A friend of mine told her then-husband that she was finally going to start her novel. He folded his arms, scowled and asked with palpable disgust, "Do you have an outline?"
"Jeez, no," she replied, "but Stephen King says in his book that outlines are completely unnecessary--just start writing." According to my friend, that temporarily took the wind out of her ex's know-it-all sails.
What, then, is the truth about outlines? Do they serve a purpose or are they only dreary reminders of long-ago school days when we had to outline material we didn't care about?
Outlines can be useful, particularly if you're in charge of when and how you use them. With literary and non-formulaic types of writing, thinking too far ahead can be the antithesis of getting into a creative state of mind.
For example, this is from an interview with Wells Tower, author of a volume of short stories, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned:
I can never coldly write a story; it doesn't work. I've tried it where I have an outline, and I'll think this is going to be so easy, but when I sit down, of course it's not. You have to get into a state of autohypnosis and let the story be what it wants to be. That takes time.
Some authors wouldn't write at all if it weren't for the thrill of working toward the unknown. Yet that same thrill can be extremely anxiety-provoking. One author (whose attribution I've unfortunately misplaced), had this to say:
I've been trying something a little different. From where I stopped at chapter 11, I've sketched out each scene through the ending. I was trying to ease my own anxiety at not knowing how I was going to pull everything together at the end. So now I have to go back and fill in the details. So far, so good -- I'm pleased to know the ending anyway.
On the other hand, consider this quote from an article about Thornton Wilder's sojourn in Douglas, AZ, in 1962. That's when Wilder wrote the manuscript that became, in 1967, The Eighth Day, which was a bestseller and won The National Book Award. In a letter to his sister, he wrote:
Every new day is so exciting because I have no idea beforehand what will come out of the fountain-pen.
When I'm writing fiction, my "outlines" are more likely to be bits and pieces and notes jumbled into a file (both paper and electronic). I didn't know my first novel's ending until I got close to it. Lists, scraps, stray thoughts: all will usually come together into a cohesive whole when they and you are ready.