Outlining vs. Wingin’ It

I’ve written three novels, and for each one I wrote detailed, chapter-by-chapter outlines. You could argue they were my first drafts. All three outlines were in the 40-50 page range, even the one for my contemporary mystery novel, which turned out to be 70,000 words.

The reason I wrote such huge outlines was that I was afraid I’d start the first draft and have no idea what to write. So I added lots of world building, dialogue, and any other piece of information I was afraid I’d forget when it came time for the first draft. I spent months making sure everything in the outline was correct and that there were no plot holes. In many cases, I had to limit my words for each chapter so that the outline wouldn’t grow too large.

But as it turned out, the three books I ended up with looked nothing like the outlines I wrote for them.

Characters were killed off, plot holes were discovered (so much for “perfecting” the outline first), whole new chapters added, and completely different endings materialized that were so much better than the outline endings.

Whenever I deviated from the outline, I’d adjust it and then rewrite it to maintain consistency throughout the rest of the outline. Towards the end of each book, however, I simply ignored the outline and plowed ahead to the finish.

Needless to say, after following this process on my third book, I decided that detailed outlines were a waste of time for me. So when it came time to write my fourth book (an alternate history sci-fi novel), I decided to wing it.

Well, not entirely.

Instead of a 50-page chapter-by-chapter outline, I wrote a three page list of plot points and characters I envisioned in the book. Only took me a few days. I figured that if I had to limit my words in my last three outlines, then I’d have no trouble letting go in the first draft. I’d simply use my three-page summary to guide me.

And you know what? I’m 3/4 of the way through my fourth novel and the book looks nothing like my origional three-page summary.

But that’s okay. I have a good ending in mind, and I seem to be making good progress toward that ending. I’m discovering who my characters are as they progress through the story, not through detailed character profiles written before I begin the novel. I’m able to produce the same amount of words in the same amount of time per day as I was with the detailed outline.

Except now I haven’t wasted months on an outline that always changed.

I know which process I’m going to follow for my fifth book.

So outlining vs. wingin’ it. Which works best for you?

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