In the plotter vs. “pantser” (one who writes by the seat of their pants) debate, I used to be firmly on the plotter side. I’m generally a structured person, or at least more structured than a lot of creative types. I’m an Electrical Engineering student in addition to being a writer, so I use a lot of my left brain.
Because of that, I always thought I should outline my books. At times, this has worked for me, but I’ve discovered more and more that I get my best ideas as I’m in the flow of the story. Outlining is an entirely different process. I don’t quite feel the story the same way, and my ideas are less inventive.
This becomes especially clear when I write series. The farther I get into writing a series, the more likely I am to deviate from my original outline. I got to the point where I was doing this so much that I decided I should just throw out the outline altogether.
However, that might be too extreme of a response. I don’t quite make up everything as I go. I form a mental outline. I know where I want to get, but if I discover something more interesting along the way, I’m perfectly happy to alter my mental plans.
This can lead to some inconsistencies between books, and that’s part of the reason I’ve decided that I will generally write an entire series before publishing any of it. That way, if I introduce something important in book 3 or 4, I can go back and throw in some hints toward it in book 1. A lot of planners are able to do this kind of thing because they outline the entire series in advance. I’ve tried, and it simply doesn’t work like that for me.
When I was considering trade publishing, I always had issues with throwing away the outline because trade publishing tends to work differently. You rarely write the entire series before publishing any of it. I know Michael J. Sullivan (author of the very good Riyria Revelations, Riyria Chronicles, and Legends of the First Empire series) does this. But he did start out self-publishing.
Now that I’ve decided to go with self-publishing, I can write my series however I want, and writing them this way helps me to give you a plot with a lot more interesting twists and turns.
That’s not to say I throw away the outline completely. I’ve been known to outline a few chapters ahead of where I am. That can help me write more quickly during my writing sessions because I’m not figuring out what’s going to happen next. More often, my mental outline is good enough to carry me through, and I’m able to figure out the details as I write.
The key thing as a writer is finding a process that works for you. This process works for me right now. In the future, I may decide to go back to outlining. I don’t think you should ever get stuck thinking there’s only one way to write that works for you. Writing is a continual process of experimentation, and every story is going to have different needs.