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The Outline: Love It or Leave It

By Julie Cantrell

When I wrote my first novel, Into the Free, I didn’t write an outline. Instead, the story came to me organically, and I didn’t know what would happen until I typed the words on the page. I enjoyed every minute of the process from start to finish, and the element of surprise kept me returning to the computer night after night.

Of course, the editing phase was intense and I had to completely reshape the book to build a proper plot structure, but that part was fun too. In the end, I hope I created a page-turning work that leads readers through the story without losing their attention, but I admit it took more than a little tweaking to turn that original draft into the book it is today.

When I set out to pen the sequel, my fabulous editor, Nicci Jordan-Hubert, suggested I start with an outline (can you feel her pain?). The result? I’ve spent months staring at a blank page struggling to create a formulaic plan of attack. Finally, with deadlines looming and anxiety building, I gave up. I sat at my laptop and just started to write. After months of stagnant writer’s block, I dropped more than 20,000 words on the screen in one day. I had rediscovered my passion for fiction by accepting the fact that I am not going to use an outline. (Sorry, Nicci.)

I admire people who can plan their stories in an organized way. Maybe one day I’ll be able to perfect that technique. In the meantime, I’ll listen to the voice of my main character, Millie Reynolds, as she tells me her tales. I’ll capture those stories the best way I can – unfiltered. Then, I’ll return to fill in the details, lacing the sentences with research-based layers and perfecting each scene to leave readers wanting more.

I’ve heard it said that if a writer isn’t surprised by her own story, then readers won’t be either. There’s something magical about a traditional three-act plot structure, and there’s certainly a lot of power behind a tale with proper pacing and character development. All of those aspects matter tremendously. However, too many authors try to fill in the blanks using a standard template. This only results in a dry, stale piece of literature with a predictable ending and limited emotional return.

I am not ruling out the possibility of outlining future works, but for me, at this point in my journey, I am abandoning the desire to outline my sequel. I want to find the roots of the story first. I want to see where my characters take me. I want to return to the computer surprised each night and write the last page with tears in my eyes. I want to feel those peaks and plummets of emotion and end the story wishing Millie was still with me.

In the end, I will chop and sauté and simmer until a well-balanced meal is served. But for now, I will gather the freshest, most delicious ingredients I can pluck from my imagination. Bon appétit!

Julie Cantrell was the editor-in-chief of the Southern Literary Review and has been a freelance writer for ten years. She has contributed to more than a dozen books and her first novel, Into the Free, was released February 1 (David C Cook). She is represented by Greg Johnson of WordServe Literary.

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2 Responses to The Outline: Love It or Leave It

  1. Nikki Stone says:

    Good for you .. writing can be organized with somethings but when writing a story such as this there is no true way to do an out line, like you said you have to listen to the main character. If I understand this correctly you are writing a second part to this book which is exciting though I am only within the first few pages of “Into the Free” I find myself caught up in Millie’s world. I am looking forward to journeying with Millie on her own journey. Keep up the good work and always give yourself and your characters the freedom to be somewhat disorganized : )

  2. Thanks, Nikki. I hope you enjoy the book!