the problem with outlines and word quotas (and why they sometimes might lead to sucky writing)




I believe in outlines. Except when I don’t.

I believe in daily word quotas. Except when I don’t.

I believe in encountering the work, which an outline can prevent you from doing.


Last week I was struggling with a scene in my novel-in-progress (THE DECADENTS). I had it in outline and knew what was going to happen. Two of my major characters are at the start of an uneasy attraction that will take them in a dark (and supernatural) direction. The man makes a proposition to the woman. She rejects it — at least at first — because she senses on some level that this man is a big red flag. But she needs a reason to seek him out, because I want to get her to a party at his house where she discovers something that makes her change her mind (and thrusts the story in a new direction).

The scene started off well — and then stalled.

In the outline, he gives her an envelope of money, which she decides to return to him. I could have continued with the original plan, forced my way through this little onset of writer’s block and met my word quota.

But I did not. I sat down at my laptop and then I went away again. Something in me refused to write the scene as planned. There are many times when I don’t want to write — when I procrastinate. But there are other times when the reluctance to write is like a flare sent up from my undermind. Warning. Dead end. You need to figure out something better.

Here’s a thing about my female character, which I need to get across to the reader: she has fugues. And during these spaces of ‘lost time’ she doesn’t remember what she does or who she talks to; it’s entirely possible (as established in the opening twenty pages) that she becomes someone else.

According to the outline, I was going to summarize some of her personal history after her encounter with the man and suggest that he himself, for reasons still unknown and mysterious, might trigger a fugue.

I finally realized: For crying out loud, just have her experience one right there and then.

So I did. One moment she’s talking to the man and the next moment she’s in her car, with no memory of how she got there. He follows her out to make sure she’s okay and didn’t offend her in some way. I liked this, because it takes the characters from the first setting (an empty nightclub) to a second more intimate setting (her car), where his presence feels like a bit of an invasion. Hence, tension. Plus she’s worried about what she might have done or said in the fifteen minutes that disappeared from her memory. Hence, mystery.

And I realized: Later she discovers she stole something of his, something important, and she’s so mortified and ashamed that she immediately goes to his house to return it.

This works perfectly within the context I’ve established and takes the story where it needs to go.

I was not only able to write the scene, I got ‘in the zone’: time disappeared, the work swallowed me whole, I got that sense of deep settled bliss that rounds out the corners of my day and fills me with satisfaction.

And the draft is better for it. If I had gone ahead with the original outline, the story would have sagged beneath the weight of extra pages. The information I needed to convey to the reader (her attraction and resistance to this man, the connection between this man and her fugues, her secret desire to see him again plus a reason to do so) plays out in one scene, which makes the scene itself more dynamic and complex.

At some point I would have figured to do this anyway, gone back and revised — but now I don’t have to. By listening to my writer’s block, I saved myself time and effort. I’m also that much more psyched about the story (which is important, when you’re facing the long uphill slog of a first draft).


Part of the struggle of novel-writing is dealing with the muck and murk of it. The process can feel like a swamp that is eating you alive, or a massive knot in your head that you desperately need to unfurl.

To ‘encounter the work’ means to face that ambiguity, that half-formed mass, and patiently work it through (and work it through and work it through). Sometimes this takes time — including time spent away from the manuscript. Different parts of a novel aren’t meant to proceed at the same pace: some sections come to you quickly….and others maybe not so much. Sometimes you’re forced to go slow. Otherwise you might miss a sign that marks a turn-off and come to a dead end.

Don’t get me wrong — I believe in outlines. As my writing workshop observed, my book has a sense of drive and direction it lacked before, and I attribute that to the fact that it now has an outline.

And I believe in word quotas. This point can’t get repeated enough: you must show up and start, even when you’d rather stick needles in your eyes. You have to overcome that hump of struggle and procrastination, of ‘beginning’, before the fabled white horse of inspiration can appear out of nowhere to sweep you away.

But sometimes we can use outlines and word quotas to give ourselves a false sense of control, to avoid the ‘muck and murk’, the ambiguity, the not-knowing, that is a natural part of the writing process. When we’re forcing ourselves through a scene just to get it done, and ignoring our deeper sense of what the story needs, we might not be doing ourselves (or the story) any favors.



