Learn From My Mistakes #4: Should I Outline My Novel or Not?

Let’s first review how far I am with my first draft of CROWS II.

My first novel took about a year and a half to write, from the start of the first draft to a complete, edited product that was ready for publication.  After trying it once, I’ve learned that this is way too long. I can’t take that long to write a novel and expect readers to even remember my book, let alone my name if I take that long between books.  So I had to find a way to create published stories faster.

There are some issues with this, especially since it takes time to not only create a novel, but also to create quality.  If I’m trying to churn out a full-length novel every six months (about 75K words in length) it’s not possible for me.  I’ve tried and failed more times than I can count.  Even short stories suffer when I do this.  I’ve got a bunch of them just sitting on my computer, characters suspended in various stages of conflict and development.  Writing 75K publishable words in six months is just too much pressure on myself and the pressure is depressing, and that reduced my output, resulting in a vicious, uncreative cycle.

So my only option to even have a chance of success was to outline.

The word almost drives a real shudder through me, and if you write by the seat of your pants (like I always have for the past 20 years for every single story) that word is almost more depressing than failing to write regularly.

I used to be almost dogmatically against outlining.  You can’t outline art!  You can’t control creativity!  Don’t insult me! 

Now that I have one book out, and people were buying it (very few), I realized I’d made a terrible mistake by not having something coming right up afterwards.  I had nothing to offer my awesome readers to keep them engaged, even if I managed to get them to join my email list!

I’ve tried multiple times in the past to outline.  It always sucks and feels like doing homework.  I’m in my early thirties, so I don’t even know if kids do this in school anymore, but when I was in high school, we had to get 3 x 5 lined index cards, write a summary of the point we wanted to put into the report, and number the card and a citation.  Ideally, by the end, you’d end up with a stack of cards that you can put in order and write your report with ease and little contemplation, because you have it all planned out.  It was a tedious, boring process and I honestly can’t even remember comprehending this process at the time.  I just went through the motions, trying to hold an A in the class.  It decidedly put me off outlining for the following 15 years.  As I went on writing stories and novels over the years, I had resigned myself to the idea that there was no way to outline in a way that would suit me.  I’d be doomed to fail, never meeting my deadlines, never being able to depend on myself to become a full-time author.  I even tried to outline the first CROWS novel and failed.  (Duh. I fail a lot more often than I succeed. And you will too.  Don’t be afraid.)

Here’s how I changed my approach to outlining:

Approximately nine months ago, (as of writing this on April 21st, 2018) I found out about the Snowflake Method, by Randy Ingermanson.  It was an outlining method I’d never heard of, so I took a closer look.  I don’t think it’s popular yet, and I can’t believe it isn’t more popular!  I even checked it out on YouTube for reviews and experiences, but I didn’t find much.

The Snowflake Method consists of 10 easy-to-manage steps.  The first 9 steps are the outlining part. The tenth is writing the first draft.  You begin with an overview of your story, and basically zoom in, adding layers and developing characters.  Instead of doing this through a pantser-style, outline-less first draft, which could theoretically take months, you do this in an outline process which is easy to edit and won’t cause you any physical agony when you delete any of it.  If anyone struggles with producing a first draft quickly, I definitely recommend this outlining style.  It’s not perfect, but it’s the best one I’ve found so far.

I’d say that I spent about two months on the outline altogether (only because I was in the middle of transitioning from my old job to my new, and also enduring the hectic tax season, so I didn’t have much free time.  I think I could have done it in just one month if not for all of that.)  Now, after completing step 9, I have about 50 scenes mapped out and ready-to-go.

The beauty of the Snowflake Method is that you can go as deep as you like with the outlining.  And rather than go from a top to bottom, homework-style outline, you go from inside out, branching outward from a single idea.  I know there are other methods that are similar, but this is probably the most involved.

I won’t lie.  It takes time.  A solid, dedicated month and you can outline a full novel.  I don’t recommend skipping steps, and I don’t recommend getting lazy.  But now I’m armed to actually write a first draft without killing myself.  The magic of the Snowflake Method is that I’ve already got my whole story.  I’ve got the beginning in my head, the end, and every scene in between.  I don’t have to wonder if I’ll be done writing a first draft by the end of this year.  I know I will be.  And I’ll have a well-crafted first draft with zero unneeded characters, scenes, plot holes, paradoxes, dead ends.  Ideally.

In addition to that, I keep track of my word count with Writometer, a cute little app you can get for free.  I also display my word count on my site.  I’m just a little over halfway through my first draft, in about a month’s time.  Which, for me, is not bad at all.  If you click on the slide-out menu on my WordPress page, you’ll see the word count meter I keep updated.

My goal is to finish the first draft by the end of June, which gives me a little less than 30 days.

I’ll admit however, that I am feeling a bit drained and aimless halfway through my outline.  I feel the story tugging me slightly off-path, and I know that the more I veer off the track, the further I’ll get from it.  Maybe the story won’t take the same path I had planned.  It will probably take a bunch of detours I never even knew existed.  But the ending will be what I already have in mind.  That’s pretty much settled.  I think it’s important to know the ending or at least have an idea of the ending almost right from the get-go.

Sorry I took so long to make another post.  My writing has been anemic.  I wonder if it’s because I outlined.



4 thoughts on “Learn From My Mistakes #4: Should I Outline My Novel or Not?

  1. With my first trilogy each book picked up pace in writing to completion as the story line came easier…I did very little outlining, the final book took 6 months while the first book took 5 years and a rewrite. Now I write notes as I go and general descriptions and story lines/ideas to help direct it. Some go out the window but it helps me streamline things. I’m going to look up the snow flake method, as it usually takes me a while to get invested in a story.


    1. for me my dedication to a story fades fast! i obsess over a story right at the beginning, unable to think about anything else…but i have zero discipline and then a new idea hits me and the old one is like, meh. …it took you 5 years to six months? that sounds awesome, i would take that.


      1. I have plenty of stories that fizzled out. I just turn them into short stories, but I’m a little lazy about submitting them :/ so currently they are languishing on my computer.
        I have a hard time commiting to a new idea as well. After I hit about 5k words I lose steam…perhaps outlining will help though!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. good luck to you! 5000 sounds about right for me too. I wish I could turn my unfinished fics into short stories, but I really sense that they’re novels.


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