First off, you have the outliners. Their argument is simple: a book is a journey and you can't get There till you know every Here on the way.
P. G.Wodehouse's outlines ran to to 30,000 words and were done on index cards mounted all over the walls. Horror writer John Saul's outlines may reach a hundred pages while John Grisham's run to fifty. Even Tom Wolfe once lamented that one of his books took a decade to write because, with no outline, he found himself lost. And we can be certain that Virgil had an outline for the Aeneid: an epic divided into two parts of six Books each, with each part containing the same number of lines.
But the other camp is as large and as loud: non-outliners who insist on going with the flow--letting the book, as it were, write itself...sometimes on rolls of paper while one is On the Road. Their argument is simple too: we can't surprise our readers if can't surprise ourselves and over-plotted work lacks life.
Besides Jack Kerouac,well-known non-outliners include: Stephen King, Lee Child, Harlan Coben, Joe R. Lansdale.
ENTER THE DRAGGIN'
I took fierce pride in belonging to the first camp, drafting running outlines for every book I wrote--including dialogue and action scenes. But one day, about six weeks ago, on a trip to San Francisco, I found myself in ancient Rome, facing my own Rubicon. A tough place to be for a writer accustomed to taking his time--and occasionally dragging his heels.
I had a sudden idea for a new book in series of short thrillers, The Fast and The Furies. The idea was for a contemporary thriller with deep roots in Ancient Rome and Egypt. Its grip on me was too strong to resist--though I'd spent months researching and outlining another book...one that I'd planned to begin in a week.
But when you reach your Rubicon, you know what you must do. And so I decided to start the next day--with the mere arc of the story in mind. No outline and no notes. I set a pace and stuck to it: 1000 words a day. I'd tackle each problem as it arose, refusing to be cowed or slowed. To date: 40,000 words...5000 more to go.
1) I'll never completely abandon outlines for future books and I look forward to working on the outlined mystery now in queue: a different MO for a different sort of book.
2) That said, I have enjoyed a very wild ride this month.
The daily kick of fresh discoveries, the exhilaration of working with no net--just what the doctor ordered this time around for me. And I think the experience will enrich my future books.
3) There are trade-offs involved, imo, in working with no outline. On the plus side, such 'improvised' work can gain in pure raw energy--not something that can be injected into a tightly planned book. On the flip side, I don't necessarily save time working in this fashion. Day by day, I discover new things that compel me to adjust earlier things that I wrote. In the sort of short novel I'm writing--40,000-45,000 words--the extra work is an acceptable price for the freedom. But for novelists who work in the long form--80,000-100,000 words--flow charts and character cards, if not extended outlines, would seem to be a must.
In the end, possibly, it all comes down to this:
As I sign off I wonder, though, if there might not be a third camp:
And in the third camp the solution's to be had for a song:
Instead of a formal outline, one that reads like a short Wodehouse novel, writers might devise alternatives that work for them. Example: David Morrell keeps a daily journal in the form of questions addressed by himself to himself: e.g., So, David, you seem to have concerns about the story's time line. What are your thoughts about that?...Good morning, David. Haven't seen the character X in a while. Is that a sign that we don't need him--or are you planning a surprise?...Etc.
Charles Dickens is wrongly held up as a non-outlining author. Actually, he used detailed work plans for his installment novels, preparing the ground as he went. (For more on this, please check this article: http://takingnotenow.blogspot.com/2011/12/charles-dickens-plan-sheets.html )
Another writer might jot down thoughts or narrative strategies that come to her or him while s/he is making it up as s/he goes. Another writer may outline the first part of a novel...then wing it from there.
Great books have been written with outlines as well as without. The trick of it for each of us remains to find our own Way...and our own brand of Muscle Milk.