Novel Writing

The beauty of writing with an outline

bees in spring illustration
I’m thinking of using this illustration for one of my book covers, but if I do, I need to find additional illustrations for the other book covers that will fit with the theme. What do you think?

Once upon a time… I was a pantser. I wrote by the seat of my pants, outlines be damned.

Once upon a time, most of my stories went nowhere. Or they went everywhere, with no end in sight. But I was adamant that I didn’t need an outline. An outline could only make my novels predictable. I needed to allow the story to unfold on its own without forcing it. Otherwise, it wouldn’t come across as natural. Right?

Well, maybe that’s how it works for some people.

When I got to graduate school, I had to create outlines for all of my novel writing courses. I hated it.

And then one day, I decided to really push myself and write an entire story in two weeks. I just wanted to prove to myself that I could do it. I didn’t care if I wrote the “Great American Novel.” I just needed a win.

The best way to make this happen – I thought – would be to make an outline. I used Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero’s Journey” cycle as a guide and got to work on my 14-chapter outline (It ended up needing 16 chapters by the time it was done.) Then I sat down once a day for two straight weeks (plus 2 days) and wrote one chapter each day until the first draft was done.

I’m not saying I wrote a spectacular novel. At 24,000 words, it was pretty light for a novel. But it was a complete story, I was happy with it, and I decided to continue on with a second draft. Well, not immediately. I needed to let it simmer on a back burner for a bit before I could force myself back to it. But finally, this past fall, I completed the 42,000-word almost-final draft of With Envy Stung: Valley of the Bees Part I.

Okay, so at 42,000 words, it’s more like a novella than a novel. But my plan now is to release it on Kindle, and then when parts II and III are done, I will publish all three in print as one long book. With Envy Stung might grow a bit in my final round of revisions (readers are looking the manuscript over now and will hopefully give me some useable feedback so I can perfect the final draft,) but overall, it’s pretty much done.

Which brings me back to my original point about outlines: I started book II of the Valley of the Bees trilogy much like book I, with an outline.

The beauty of an outline is that every day when I sit down to write, I know exactly where I’m going with my story. I don’t waste time sitting around thinking about what my characters need to do next. It’s one less obstacle to overcome each day when I sit down to write.

The hardest part for me now is thinking about where my characters are and what they look like so I can set up the scene. I struggle with this aspect of writing more than any other, and I still worry that my draft of With Envy Stung doesn’t do a good enough job of that. It’s hard to figure out for yourself if you need more once you’ve reached the point where all of your readers keep telling you, “This is great! I love it!” without tearing it apart the way you’d like for them to do. But I am sure there are plenty of critical readers out there who will have a field day with it once it finally goes to print!

Anyway, I am definitely an outliner now. I’ve written a full outline of book II and am a couple of chapters in. I sit down to write every day, and the words come right out. I also feel like I’m spending a lot more time building the setting than I did in the first draft of that first novel, which makes me hopeful that draft two of book two won’t take me quite as long as draft two of book one did. With an outline at hand, the pump is primed, and I’m ready to go!

Download my short story, Her Name was Amber, on Kindle for only 99 cents for a sneak peek into the history of one character from the Valley of the Bees trilogy!


6 thoughts on “The beauty of writing with an outline”

  1. Hi Amanda,
    No, I don’t use an outline, but that’s not what this ‘comment’ is about.
    I followed one of the WP ‘suggested stories’ and ended up at ‘Christian Writing’. I grew up as a Christian and I admire Jesus for the way he lived his life and the example he became for all of us, but that’s not the reason either.
    In your post, you mention the word ‘spiritual’ and I was wondering what you meant by that?
    Spiritual and organised religion don’t normally go together, in my experience. One seems to imply personal responsibility and the other implies living by a strict set of rules made up by a long list of older males.
    I am genuinely interested in your reply because your post was honest in dealing with your dilemma regarding answering your student’s question.


    1. Hi Terry,

      The Christian Writing blog post was actually written by another blogger. I like to link to other blogs in my “related articles” section, in part, to help other bloggers by helping them get discovered by my readers. Sometimes the article content is directly related to what I have written, and sometimes the only similarity is that we’re both independent bloggers (as opposed to corporate bloggers) who can use all the help we can get each other.

      In other words, as I did not write the blog post in question and have not put much thought into that topic recently, I don’t feel like I can provide an educated response at the moment. I hope you can find the answers you seek at the Christian Writer’s blog. Have a great week!


  2. I didn’t start using outlining until my second novel. While writing the first draft, I outlined several chapters ahead, but not to the end. In that way, the ending could grow organically out of the rest of the novel. I used the same technique for the third novel. The ending lives in my mind, but I want to give it the freedom to evolve if it wants to. I believe each writer needs to find his or her own way, as you have, in creating stories. When I started out, I did not outline at all. Now, I’ve learned that outlining-as-I-go works very well for me.

  3. I will keep your outlining advice in mind. I`m not a natural outliner–as that would be a lot of planning, which I struggle with–but it sure keeps track of important things, as you point out. All the best, have fun writing!

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