By Larry Hodges
I used to outline in great detail. I'd do a detailed listing of each scene, with a paragraph or two describing what happens. I'd also have lengthy notes on the side, including character bios, descriptions, and notes on just about everything else. I'd also have pages of dialogue I planned to use - I'm always jotting down interesting snippets of dialogue that pop into my head.
When I did my first novel, I outlined in great detail. My notes totaled 12,000 words. After writing 23,000 words of the novel, everything came to a crashing halt. The novel just wasn't working, and I was bored out of my cranium writing it. The problem was I'd painted myself into such a detailed outline and plot that there was nothing really creative to do. I was just connecting dots, and the result showed.
I went back to it a year later, and threw out the detailed outline and most of what I'd written. This time I put together a very loose outline, with a few sentences outlining each chapter instead of the detailed outline of each scene I'd had before. The only detailed thing I worked out was the ending. Excluding research notes I'd already done (much of which I would still use), the outline was about two pages. I also had the many pages of dialogue I'd put together.
As I wrote the novel, the creative juices flowed. I'd start each chapter by reading the few sentences that outlined what was supposed to happen, then make the rest up as I went along. I'd often leave the outline which wasn't a problem as long as I continued to move in the general direction of the planned ending. I learned I could do whatever I wanted.
The novel still involved a lot of research, but I did most of that when it was needed, either looking it up on the spot, or making a note and researching it later.
As I wrote, the characters became more developed, and I created character bios as this happened. Later, I went back and fleshed out the characters, especially in the early chapters before I had started this practice.
I regularly browsed the dialogue pages I'd written, cannibalizing them whenever pieces fit, and sometimes even writing scenes in such a way that I could use a great piece of dialogue I'd written. This seems to be the one part I like to do in advance. Not only is it fun--I often act out the dialogue when no one's around--but I think it's helped turn dialogue into a strength of my writing. A key thing is to make sure the dialogue fits the scene--if you force it, the reader will know.
Using this new approach, productivity, creativity, and (hopefully) quality shot up.
I wrote a second novel that went much easier. I again used only the loose outline, plus many snippets of dialogue I wrote as I thought about the novel. After several rewrites, both novels are now making the rounds.
For short stories, I also have cut out the detailed outlines in favor of looser ones, along with bits of dialogue written in advance. I still like to work out the ending before my work is complete--a tip I learned from Isaac Asimov--but even that changes if I come up with a better ending. For short stories, I put together at most a half page of bullet points, a few side notes, and start writing. My new outlining strategy seems to have worked as I've sold over 60 short stories and have agents expressing interest in the novels.
Larry Hodges is an active member of SFWA with numerous short story sales. He was the 2010 Garden State Horror Writers Short Story Competition Grand Prize Winner. He's a graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop and a full-time writer with five books and over 1300 published articles.
To learn more about Larry Hodges and his work, please visit his website.