On outlining, and changing endings

Posted on December 2, 2012

One of the most frequently asked questions you get as a writer is: “Do you outline or write as you go?” I always outline, and I usually go on to explain that I don’t consider the outlining process separate from writing; it’s a process that I spend weeks or months on, working my story out in detail, battling the macro issues of plot and characterization before I settle in to work on the prose. Sometimes people ask whether something major has ever changed from my outline to the book, and the answer has generally been “no.” Yes, outlines are — as famed writing instructor Commodore Barbossa would say — not so much rules and guidelines, so there have been subplots that came or went, minor characters who did things they weren’t intended to do, so on and so forth. But no significant plot change ever happened.


I’m currently on the very final stretch of working on STEADFAST, the second book in the SPELLCASTER trilogy. (The first one, SPELLCASTER itself, comes out next March; STEADFAST will come out in March 2014. How did I turn into someone who has solid plans for 2014? But I digress.) When I began work on this, I first thought I would create my usual outline — but for some reason, I thought, I’m going to do this a little more fluidly. After all, I’m always telling people to experiment with different methods that might work for them; maybe it was time for me to take my own advice.

So instead of creating a text-heavy outline, I instead sat down with a heap of notecards. Already I had in my head most of the storylines and moments that would go into STEADFAST; I just had no idea what the progression would be, or how things linked together. I made one notecard per scene, put them in a rough order, filled in some connective scenes and links, and got to work. To my surprise, it worked really well. However, as I kept writing, I began to feel more and more uneasy about getting to the ending. Too much was happening that needed to be explored, or followed up on. This book was running long. REALLY long. And then I began to freak out a bit, because it was becoming clear that I hadn’t supported my proposed ending enough.

And then, yesterday, I realized, That’s because it’s not the ending. I had indeed been writing toward a meaningful dramatic conclusion — just not the one I originally envisioned. Now I was free to go for that new ending, one that thrills me no end.

Does this mean I’m throwing out my outlines forever? Heck, no. The event that I originally saw as the end of STEADFAST will still occur in the third book (tentative title: SORCERESS); it’s something I know the characters have to go through, a dilemma they absolutely must face. So my original planning ahead didn’t lead me in a wrong direction so much as it showed me a place a little farther down the road than I needed to go. Also, to some extent, I could be freer writing a sequel because by now I know the characters of Nadia, Mateo and Verlaine well enough to trust their reactions; I’m still very glad I had a far more in-depth outline for SPELLCASTER, because that outlining process greatly helped me to know who they are and how they were going to be challenged. And, of course, even if I did have a thorough outline, I still could have deviated from it. But would I have seen the solution this clearly, this soon?

My take-away lesson from this, then, isn’t “To hell with outlines.” It’s “continue to explore who you are as a writer.” I really feel that for most of us who try to write, figuring out who we are as writers — what interests us, what we write well, what methods make us productive — is more than half the battle. The next time I have the itch to try something new, I’m going to trust my instincts again, because I like where it led me this time.

Do you experiment with your writing methods? What worked for you? What didn’t?