My guest today is the talented Cat Caruthers, author of the stunning debut novel Sorority Girls With Guns. Cat is going to talk to us today about writing with or without an outline.
A writer friend told me once that the best piece of advice he'd ever heard about writing was, “Always have an outline.” I'll be honest, I was pretty horrified. I know outlines are helpful for some people, but for me they're restrictive and pointless.
Did you ever have to write an outline for an essay in school? I remember thinking how unfair it was that every student was required to make an outline. It always meant twice as much work for me, because I never knew what I wanted to write until I started, and I always had a better idea in the middle of writing. I'd have to go back and change my outline so I wouldn't lose points. Eventually, I just started writing the outline after I wrote the essay. That saved me from writing two outlines, but it was still a pointless waste of time.
I'm not saying that no one should use an outline. There are people, like my writer friend, who find them very useful. Some people have difficulty organizing their thoughts without one. If you feel an outline is helpful, you should use one.
But I'm not one of those people, and when I try to figure out what I want to write before starting, I just end up never starting. The only way I can write anything is if I just make it all up as I go.
So when I wrote Sorority Girls with Guns, I started with only a general idea. The idea was that I'd write something for Nanowrimo (National Novel Writing Month, in case you haven't heard) and actually finish this time. To be fair, I didn't “win” Nanowrimo 2013, because I didn't finish before December. Okay, I finished the rough draft sometime in January, then I spent another several weeks editing. But at least I finished this time!
So I started with the idea of writing about life in a sorority house. When I was in college, I studied journalism, and eventually worked in television and public relations, but I always thought the most interesting stories were the ones that didn't get told.
I also knew that I wanted to write about money and how, love it or hate it, we are all controlled by it. You can claim it doesn't matter, but it will still affect your life. Whether you're rich or poor, the amount of money in your bank account affects your life in countless ways – what you can do, how you spend your time, how others see you.
I wanted to write about a main character who struggles with the have/have not dichotomy on a daily basis. A college setting was perfect for this, since most colleges have students from a variety of financial backgrounds. In any classroom, there are broke students who live on ramen noodles and study at the bookstore because they can't afford to buy $500 worth of books sitting next to kids who drive to school in a Mercedes and spend $500 a week on booze – the good stuff.
So I came up with the idea of a romantic attraction between two people, one rich and one poor. Because of their very differing views about money, they struggle with liking each other and disliking each other at the same time. I wanted to write this story with several twists and turns in the plot, because a sorority house is nothing without secrets.
That being said, I knew the story wasn't going to be primarily a romance. I don't do sappy stories. I'm not a fan of predictably happy endings. I don't mind stories with a romantic subplot, but I get bored reading books in which a romantic relationship is the main plot. No matter what the plot is, I prefer books with a humorous, sarcastic bent, so I knew I wanted to story to have a lot of comedy. For this reason, I decided to aim for chick lit as a genre.
So I started out with a sorority house party, and as I wrote I knew there needed to be some sort of challenge for the main character, Shade, but I didn't know what it would be yet. By the end of the first chapter, I knew: She would be desperate to stake her claim to fame (however fleeting) with a viral video.
I'll be honest: There are pitfalls to writing without an outline. Frequently, I didn't know what to write next, so I just starting writing. If I didn't have a plot idea, I'd write about something I found funny, and usually by the end of the scene I'd have an idea where the plot should be going next.
Where did I get the ideas for scenes? Anything that strikes me as funny or interesting in my daily life gets filed away in the back of my brain under “stuff I should use in a book one day”. And when I have no idea what to write next, I go mentally rifle through that file until I come across something that fits well with the story I already have.
Here's an example: One day, I was out shopping and I saw the most ridiculous-looking pickup truck ever. This thing was so massive, you could park a Hummer underneath it without scraping the roof paint. It had these huge metal poles sticking out of the bed behind the cab – they looked like humungous, vertical mufflers. I don't think they were functional. The truck was painted bright red and was so shiny it was almost blinding. And to top it off, there was this huge antler rack attached to the grille (I'm pretty sure the antlers were fake).
There's a difference between “I'm proud of my truck and want to spend a few bucks on it” and “tacky”. This truck definitely fell into the latter category.
My first thought upon seeing this monstrosity: Nothing says “I'm hung like a hamster” better than a truck like that.
My second thought: I have to use a ridiculous truck like that in a book one day.
And in Sorority Girls with Guns, you'll meet that truck – and its owner. In fact, my assumption about what the truck might be compensating for led to an important plot twist and a lead-in to the sex tape scandal I wanted to include in the story. It also led to a couple of my favorite comical scenes in the book.
Had I confined myself to writing with an outline, I doubt that I would ever have thought to include the truck, its owner and that particular plot point. I don't know how I would have led into the sex-tape scandal, but I don't think I would have done so as smoothly or comically.
There is one important thing to keep in mind when working without an outline: You need to be a diligent editor. You will probably write some stuff that goes nowhere, that fails to advance the plot or entertain your audience. This is okay, because frequently these filler scenes help you get to something that does advance the plot or entertain your readers. These “filler” scenes/paragraphs/sentences are necessary for the creation of your story, but they shouldn't be hanging around after the first edit. If they're still in your novel after your first pass, they will do nothing but clutter up the story and turn an otherwise good novel into an aimless mess.
Ultimately, the decision of whether or not to use an outline is up to the writer, but you should at least consider not using one. One exercise might be to write a short story both ways – first, without an outline, then with one. Which story do you like better? Did anything in the outline-less story surprise you or take the story in a different direction than you expected?
Well Cat, I have to say I couldn't agree more, outlines have their place but I don't think that place is with writers of humour.
What do readers think? Write with an outline or launch yourself bravely into the unknown? Send us your comments. And don't forget to enter the contest!
Cat's debut novel, Sorority Girls With Guns, is available from AMAZON