Novel Outlining May Be Dangerous To Your Mental Health

NaNoWriMo Is Coming

National Novel Writers Month is coming up, and next month will see participants across the globe racing to write 50,000 words before the end of November. This year, I plan to join them again.

A little background is probably in order at this point. In the past I’ve participated in NaNoWriMo (as it’s often abbreviated), and managed to complete my assigned word count in 2011, 2012, and 2013. Every time, I found myself flailing to around the most basic idea of a plot, with some characters that didn’t really seem willing to do what was required of them. But, I would sit down, religiously, and put fingers to keyboard, to try and make some semblance of a coherent story. I’d hit the magic 50,000 words, and realize there was still a lot of story to tell, but that I had burned myself out, or written myself into a corner that had been surrounded by plot traps and barbed wire.

Summits vs Foothills

Last year, I took time out from even considering making that long-haul climb to the 50,000 word summit, and instead decided to pit my wits against the foothills of short story writing. It was here that I started to pick apart my previous three years of NaNoWriMo material for the bones of what would become a series of short stories intended to help me explore the characters and setting.

At first these attempts were never intended to see the light of day, but then I started getting involved in writers groups on Goodreads, Google+, Facebook, Twitter, and a number of other sources. And it was here that I found out an amazing secret.

Novel Outlining May Be Dangerous To Your Mental Health. But Not Outlining Certainly Is

Why I Started Outlining

There really is only one very simple reason for outlining a story – It keeps me on track. It also drives me completely insane.

As a writer, I tend to prefer to explore the world and characters for myself, but that has the disadvantage of leading into the very pitfalls and traps that halted my first three attempts at writing a full length novel. However, I don’t have the luxury of exploring as widely, or for as long, when I have a maximum word count to remain under. For “Under a Hunter’s Moon” that meant grabbing several scenes from the very start, throwing them into my ‘investigate later’ pile, and starting the story ‘in media res’.

The acts of creating and using an outline are two VERY different things.

  • Creating the outline an be a quick and painless effort for some. People who can get through this process without leaving a trail of blood and sweat behind are to be admired. For me, it’s a process of getting all my thoughts on paper, sorting them into order, and then hacking away whole swathes of forest in order to get down to the core of the plot. Or worse, trying to find meaningful, and significant plot to link points of interest within the story.
  • Following the outline is mostly a case of flicking through the notes, and making sure I keep up the writing momentum. If I look like I might be over, or under the desired word counts, that’s where second drafts and editing come into play.

Right now, I’m working on the outline for my fourth attempt at writing a full novel. But, I believe I have learned a lot from my fellow writers, and the processes I’ve started to use while writing short stories. Several of the characters I’ve already written about are making reappearances in the novel, and their roles are obviously going to be expanded beyond the scope of the short story appearances.

And why am I committing myself to the mental torture of outlining? Because right now, Halloween is approaching, and my first short story came out around that time. I’m using the momentum of that one year anniversary, and the activities of several online groups to build up the steam to write a story that follows up from the events of “Under a Hunter’s Moon”. I want to build on the events and reference them, without the need to go back and retell the story in a flash-back scene, which has happened in all my previous novel attempts. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind a well-told, and well-placed flash-back. But while it might have passing relevance in the novel, there is no need to tell the entire tale.

So… Why do I drive myself to the edge of insanity by writing an outline? Because, I want to present the most coherent story I can, without deviations, unnecessary flash-backs, and actually makes some kind of sense. But more than anything, I want to see how the story and characters are going to develop ahead of time, so that any surprises I come across have evolved exclusively from the story already written.


Want to find out more about my writing? – Visit my website, and read more about my stories, where to find them, and a little about the characters and setting.

Want to read “Under a Hunter’s Moon” before I finish my novel? – Pickup “Moon Shadows” today.


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