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I admit it: I used to not see the point of outlining a story, much less a novel. Shouldn’t real writers leap full into the fray with teeth bared, ready to shred writer’s block into little bloody shreds?

Then I discovered that, hey, plotting is hard. So I did try outlining—you know, the kind you get taught in school, with the I… A… a)… i)… and so on. I soon discovered that the format drove me crazy, and the outline would get tangled up when the actual writing came into play.

Finally, at wit’s end, I saw K.M. Weiland’s Outlining Your Novel: Map Your Way to Success in the Kindle store for $5, and after reading through the sampler, I decided to chance the money.

Was it worth it? You bet it was.

For a “pantser” (that is, writing by the seat of your pants) such as myself, I didn’t understand the viewpoint of the plotter (unsurprisingly, a writer who plots ahead of time) all that well. Other writing books merely allude to outlining as a possible methodology for Getting It Written; but Weiland’s is entirely tailored to the art of the fiction writer’s outline—which, as it turns out, is pretty loose and free-form, not at all like what we generated in high school.

Indeed, while Weiland is a hard-core outliner, she discusses the different ways and depths to which one can outline, and offers guidance towards constructing the building blocks—always one of the hardest places to begin whether writing or outlining. As I read the book, I was left with an impression of outlining rather akin to that of a painter beginning with a quick sketch, then filling out the picture in gradual layers. Methodical, yes, but watch an artist painting some time—it’s a combination of method and inspiration that leads to shades of sunsets, rippling waters, lit forest clearings, and so on.

Ultimately, here’s the key to understanding the outlining mindset: outlining is writing. Writing is primarily about problem-solving, and outlining is a way to take the structures circulating in the nebulous understanding of your brain and transcribe them into concrete form. Something concrete (especially if you can manipulate it, via index cards, mind map bubbles, or plain old Word) is leagues easier to reason about in the end than something that’s just in your head.

Of course, “concrete” is misleading here; an outline is rarely set in stone. Having the flexibility to deal with changes is vital, particularly as you begin to write out full scenes. I feel that this is where the book, which hitherto had wended into such glorious detail about outlining, left things dangling. The idea is that if you plan enough ahead of time, derailings should be minor—and I suspect as one gets more experience writing, that this theory eventually holds up. But what do you do about major derailings?

Sometimes, as painful as it is, you gotta go back to the drawing board.

I highly recommend this book to the impromptu writer looking for another technique to add to their toolbox.

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