Using outlines before you write

I often speak to aspiring writers and commonly hear “Oh, I never use outlines.”

Maybe that’s why they are still aspiring, because every published writer I know of certainly does some sort of outline beforehand.

While ARCH ENEMIES was my first novel, it was not my first writing assignment.  As a practicing trial attorney, I write many briefs.  I have also written for various magazines and newspapers over the years, as well as many events for my game.  And if there is one thing I have learned, it’s not to turn your computer off before saving your work.  No!  Wait!  I mean, never write without using an outline.  See, if I had used an outline here I wouldn’t have made that mistake.writing

My outline for ARCH ENEMIES (film rights available) was not organized in numbered paragraphs, with roman numerals for each section like they might teach you in writing school. Instead, it was the story in the most basic form:

Chapter One:  Terin is about to perform when he is grabbed by the Duke’s squires and told he has been ordered to appear.  In fear, he tries to escape, causing pandemonium at the tavern. After being captured, he is dragged to the castle. Along the way, a barbarian sees him and runs in fear, much to Terin’s wonder…

You get the idea.  I tried to end each chapter on a cliffhanger to encourage those “I couldn’t put your book down” reviews, and whenever a great new idea appeared, I worked it in and was able to set it up with some foreshadowing.

I also knew that I wanted to pace Terin’s evolution properly. What good is a story that has no effect on the main character?  His transformation from absolute coward to accepting his fate grudgingly to becoming the reluctant hero had to make sense. People don’t change without the proper stimulus, and by looking at my outline, I could plant the seeds and pace it accordingly.

Using an outline is especially important in my writing because ARCH ENEMIES and its soon-to-come sequel THE AXES OF EVIL rely so heavily on unexpected plot twists and mysteries that don’t explain themselves until the very last chapter or so.  In fact, I write the ending first and then place the clues along the way;  without an outline, this just wouldn’t work.

At the same time, I’m never tied to the outline.  Scenes I thought would take one chapter end up lasting two.  Exposition that I imagined working well early in the book proved to be stronger later.   But at least I had a guide to make sure everything I needed was mentioned and in basically the order I wished.

So for those of you aspiring writers out there:  trust me.  Use an outline.

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