Jan 17, 2010

14 comments · Add Yours

yes, this is what usually keeps me from writing for days or weeks — something just not feeling right. i wrestle it out during the day while driving or at night lying in bed, and later come back to write it. unfortunately, since i haven’t established discipline in the word quota thing, it can take awhile. but i feel like i got it right when i finally do it.

the decadents sounds good. fugues are fascinating. i recently ordered uninvited through b&n, but it’s delayed. looking forward to both.


I really enjoy your unapologetic look through a writer’s deepest fears and highest triumphs. You call bullshit and you’re right. Word-counts mean nothing if all you’ve done is write mule puke.

As for the waiting on something in a story, I’m in that right now. I had to learn to give it time. Especially if you feel it’ll be worth it.


This is why I write out little snippets of a scene summary (sort of) for each scene I want to include in the next chapter and then promptly use them as mere doorways into the real tale I write. My muse is always wiser. And I like it that way.


Well said. Always hard to tell the difference between “dead end,” “I need to think about this,” and simple fear.


The biggest advantage of outlining, for me, is being able to write the book out of order. When inspiration isn’t coming in one portion of the book I can move to another.

Sometimes that means changing other bits in response to moments of inspiration like you’ve described above.

I outline in mind-mapping software.
( There’s a tremendous flexibility that comes with being able to pick up bits and pieces and move them around. Scenes can become themes, emotions can be become events…

That said, I never finished a novel until I outlined the whole book first.


I am still working my first novel. Or rather, it’s working me. I didn’t outline and I was very cool with that because it suited my personality and the way I think. The only problem was that it was sooo short that I am now trying to double the word count on a story that I felt was done. If there had been a draft I might have seen the length issue and added to it in the planning stages instead of now cutting and pasting, changing and doubting.

Luckily I think that the first novel is the biggest learning experience and that it is getting better the more that I add. Maybe in the future I’ll outline a little and see if that doesn’t save me some time and heartache. But now I know that when I probably don’t stick to it (see, I know myself) that it might lead to better things.


Flames, flames at the side of my face! I hate writers block. It’s a constipation of the mind. But the Zone on the other hand is worth the torchure. Although it typically tends to eat time faster than I would like.


It’s so funny. I’m the opposite. I can carry tons of snippets of loveliness in my head like what you’re describing and simply know that somewhere I want them included, but if I actually sit down and outline the whole thing, I can NEVER finish it.

It’s rather discouraging actually to lose a story that way. And weird. Definitely weird.


thank you for ordering Uninvited — let me know your thoughts on it.

“wrestle it out” — that’s exactly how it feels like. i’m beginning to see the advantages of working on more than one thing at a time, so you can let one project cook as it needs to, while making word quotas on the other (and feeling like you’re really “writing”).


Thanks. You’re pretty unapologetic yourself. I like that. :)

One bit of writerly advice I picked up somewhere (and just saw someone repeat again on a blog) was to hold off on starting a new story or novel until you absolutely have to write it, until your undermind has developed it enough so that it’s more or less bursting out of you. I think there’s a lot of wisdom in that, although it doesn’t always coincide with deadlines.


I do that too — jot notes for scenes, do sort-of-summaries — give my undermind something to work with while I go do something else (and then come back to it later). It’s effective.

Yes, my muse is much wiser. I have to keep my bumbling self out of its way.


It is! I’ll check in with myself to get an intuitive sense of whether or not the book is ‘cooking’, or whether I just want an excuse to watch Project Runway instead.

The ‘simple fear’ bit is a tough one.


Thanks for this post! Usually when I am struggling it is because of procrastination but sometimes it is not – just like you wrote about. When I first began my novel I didn’t outline, I just went for it. And it was fun! Exhilarating! Until about 60 pages in and it all went to hell because I had no idea where I was going and things had gotten too messy.

So, I outlined. I cut half the manuscript. I started over with A PLAN. But now I have to remember that a plan is just a plan, and it is okay – in fact, a great idea – to go off road and see what happens.


Thank you for this.



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