This is a good and important question, one I’m often asked. I’ve only written three novels (one published, one currently with my editor, and one I just brought out of mothballs). I didn’t outline any of them. Not intentionally, that’s just the way it was. You see, I didn’t know any better and not sure I do now. Since I was assigned to write about the topic “to outline or not,” I’ve given it some real thought and here is what I came up with.
I print out Google Maps but never look at them. My hiking partner is always checking the trail map to see which path we should take. I just want to pick one and keep walking to see where it goes and to heck with a map. If I’m driving and see a road I’ve never taken, I’ll sometimes get off to see where it goes. I buy “how to” kits and never use them. See where I’m going with this? At the start of Sour Grapes, the second book in my series, I wrote a semi-detailed synopsis as my guiding light because someone (Ann? Penny?) suggested I try that instead of an outline. I wrote one and then ignored it. I figure if I stay open to inspiration and let my imagination run free, I might come up with an unpredictable twist that will surprise me and even my readers. I’m not saying it’s easy.
That said, I do my research and make notes for possible scenes, but I want it to be a journey of discovery. I know my location and I write extensive backgrounds for my main characters, but I want them to develop in ways that will surprise me. I throw stones at them to see their reaction. I thought I knew the killers in each of my books before I started writing, but to my surprise a better idea with an unpredictable twist popped up when a character revealed something to change it. That’s what keeps me excited about writing. I haven’t entirely given up the idea of a rudimentary outline because, admittedly, I have written myself into a corner with no way out except to change something that took me there. That can mean a lot of rewrite.
Harlan Coben never outlines but he does know the ending before he starts writing. John Grisham spends more time on an outline than he does on the actual writing. Joseph Finder thinks writing without an outline is like doing a high-wire act without a net. Obviously, their decision to outline or not is working for them.
Some habits are hard to drop, so I’ll probably keep on doing what I’ve been doing.