When I first started seriously working on my novel, I said that “I definitely want to outline.” I knew that going into writing something as complex as a novel without a plan would lead to failure.
So I sat down and thought about what I wanted to happen in my novel. I broke it down into sections and subsections. I thought about the narrative arc and who was where at what time, and then I sat down with my handy-dandy Moleskine notebook and wrote it all out.
Round Hole, Square Peg
I got about a quarter of the novel outlined before I realized that I was spending too much time writing details into the outline. Instead of simple path markers, I was writing out whole scenes by hand. I was basically synopsizing my whole novel as I went. Which wouldn’t have been a bad thing had I not been doing that with every single bullet-point I wanted to bring up.
It didn’t take me long to realize that outlining just wasn’t for me. I just couldn’t stick with it because of my inherent wordiness and attention to detail. I was working with a form that just didn’t fit my style. My style was the square peg and outlining was my round hole. No matter how much I wanted them to fit, they wouldn’t.
So I went back to the style that I thought worked in the past: just writing. Then it failed, too.
I kept thinking of ideas for parts I wasn’t working on, trying to go back or go forward and edit it in, and lose my current train of thought in the process. I was getting nowhere, and my novel was suffering for it.
You see, I’m a fanatic about notes. I jot notes about everything, and since I’ve had a smartphone, I’ve been fanatical about keeping them with me at all times. I use the Evernote app to sync my notes so that I’m never without them.
Why I didn’t use this particular system to help with my novel initially is beyond me, but once I did, I found things working much more smoothly for two main reasons:
- I could write as little or as much as I wanted. Depending on the need, I could write a sentence. If I needed a paragraph or eight, I could do that, too, and I wouldn’t be going outside the form’s boundaries.
- I could sync them anywhere. While I didn’t actually use Evernote for my novel, I did use MS Office Online Workspaces (Google Docs was my initial choice, but it gave me a lot of silly problems that added up to be a bigger headache than it was worth). With Office Online, I was able to keep both my notes and manuscript synced so I could work on them anywhere, when before, I found myself without my Moleskine notebook pretty often.
What I Did
I made two documents. One was my manuscript file. I use .docx because of its smaller file size than .doc, which meant easier uploads and downloads on the go. The other document was my notes file. It was just a normal MS Word .docx, but I separated it into sections:
- Backstory Notes (this section included organizational subheadings depending on what part of the novel I was trying to clarify)
- Structure Notes
- Plot Notes
- Revision Notes
- Unused Text
Under each of these sections sits a series of bullet points that I could append anytime I felt like it. Some of the stuff didn’t end up making it into the first draft, but a lot of it did. And that’s okay because I knew by just looking at the document what went where and why.
The biggest boon to this style of planning was that it matched perfectly how I thought about the novel in my mind. I could visualize my notes document and organize my day’s writing with it. I could start writing a portion of my novel, refer back to my notes occasionally, and realize that I had left out a major idea I wanted to include. I would then go back and fix it. While that’s possible with outlining, the linearity that goes with outlines just doesn’t work for me. I have notes for sections out of chronological order, and that’s okay—because I know where they go in the novel.
And maybe that’s arbitrary, but to me, outlining was restrictive. It felt like I was writing a sonnet instead of a novel. It never felt right. Notes felt great, however.
Just because other writers do something one way absolutely does not mean that it works for all writers. I know a lot of people who work very well with outlines. I don’t see how, but they do; they like the rigid structure, but I don’t. I know some people who sketch scenes on index cards and arrange them on a corkboard with ideas tacked all around them. Even for me, that’s a bit disorganized and fluid. I know of some people who write novels off the cuff and have the whole shebang contained within their noggins. Kudos to them; their minds can correlate much more data than mine can.
I found that the “notes” style of planning worked for me, and I know it will continue to work for me when I start my next novel. I’ll be one step ahead of where I was when I started this one. And that’s what writing my novel has been: learning what I can do better next time.
So on the topic of planning and outlining and note taking, my advice to you is simple: do whatever works. If you are the kind of person who can sketch an idea on a napkin and go home to write a Pulitzer winner from it, then go for it. You have my blessing. If not, then that’s okay, too.
Just don’t go into writing a novel as thinking that there’s a right way and a wrong way to do it. I thought originally that there was. I learned quickly and harshly that wasn’t true. Every writer is different, and what works for one may not work for another. The right and wrong dichotomy has no place in the process of writing; it’s all far too subjective. Give all the methods and styles a try, see what fits, and when you find a method of planning your writing that works for you, stick with it. It’ll pay dividends when you have that finished manuscript in your hands.