So, I find myself today trying to outline my novel.

I may need to buy this shirt.

I may need to buy this shirt.

No, wait, wait.  I’m not quite as full of crap as that just made me sound.  The thing I realised today (while reading an article by Brandon Sanderson in an issue of Leading Edge) was that I actually like outlining, provided that the story is big enough to need it.

Sanderson’s own description of outlining sounds a great deal like something I’ve done more than once myself.  It’s detailed, but not obsessive; a process that develops the frame for a story instead of a point-by-meticulous-point map of it; and the scope of the outline fits the scope of the project.

The issue I take with Lovecraft’s Thou Shalt Outline approach isn’t that it’s bad to outline, but that you don’t always need to outline.  After all, he wrote mostly short fiction, and sometimes quite tiny short fiction.  If he genuinely sat down and outlined some those pieces, I’d be just as genuinely astounded.  For me, particularly with shorter pieces (anything that’s, say, five thousand words or less), I love the spontaneity of taking an idea and just running with it.  Sometimes there is an outline, and for longer stories I’ll certainly have a concept of a few points that are key to the tale I’m telling.  But even for those, the outline is usually simple enough that I can hold the entirety of it in my head.  I never need to sit down and plot it out on paper.

But for bigger works…well, outlining is definitely an asset.  There are more people, more threads, and there’s a whole lot more scope.  And for me at least, the two are wildly different in this regard.  Short fiction is something of an outlet for me to simply write, to create a story without careful planning.  Novel-length fiction, on the other hand, is an opportunity for me to craft something larger.  They both appeal to me in quite different ways.  And while I can write something out that’s novel length, entirely spontaneously and without any planning or outlining, this typically becomes a bit of a mess.  And what happens more often than I’d like is that I find myself feeling stranded, lost and directionless within my own story.

Outlines prevent that, and this is where they get wonderful.  As much as I don’t like outlining, they make the writing part of the writing totally awesome.  You’re never lost.  You know what’s coming next.  And, chances are, you have some big climax for the story in your head that you’re working towards, you know how you’ll get there, and you can’t wait to write it.  That’s part of what excites me about writing in the first place, that process of getting from A to B.  And so, as odd as it is, the idea of actually outlining my novel right now feels exciting to me.

But for short stories?  No thank you.