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How I Wrote a Novel Without an Outline

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I've often referred to writing fiction without an outline as mining a story buried inside the earth of imagination. My friend Billie Hinton speaks of this concept with the metaphor of archaeology She describes this process like excavation of a story. Each element unearthed is part of a whole that is yet to be discovered.

At the 2012 Miami Book Fair I had a chance to ask Pulitzer Prize winning author Jeffrey Eugenides whether he writes linearly and if he uses an outline. He remarked that he doesn't use an outline, nor does he write linearly, that he often doesn't know what is going to come next in his work. He also indicated that if he knew exactly what would happen next, so might the reader, therefore becoming predicable.

My first novel, The Nexus, came to me in furious rushes of story and I wrote it without an outline. Aimee, the leading female character came first, the setting in medieval England rushed right in to swallow her. The idea of a smart, educated, feminist thrust back into a patriarchal culture without computers, or automobiles, or tampons intrigued me. Some of those who have read The Nexus compare it to Diana Gabaldon's Outlander because it features a 20th century woman who is transported back in time. I haven't read Outlander, and frankly, if I had, I probably would not have written The Nexus. The similarity however ends there. The device that thrusts Aimee back to the past is a metaphysical transference, rather than physical.

Before I even sat down to write, the first scene appeared in my mind: Aimee waking up confused in the middle of a forest, with a man wearing a knight's armor attending to her. When I sat down to write that scene, I was unprepared for the rush of story that poured forth. While I knew that Aimee was a professor of medieval history, I knew little about the knight. While the first chapter flowed in third person from Aimee's point of view, the second chapter appeared from the Knight's point of view. He was a Knight Templar returning in disgrace from a tournament. Finding this raving woman wearing only shreds of clothing both fascinated and repulsed him.

After I wrote those two scenes in one early morning writing session, I changed into my other work hat planning an educational meeting for a client. The story brewed in my head all day. I realized I needed a plot -- somewhere for the story to go with these two characters. Laying Aimee's course in the 12th century posed many potential plot points, but I knew that Aimee's confliction between her two lives would drive the story: Aimee desperately wants to get back to her teenage children in the 20th century, yet she is fascinated with the living diorama of history in which she finds herself. How or if she ever returns was unknown.

I began a routine of writing in the early morning after my kids and husband were out of the house. Following a couple of hours of writing, I'd back-up my file, then open email and begin my client work. That evening as the kids did homework or watched TV, I researched 12th century England. The more I researched, the more the research fit with the direction of the story. Also after each day's writing, I would think, "What could go wrong here?" and "What might a modern woman do if thrust back to that situation?" "How could a modern woman adapt some of her previous life to her surroundings without altering the course of history?" Every time I posed one of those questions, a plot point arose. I would think about those questions all day long, logging them in my mind for the next day's writing session.

I am not a medieval scholar. However, I do know how to research. While writing I'd often run across historical facts which needed verification; or the name of a garment, or a type of plant, food, accessory used in the 12th century. I developed a mnemonic system for marking these places, then I'd open a file I called "Research Questions," and type the mnemonic and the question. Later that night during my research session, I'd find the answers and type them into the research file. The next morning when I began my writing session, I'd pull out the mnemonic questions and place the answers into the manuscript. I found that doing this kept me from getting bogged down by research and maintained the momentum in my writing.

Another process that moved this manuscript along was beginning each writing session by reading and light editing the previous day's work. I knew other writers who continually worked the first 50 pages of their novels, always polishing, but never progressing. By reading only the previous day's work, I was able to slip right into the story flow and by the time I'd finished reading/editing, I was ready to pick up the next scene.

The further I delved into the story, the more I discovered about the male protagonist, Sir Thomas. The Nexus has a dynamic twist at the end that came as an aha moment about a quarter into the book. It stemmed from one of my "what if" questions. "What if Thomas is having a metaphysical transference also?" Threading that fact into the fabric of the story revealed what would need to happen at the end of the book.

Writers often claim that characters often insinuate themselves into a story. Some characters want to take over, as if competing with the leading protagonist for plotlines. This can be useful for those writing without an outline, or it can be disastrous. The biggest obstacle most pansters face is keeping the plot from meandering away from its lead character's motivation and journey. I found this happening with several characters in The Nexus. I really liked this one stableboy and I wrote him a big part that I later realized was heading nowhere. In my file called "Things to Change in Second Draft" I made a note to cut out the side story of that stableboy, then I continued forward to maintain the momentum. During my second draft revision, I methodically cut down all of his scenes that didn't directly impact the plot arc. Another character however, a simple rhyming jester named Cedric who appeared originally just to entertain at banquets, took on a deeper role when I asked the question, "What does Cedric know?"

Nearly half-way through I came to an obstacle I couldn't overcome without going back many chapters and changing several important sections. Not wanting to slow the momentum of getting the story down, I made notes in my manuscript of what needed to change, added them to the file called, "Things to Change in the Second Draft" and plodded on. Because I'd already made the course change in my head, noted it in the file, my creative process was freed to continue.

As The Nexus grew in complexity, I began making notes of things that had happened, along with character sketches and ideas for what might happen to them. I did this simply because my brain could not contain each detail and how it informed the direction of the novel. I did not have a clear idea of how the novel should end until three-quarters of the way through. The ending did not reveal itself until after I'd pitted Sir Thomas against his nemesis, only to discover that nemesis was only a puppet to his true enemy. Once that enemy was defeated, Sir Thomas and Aimee could make their final stand in the 12th century.

Writing The Nexus was like unearthing the story a page at a time. Because I didn't know exactly what would come next, it was like reading someone else's book. It was exhilarating. I closed the daily writing sessions with endorphin highs. Each morning I sat down at the computer with heart beating and mind rushing into the next scene. I finished the first draft with 170,000-plus words on a Monday night and the next morning I resaved the file with a new name and began the second draft. Since I'd kept the research mnemonics file up to date, the biggest revision concerns were already saved in my "Things to Change in Second Draft" file.

At 170,000-plus words, the second draft of The Nexus was the size of two novels. I knew this. A hazard of writing without a road map is covering more miles than you need to travel in order to get to your destination. That second draft was finished within a couple of months at 160,000-or-so words. The third draft weighed in over 150,000 words. A fourth draft, the one which landed me an agent, finished up at 147,000 words. The manuscript was shopped in 2005 at 142,000 words. The manuscript didn't sell. The main complaint of editors was its unwieldy size.

I strongly believe The Nexus might have found a publisher if it had been shopped out within the debut novel size parameters. Could I have written The Nexus under 100,000 words had I used an outline? Perhaps. Probably. But this I know: It would not have been as fun.

(This piece first appeared on my blog Ovations on March 6, 2013)