Novel Fridays: Space vs. Outlines

Greetings, writers! As I alluded to last week, just because November has ended doesn’t mean our discussions about novel writing must. We hope you will join the conversation in the comments below.

Whether you’re continuing your NaNoWriMo project or starting another work entirely, you might be having a moment with the blank page. You know, that yawning abyss of no text and no ideas and what are you even doing here and–let’s just go re-watch Friday Night Lights instead of writing today.

Whether you’re a seasoned scribbling veteran or a total novice novelist, the blank page can be a pretty terrifying place. Some writers combat this realm of inertia by outlining extensively before they get started. They know how many fillings their characters have and what kind of manhole covers they used in 1940s Cincinnati. Every detail is planned and mapped out; they just have to put it to paper.

Maybe you’ve tried that. Then you go back to the blank page. It’s still blank, but everything suddenly feels crowded. You start to hate your outline and your ideas. You get wrapped up in altering the minutiae. And still, the blank page stays blank.

In other words, there’s a natural tension between the freedom of unplanned writing and the structure an outline provides. Outside of exercises like NaNoWriMo, it can be extremely difficult (and sometimes unproductive) to write completely off the cuff, especially given the size and scope of a novel. (It certainly makes for interesting revisions later. Why did my protagonist’s hair color change mid-paragraph? What happened to the sister character I introduced in chapter six? How did this iguana get here?)

No really...

No really…

On the other hand, overly stringent outlines may prevent your story from evolving. After all, the creative process is often fluid. We change our minds, have epiphanies, and learn more about our characters the more we write them. We need space to have those realizations.

How then, do we compromise the two? I say: experiment. This is an entirely individual process and sometimes you just need to see what works for you. Maybe it’s not an outline. You could use a story map. A stack of index cards–each with its own scene or moment. Doodles. Word webs. Spreadsheets. Lists. Maybe you only plan or outline for the day’s work, instead of the entire novel, and incorporate outlining into your daily creative process. Try free-writing for two minutes before you sit down to that very serious blank page. Don’t think, don’t worry, don’t plan–just write, be it with pen and paper or a keyboard (I also recommend typewriters if you have a working one). You just might find the day’s first sentence in your scribbles. Or you might only work the nerves out, which is half the point of all of these writer’s tricks anyway.

The other point is to create space–a defined space–for your ideas. Not to know everything that will happen in a given story. The ending might be a mystery. Or the middle. What matters is that you are going somewhere and that the blank page can be its own kind of map.


Here be Writer’s Block. Arrrrrr.


How much do you outline in your novel writing? What do you do to create space in your creative process? What should we call Novel Fridays?

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  1. Novel Fridays: Research, Research, Research | Tate Street High Society

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