Dispatches from the desk: Skeleton – Map – Outline?

On not getting lost in the wilderness of writing without an outline
Why this next book is going to have a skeleton to hang its story on, even though outlines stifle me
It’s not so stifling if I call it a map of the structure

I’ve written before, somewhere or other, about how I don’t work well with outlines. When I’m giving writing workshops in schools, the teachers invariably want me to tell the youngsters that real writers use outlines, and I have to tell them that there aren’t any rules about what ‘real writers’ do and do not do when writing.

Outlines. Some do, some don’t. Generally, I don’t, except for a rolling outline of rough notes that evolves and pushes ahead of me as I write, until I get close to the last quarter or so of the book, when, yes, I do pretty much know everything, although I can still be taken by surprise by what suddenly seems right, obvious, and inescapable in the character interactions, in defiance of what my notes said was supposed to happen to so-and-so. I once wrote a book to an outline. Then I threw the limp, dead thing out, and wrote it all again.

However, my last major project (of which more news anon, stay tuned for bulletins …) has set, even for me, the Dark Overlord of Nigglers, Grand High Master of “Dear Editor, wait! Don’t read that version, here’s a new file …,” a new record in numbers of revisions. I’m not going to confess how many drafts it went through, at least, not at present. I am going to say, I have a very, very patient and trusting editor. We’ll just observe for now that it was a very high number and life is too short to ever do that again.

The reason for that unspeakable number of drafts was pretty much that I started writing the book before it was ready to be written, and it had to ripen while I was working on it, which is why the initial hero ended up being cut from the book entirely and a minor character turned out to be the hero and … well, it was all very interesting and I’m very, very satisfied with how it turned out. Like most good stories, it feels as though it’s the inevitable history that has always existed; I can’t imagine it happening another way, now. I have no intention of doing that again, though. It was not fun. (Moral: do not start a novel when already burnt out with brain going “phut” [which the Oxford says is the sound of a bladder — or possibly a thought bubble — collapsing].)

So here I am, starting the Next Project. I have a bit of an anxiety about ending up lost in that dark and trackless forest again, even though this particular story has more seeds already planted in the foregoing one than the other did in the one before it, and thus more landmarks in the wilderness of what is going to happen (if you follow). (In fact, the epilogue is already written in sketch form, with some dialogue, and I find it hard to imagine that the final sentence of that is not going to turn out to be the real final sentence of the book.) Furthermore, there’s a serious, standing-army war in this one, and that’s a lot of rather complex and interlaced things to have to keep unravelling and re-knotting if major structural changes become necessary. This has led me to conclude that …

I need an outline.

Heresy. And I’m just as afraid of that killing the story as I am of the stumbling-blind-in-the-dark feeling of the story failing to unfold hill by hill as I reach each new horizon and find instead that it is a slough. Possibly of despond.

So, while I am beginning in my usual way, by reading lots of history and archaeology and anthropology and letting it all compost away, to nourish sprouting ideas and grow into a new part of the world, and making notes that generally end up a bit of a jumble between historical fact and ideas I had while reading, I am also letting, in the back of my mind, an outline start to simmer. Pretty soon I will set pen to paper and start sketching it out, probably (sigh) in multi-coloured inks which will get overlaid and moved around with scribbly arrows till it’s illegible and I need to do a new one. It’s not going to be a detailed chapter by chapter outline, because I don’t do that. However, it is going to be the skeleton of the book. I know I’ll start by dividing it into three parts, three movements of the story. Certain anchoring events will go into that. Then I’ll start sketching out what needs to happen to get from one of these anchor points, or major landmarks, to use my more usual writing-process metaphor, to the next. That, I think, will keep the story on track, by giving me a map of where I’m going.

There, it’s not an outline. It’s a map. I can live with that. I like maps. Maps, unlike chapter-by-chapter outlines, have big interesting spaces left on them to explore, which is how I write and where the magic happens, so that’s good. It works. Only once that skeleton-map-outline is made am I going to let myself make the file and start writing, even though the first chapter has been in my head for something like two years now. I’m beginning to look forward to it with the excitement, and trepidation, of a traveller preparing for a long journey, a traveller who has one of those less-than-accurate maps with a lot of enticing supposition and many mysterious blank patches to draw them on.


About K.V. Johansen

The author of Blackdog, The Leopard, The Lady, and Gods of Nabban, epic fantasies from Pyr, I also write for teens and children, including the "Torrie", "Warlocks of Talverdin", and "Cassandra Virus" series, and the "Pippin and Mabel" picture books, as well as a couple of short story collections and two works of adult literary criticism on the history of children's fantasy literature. I have a Master's degree in Mediaeval Studies, and read a lot of fantasy, science fiction, and history. Blog at thewildforest.wordpress.com
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