeline like this:

  • Jul → End/fire

  • Sept → robots & powers (baby made)

  • Oct → divorce for good/visit Chicago

  • Nov to Feb → WINTER SUCKS!

  • Mar → planting Apr → baby born/stories

Scribbled down, this means absolutely nothing to anyone. But I return to this page again and again to remind myself “Who is here? Why did I choose them? What is their story?”

After having an odd dream, I wrote these words down on a post-it note.

  • Nairobe

  • Ossisi

  • 2 same-sex couples

  • 4 adopted children each

I dreamed about these two families of neighbors and built their world in my unconscious mind. The characters didn’t have names or ages yet, so I wrote this list down to remind me of the relationships between the kids in the families, the levels of oppression they will face, and the parents who raised them. Now I have written about 10,000 words and the characters are starting to take shape. A backstory is forming along with personalities and likes and dislikes and appearances, settings, flaws and strengths.

After getting all of this out, I realized that this story connects to a story I’d started and put down months ago. So I backtracked completely to that story and mulled over the connections and relationships that had not yet formed. I realized why the world had ended 50 pages ago in part one, who had done it, that the story needed three parts of undetermined length to be told fully, and where the story was going. It took over six months to take shape, but the ideas did come and I’d like to think they are much better for not having planned them out. I let the characters come to me on their own and they brought their stories with them.

When writing in collaboration with another person, it’s almost impossible to write anything without a plan. Unless you have become a telepath or merged somehow with another person’s mind, you’ll need something concrete written down. When pitching to an editor or another writer they sometimes need a paragraph, your first page, a rough list of notes, a cover or query letter, or some other tangible proof that you’ve thought your story through beginning to end.

I’ve been working on a collaboration with another author and we’ve spent about a year just bouncing ideas around. On Skype. In email. In cloud-based storage. Over the phone. We’ve come to the point where we need to start writing something down. But I enjoyed the experience of seeing how another author thinks and working through his process. We’re both quite busy with other projects, and it’s nice not to have strict deadlines.

When I do plan and don’t give myself a deadline, the procrastination struggle is real. Without a deadline, I don’t have a visceral gut need to get this story out of me. I don’t have a compelling feeling that, unless I write the story down, I’ll wake up at 5am and whip out a pencil or notebook to jot down a few essential notes. The story will gather dust unless we both hold ourselves accountable to the project.

Share your process below. To plan or not to plan? Will you won’t you, will you won’t you . . . plan the dance! (INSERT HERE: *corny singing to The Lobster Quadrille from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland*)

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