Our guest today is Elizabeth S. Craig  who writes the Southern Quilting mysteries for Penguin/NAL, the Memphis Barbeque mysteries for Penguin/Berkley, and the Myrtle Clover series for Midnight Ink and independently. She shares writing-related links on Twitter and curates links for the free Writer’s Knowledge Base . Her most recent book is Death Pays a Visit. From ForeWord on Myrtle Clover: “The treat here is Myrtle’s eccentricity, brought to life with rich humor and executed…with breezy skill.”[pullquote]If there are other writers out there who start doubting their writing process, as I did, I want to encourage them to experiment. The results can make a tremendous difference.[/pullquote]
Outlining: Why I Made the Switch and Tips for Trying It
I was a mystery writing pantster. I was rather proud of it.
This approach worked enormously well for me. Until, one day, it didn’t.
I was on a deadline and realized the book had several huge plot holes that I’d not seen until close to the end. I pulled some all-nighters and initiated a writing schedule that made NaNoWriMo look tame. I hit my deadline, but it was enough to shake me up. It shook me out of my complacency.
Around this time, I was signed to a new series. My editor liked reviewing outlines before the books were written. I had two books to write that year and one I wanted to put out myself. I realized I’d have to outline for the one editor anyway, and I’d either have to be super-organized and not make any mistakes to get the other two out…or else I could try outlining all three of them.
I became a reluctant outliner.
This is what I discovered
- I’m faster. Definitely faster. There was less mulling-over happening during my writing time.
- The drafts are cleaner.
- There are fewer plot holes because I can spot potential problem areas.
- I have better woven-in subplots and theme, if I use theme.
- Fewer character inconsistencies.
- More complete character development right off the bat. I have a better sense of who the characters are before starting the draft.
- If I must leave the manuscript alone for a while, I jump immediately back into the story with no problems. The outline basically states: “Here’s what you write today.”
- Cover designer and copywriters can create back cover copy and covers (for both traditional publishing and self publishing) before I’ve even finished the book. On a couple of occasions before I’d even started the book.
- Less creative energy except during the initial brainstorming process.
- I write shorter. Sometimes too short.
- Sometimes my writing can sound stilted or flat after outlining and have to be fluffed up later.
- Outlining takes time. A couple of outlines have taken over a week to complete.
Ways to combat the cons
I give myself permission to veer off the outline, if I’ve got a great idea. I add the deviation to the outline with Track Changes and comments. I add in more detail or additional scenes later, if I’m writing short. I mentally acknowledge outlining as writing time. It can seem like a different process, but it “counts” in the long run toward completing a book.
A special note to those who write multiple series: It’s a tremendous time-saver to outline the following book in the series directly after you finish writing a book in that same series…before jumping into a new one.
Tips for those new to outlining
To prevent myself from overthinking the outline and stalling out, I fast-track it, completing it as quickly as possible. I improve the story in a second outline draft and as it’s written.
If the idea of a formal outline creates a mental block, it may help to write the outline as a story/synopsis. Mine are in paragraph form and sometimes even include bits of dialogue that occur to me as I go through. It ends up being a nice skeleton of a story…without chapter breaks. There are also no numbers on my outlines, since I feel strongly that words and numbers should remain segregated.
Writing the back cover copy first (for our own benefit, since many traditional publishers have their own copywriters) can help provide us with a global view of our story, the main conflict, and remind us of the most important characters.
After I finish this skeleton of a book, I go in and add other bits and pieces. I’ll hint at the beginning at the trouble about to engulf the story’s world. I’ll repeat the opening image and the closing one. I try to make my protagonist appealing or sympathetic to the reader toward the story’s beginning. I brainstorm and then work in character arcs.[pullquote]After I finish this skeleton of a book, I go in and add other bits and pieces. I’ll hint at the beginning at the trouble about to engulf the story’s world. I’ll repeat the opening image and the closing one. [/pullquote]
I try connecting some characters’ arcs with others in both positive and negative ways. I brainstorm and include subplots that can help characters grow and change…bonus points if the subplots tie into the main plot and help affect the outcome in surprising ways. These elements and others, if they feel overwhelming to you in the outlining stage, can be worked into the second and later book drafts in layers.
Then I skim the outline for obvious issues. Dead spots, boring stretches. Places where my protagonist seems to be taking a back seat in the story. I look for anything that seems confusing, anything that requires readers to suspend their disbelief.
Although there are times when I think wistfully back on my pantster days, I’ll admit that I’m now reluctantly sold on outlining. The pros outnumber the cons for me. It’s been one of the most important business decisions I’ve made.
Do you outline or make up the story as you write? Have you ever tried another approach? How did it work out for you?