The word itself is ugly and thoroughly unrepresentative of the pre-writing thinking that I do (and I *do* do it, despite my tendency towards composting, er, organic thinking.) The word outline calls to mind hours wasted in social studies or English class performing some kind of trained-monkey, “critical thinking exercise.” It involves Roman Numerals.
I. Ways to Kill My Creativity
A. Make me write/think in some highly-structured, artificial way.
B. Make me always have to follow an A with a B.
II. More of the Same Until My Head Explodes or I Never Want to Write Again, Whichever Comes First
This being said, absolutely no editor (or agent) has ever asked me to produce anything that resembles the above in any way.
I do write book proposals/chapter synopses (which, no doubt, Kelly will be covering momentarily,) which should never be called outlines, even though they are. What a book proposal/chapter synopsis really is -- is a narrative description of the key emotional and pivotal plot moments in your novel. There is, btw, a fantastic book that helps an author write a pitch proposal for an agent or editor, which I would love to recommend: Blythe Camenson & Marshall J. Cook, Your Novel Proposal from Creation to Contract. (My personal experience is that chapter six, which concentrates on writing the synopsis, is worth the cover price alone.) This I do. I’ve written what is basically a story about the story I’m going to write for every novel I’ve sold subsequent to Archangel Protocol (which sold the traditional way, via an agent to an editor as a completed manuscript.)
I write very detailed synopses with a core conflict, a middle, and a tidy, little ending. I submit this to my agent who sells it to my editor, and then I forget about it completely until I find that I’m stuck and can’t remember what’s supposed to happen next. In the meantime, I do, in fact, follow my characters down those proverbial alleyways, get lost, meander, and generally flounder as I write. I consider this process the absolute BEST part of writing. It makes me a slow writer. It means a lot of revisions. But, I wouldn’t enjoy writing nearly so much if I couldn’t get caught up in the magic of letting the organic, creative bits of my brain take over and rule my fingertips for hours at end. Anything else, to me, would be tantamount to assembly line work, and, frankly, the job satisfaction would plummet and I’d quit.
All that being said, I can no longer imagine what it would be like to start writing a novel without knowing the complete story in my head. I don’t think I could finish anything if I didn’t know where I was intending to go. Joan Vinge talked to me about this in an interview I did with her for Science Fiction Chronicle (now The Chronicle, not of higher education or the other SF.) She used the metaphor of a car trip. For her, novel writing is like gathering a group of friends at one coast and saying, “Hey, let’s take a trip to California!” She knows who’s in the car (though she may not know everything about them) and where, in general, they’re headed (though not the specific destination.) Everything else just happens... Kind of like certain bodily functions.
It works for me, too.