I’m at a stage in my life now when I don’t get any one thing done at any one time. I have to “chunk” everything – especially my writing. Because of my “finish it bit by bit” approach, it can sometimes take weeks to finish even a relatively short story. Amidst my family, my professional obligations, my Master’s work, and anything else that happens to arise, I’ve got a lot going on almost always. To start a story, then find that I can’t get back to it until a day or two later, can prove disastrous when it comes to “flow.”
To combat this, I do something very important that I believe all writers of any genre should do – I outline. I hear you groaning, but outlining is an instrumental tool in the prewriting stage for a variety of reasons. It helps you flesh out characters, establish pacing and/or beats, and allows the opportunity to figure out what works and what doesn’t before you’ve even touched a keyboard (unless you outline on a keyboard, of course). Most importantly, it gives you a view of the big picture. Sometimes I’ve known the exact way a story ends thanks to my outline, and sometimes I’ve only known a vague idea of how the story ends thanks to my outline, but I’ve always had some idea of the ending, and that’s essential.
Knowing the ending before a writer starts actually writing the story provides a far better experience for both the writer and the reader. It saves the writer a lot of time, and it can’t help but result in a tighter, more deliberate story for the reader to digest.
We’ve all read those books where it seemed as though the story didn’t have any idea where it headed. That’s fine in some cases, especially if it’s a pure character study or experimental, but I believe every moment of a story or novel should work towards a conclusion. It may work in a small way, but it must serve a purpose. Just as life sometimes grants us great happiness or terrible tragedy, we can always trace a chain of events leading to either upon reflection. A story should be no different. A path, even if chaotic, should be discernible to a reader after finishing the story.
How should you outline? Who cares, just do it! Use the tedious style we teach in school or do it on restaurant napkins, wipe boards, post-it notes, whatever! I prefer notebooks, personally. I also believe in sketching characters and settings, so the notebook affords me that opportunity as well, but that’s a topic for another time.
New writers love to just start typing and see where the story takes them, and if you have time for that, then have fun. For me, though, the way life is at the moment, I have to make every second count, so working through an outline with lots of notes and messy arrows and sketches is exactly how I get myself ready to be the most productive when it comes time to actually write.