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Outlining as an Over-Engineer

As a software engineer, I typically look at everything from an analytical standpoint, and often find myself over-engineering the simplest of tasks. So naturally, when I decided I wanted to start writing a sci-fi/fantasy novel, I embraced the outlining process to the fullest with my mind already made up that I’ll probably be a strict plotter, and not a pantser during the actual writing process.

So I started an outline. I spent my days thinking of ideas for a character, plot, or scene and jot them down, then would go home and spend an hour each night trying to organize them. I found myself unable to give my attention to reading other books, or even listening to audiobooks because my thoughts would not focus on what I was reading or listening but instead would track back towards holes in my outline, or characters that needed to be developed. This is probably standard process for a plotter, and I loved almost every minute of it. Everything except the part where I couldn’t focus on reading other books, I’ll admit that kind of sucked.

During this process, I ran into a few moments of writers block, where I just felt the story was stuck because of a plot point or character that just didn’t fit. At that point, I researched a couple of different ways of plotting. One that probably helped the most was Brandon Sanderson’s method, which he goes into in depth in his lecture series he posted on YouTube. In summary, it involved laying out all the plot points you would like to happen first, organized by characters, then applying multiple plot points to each scene which is then organized into acts or parts of the book. This helped get over my episodes of writers block, either by happenstance, or by just forcing me to tell the story a different way to myself. In software development, we have this tool called rubber duck debugging for when we can’t solve a problem. In short, the process boils down to this: go tell your problem to a rubber duck, and usually you’ll come up with the solution. I think this is probably akin to what happened here. I essentially just wrote everything I had outlined, but used a different process, and ended up coming up with the answers that were preventing me from moving on.

I probably wrote and rewrote this outline six or seven times. It’s worth mentioning that during that time of outlining and reoutlining the scene that inspired the entire book GOT COMPLETELY CUT from the outline and novel. That’s how much the book ended up changing as I discovered who my characters were, what world they were in, and what was actually happening. But, this did not frustrate me, it only inspired me that this process was completely different from anything I had ever experienced.

So, after a few months of this process, I finally had an outline that followed a typical three-act structure. I felt I could look at and know exactly what I needed to write on paper to finish a book.

So I started writing every night, and found out that I am a pantser. I felt so limited in scenes at the beginning of the book, because my outline told me where I needed to go and planned each step on how to get there. I felt like it was stifling creativity at times, because I would have ideas come to my mind that didn’t 100% follow the outline and I would frown at myself and say “no we have to do it this way, this is what you wrote.” About halfway through the book, I gave in, and just let the ideas flow on paper and said “the hell with the outline.” This ended up being much more enjoyable to me. I was still able to follow the major plot points of my outline, but much of the finer details I had spent months on changed dramatically. This is all fine, and will just make that second draft much more fun!

In conclusion, even though I love software design and over-engineer just about everything, I guess I’m somewhere in the middle of a pantser and a plotter. For my next book, however, I think I’ll restrict myself to a very loose outline that hits only the major plot points. This will leave me lots of room to discovery-write my characters and my world along the way, and will potentially save lots of time.

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Published by Mitchell J. Sanders

Software developer and sci-fi/fantasy author.

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