Writing Without An Outline

I’m a list maker, goal setter, spreadsheet user and check-off-the-boxes type of person. My latest addiction is Habitica, a free habit building and productivity app that treats your real life like a game. (If that sounds awesome to you, see the note at the end of the post). I assumed because of these traits, the right way for me to approach writing novels was to outline and plan them out ahead of time to the absolute maximum. I love finding world-building questionnaires and lengthy character sheets, until it’s time to fill them out. That doesn’t make sense, does it?

It is true there’s no one right way to write a novel and what works for one person might not work for another. I’ll put that out there as I go on to discuss what I discovered.

I recently read Dean Wesley Smith’s “Writing Into the Dark,” which came in a StoryBundle purchase. I read it out of curiousity, just to see how the other half lives since I thought of myself as a committed follower of the school of outlining. What I didn’t expect was to have his words resonate with something deep inside of me, which, the more I read, the more it crept up to the surface.









Dean Wesley Smith talks about the critical voice versus the creative voice, and says the creative side of our minds “has been trained since we were born, and story has been trained into that creative side since we were first read to by our parents. The creative side loves story.” What holds most writers back is the critical side of our brains. “Outlining comes from,” he writes, “the critical side by the very nature of outlining. So the critical side of our minds outlines a book, then we wonder why the creative side often doesn’t want to follow the outline. The creative side knows story, knows what needs to be in a story.”

He compares writing into the dark to the reading process for the writer. Fun, right? Yet my brain screams out all sorts of protests. I always thought I wasn’t smart enough to write without an outline. My brain couldn’t possibly be trusted to come up with feasible plot points, character transformations, sub plots, twists and all those complicated connecting bits and pieces woven in. Dean Wesley Smith says the “very process of outlining often kills the very complex structure the writer is hoping to achieve.” He even says his “critical brain is not smart enough to put that stuff in. Luckily for me, my creative brain seems smart enough if I get my critical brain out of the way and let it.” Hunh. That’s definitely a different way to look at it.

I always thought my first novel sucked because I didn’t have an outline, or any idea about three act structure, plot, character arc or any of those wonderful things we learn about. I remember it being a blast to write, however. Maybe it sucked because it was a first novel with too little knowledge of writing behind it, not because it wasn’t outlined.

I also have been following the advice of if you think of changing something while you’re writing first draft, make a note of it, but keep going as if you had made that change. This advice is to keep people from not getting that first draft done, however, Dean Wesley Smith says you should go back and make those changes. It is your creative voice, telling you to something needs to be changed, so stay in creative voice and go fix it. “If you write some dumb note to fix it later,” Dean Wesley Smith writes, “you undermine all the wonderful stuff your creative voice is doing.” Yes, my brain screams, this makes sense to me. I always want to go fix the thing, but I’m worried about forward progress with word count and doing things the proper way, so I make my note. By the end of the first draft, I have a huge, daunting list of things to go back and change that really aren’t any fun. This is something I’m definitely going to change.

Of course, writing without an outline is scary. How do you know what to write next if you don’t know where the story is going? “Write the next sentence,” Dean Wesley Smith tells us. “And then write the next sentence.” Simple, right?

Everyone needs to find his or her own path. I’ve realized it’s best when you wander a bit, take in the view and enjoy the process, whether it’s following an outline or not.

*side note on Habitica*

I am in love with Habitica! It’s set up like a role-playing game, where you gain experience for good habits, take hits for bad ones, while working on daily tasks and to-dos. You can join parties (we currently have ten adventurers in our group) and do quests together, all while working on real life tasks. My friend Andrea Westaway of the blog, The Everyday Optimist, hooked me into it with, “I’ve leveled up my sword, and am riding a phoenix with my pet wooly mammoth.” Sold. I was in. If it sounds like fun, I obviously recommend it. Habitica

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