Writing Outside the Lines

Today’s guest post is from Amanda Linehan, a fiction writer, indie author, and INFP. I absolutely love Amanda’s take on writing without an outline, and I think you will too.

I remember the first time I ditched my outline.

I was working on my third novel, Dragon, and the second one that I would self-publish, and I was about two-thirds of the way through. I had a loose outline that I had prepared prior to starting, of course, and something about it just started to bug me.

It felt constraining and annoying. This thing that was supposed to help me get through this novel in an orderly fashion was just plain starting to irritate me. I kept looking at it while writing, checking to make sure that I was on track and suddenly, I was just done with it.

I didn’t feel like continually checking my progress against this document, I just wanted to go with the story. And that’s what I did.

I immediately felt freer, more energetic, more optimistic even, but also a little scared. After all, without the outline, what if I screwed it up?

But you know what, I didn’t screw it up. I finished up the story, everything made sense and I had found a new process that worked for me.

It had never occurred to me not to use an outline—actually that’s a lie—it had never occurred to me not to use an outline for a novel that I planned on publishing but there were other places in my writing life where I had not used an outline, mostly while writing short stories.

The thing was that the vast majority of the advice I saw out there said to definitely use an outline. How else would you know where the story was going? And so that’s what I did. And it certainly seemed to make sense. Until I left mine behind and felt fantastic.

Because that’s the thing. The outline is supposed to give you some direction. It’s supposed to make things easier on you. It’s supposed to make it so that you don’t write yourself into some horrible corner that you can’t get your plot and characters out of, but really I found it just held me and the story back.

Now, if you love outlines and find that they greatly enhance your writing process, that is fantastic because you’ve found something that works for you and I’m not here to convince you otherwise. But, if you’ve read this far and are feeling curious or resonant with the idea of not using an outline, I think you should give it a shot.

Try it out with some low-stakes project. I think short stories are great for this, because, number one, they’re short, so you don’t have some huge plot to keep track of, but also because if you write 4,000 words and then decide you’re not thrilled with it, it’s only 4,000 words.

When you write without an outline, you really have to be with the uncertainty of the story; those elements that you don’t know. Just be with them as they appear to you, however that happens.

For myself, I’m usually starting with a scene that I can see in my mind’s eye that has at least one character in it, maybe more, some setting and some action that will get the characters moving. From there, I’m continually asking myself “what comes next?”

If I ask myself, “what’s next?” enough times, I will eventually end up with a novel length story.

And that’s another thing to remember. If you’re writing your story with a “what’s next?” mentality you don’t need to worry about what happens in your story 10,000 words from now, you only need to focus on the chunk you’re working on right now.

If you think of your characters as real people, with real lives, who live in a real environment, I think this starts to make sense. They are just living their lives inside of your imagination, which you are trying to get down onto paper or a screen, so something always happens next for them just like it would for you in your own life.

Of course, the advantage of telling the fictional story of your characters life is that some really outrageous things can happen that would be insane if not simply impossible if they happened to you or another real person. But, even if your character is spending her day running away from aliens, it’s still not that different from how you are living your life—from one event or activity to the next. Even if the event is trying to dodge a spaceship.

So if you’re curious, give it a try. See where it goes. See how you feel about it. Are you a little exhilarated? Scared to death? Excited? Feeling like you might ruin all your chances at a writing career?

Well, you never know, but that’s also the fun part. Both in life, and in writing.

Amanda Linehan is a fiction writer, indie author and INFP. She has published five novels and a couple handfuls of short stories. Her short fiction has been featured on Every Day Fiction and in the Beach Life anthology published by Cat & Mouse Press. She lives in Maryland, likes to be outside and writes with her cat sleeping on the floor beside her desk. You can find out more about her by visiting her website here, following her on Twitter, or checking out her Amazon Author page.

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