NNWM/10: Outlines: Yay or Nay?

As much as I’ve talked about NaNoWriMo, I’ve focused a lot on the novel itself but have devoted very little time to the actual writing of said novel. And it’s that writing process that people ask me about more than anything else, so I thought I’d devote a couple of paragraphs to that.

The question I am asked most often – usually by those aspiring to write a book of their own – is, do you work from an outline? 

I would love to say that I carefully plot out every detail of my books before I type a single word, but the truth is, I totally wing it.

Here’s the thing: there is no right or wrong way to write a novel. Just write the novel! Do it rather than worrying about how to do it. Find the method that works best for you, and unleash your inner Hemingway. There are many authors who work from intricately-detailed outlines and wouldn’t dream of attempting a piece of fiction without knowing exactly what is going to happen, chapter by chapter, every step of the way from the opening sentence to the magical “The End.” But that approach does not work for me. I have tried to outline my novels, but I find that hampers the creative process. Besides, I don’t know what’s going to happen until I start writing! Sure, I have a rough outline in my head – I believe you should have a basic plot in mind – but my best work is done off-the-cuff. Rather than guiding my story along, I let my story guide me. And that’s okay. You might find you need an outline. Guess what? That’s okay, too. The flying-by-the-seat-of-your-pants approach is not for the faint of heart.


When I was writing No Time For Kings, I knew the book was about a group of eco-terrorists who resort to murder to further their agenda, and the female news reporter who set out to stop them. That was the basic mental outline I had. The rest of the story filled itself in as I wrote. There were major plot points, such as the fact that one of the main characters is a recovering alcoholic, that never even crossed my mind ahead of time. Because I wasn’t working from an outline, I was free to incorporate this new idea, and I believe it humanized my character, giving him a much-needed flaw because – on paper – he was too perfect.

Dream Sailors is no exception. I didn’t even know how the book was going to end until a few days ago! Now I have a general direction in which I am headed, but I have no doubt there will be many surprises along the way – and I look forward to seeing where my novel takes me.

My word count today was a little lighter than I’d like, but Tara and I are headed to Bothell for a quick (and long overdue) visit with family. We’ll be back tomorrow evening. I’m bringing my laptop along, but probably won’t be able to devote much time to the book until this weekend. But, hey – I’ve hit 20,000 words. I can live with that.

Word Count Today: 870.
Total Word Count: 20,114.


Published by Mark Petruska

I'm a professional writer and editor living my best life in south central Wisconsin.

12 thoughts on “NNWM/10: Outlines: Yay or Nay?

  1. If I outline at all, it’s very late in the process. When I wrote Ochoco Reach, it was purely a voyage of discovery. I outlined a couple of places to ensure I got the timing right. But that’s it.


  2. The murder mysteries involved a fair amount of planning as I had to know Who-Done-It, of course, then set up all the suspects, their secrets, their motivations, their alibis, and their red herrings. I also make up a character sheet for the main 5-6 people. There was absolutely NO outlining or character sheets for anyone in No Rest For The Wicked. That things nearly wrote itself! I did have to write up a timeline for Dark Hollow Road, but that was only after I got into it a fair amount and realized I was losing track of the flashback portion of the book. Beyond that… it’s all very, very organic. Things sometimes happen I never expected would happen in all of them. I find the thought of a rigid outline very restricting. Other people swear by them. Use it if you truly feel you need to and good luck with your Nano-ing. 🙂


    1. I totally get that, Pamela. A good mystery is so complex I think it would be next to impossible to not have an outline!

      “Things sometimes happen I never expected.”

      That’s been my experience every time, as well. And ultimately my stories are better for those unexpected twists.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. “there is no right or wrong way to write a novel. Just write the novel! Do it rather than worrying about how to do it.”

    The way you described your approach to writing was very much my approach to acting. So many actors want to “think” too much about “how” to act instead of just DOING it.

    ” I totally wing it.”

    That was very much how I acted. I just flew by the seat of my pants and allowed it to automatically happen.

    Have a great visit with your family this weekend, buddy!


    1. I often think writing and acting are closely related. I mean, I did just post about “method writing” a few entries back! Automatically letting it happen would lead to a more natural bit of acting, I would think.

      Hope you have a great Sunday, Ron!


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