Writing a Novel: To Outline or Not to Outline

I often get asked how long it takes me to write a novel. My standard answer is three years, but really I have no idea. It’s hard to pin down because how do we know when the writing begins? Oh sure, I know when I first put pen to paper, or first pressed fingers to keyboard, but what about the first spark of the idea? When did that happen, and how long did I let it just wash around in my heart and my mind before I decided it might become a novel? And once the writing began, how long did I spend making false starts, thinking I might just abandon the idea, working on something else, maybe coming back to the aborted novel, maybe not, until finally one day something clicked and I picked it up again, and, lo and behold, I knew something I didn’t previously, and, as I started to write again, the novel took shape. Then there’s always the revision process, and who can predict how long that will take. And there’s the time spent waiting for trusted readers—friends, agent, and, with hope, someday an editor—to get their notes to me, and while I ponder them, I’m spending my time teaching my classes, reading my students’ work, reading other novelist’s books to offer blurbs, reviewing manuscripts for university presses, and on and on and on, and during this time, is my subconscious busy working on the novel?

All of this is to say, it’s hard to know how long it took me to write any one of my novels, but I give an answer—three years—because I understand the spirit of the question. We all want to know how long it takes because we all want some assurance that such a thing can be done. We want to know it’s possible to make a plan and stick to it. We want to believe that there’s a direct route from beginning to end. Such has rarely been the case for me.

I’ve never outlined a novel. The closest I came was when I wrote my first one. I was like the person who asks the question, “How long did it take?” I was fearful, uncertain, inexperienced, the way I was when I was learning to ride a bicycle. I needed training wheels. I needed assurance. I needed a form to fill. Because once upon a time I wrote plays, I decided that my novel would follow a three-act structure. I knew where the novel would begin. I knew what the climactic episode of each act would be. I knew where the novel would end. I had, in other words, signposts to move toward. I had no idea, though, what would happen to take me to the end of each act.

Since then, I’ve relied on my own curiosity to dictate the shape a novel will take. I begin with a premise that intrigues me, that makes me shake my head and wonder, in the words of Flannery O’Connor’s neighbor, “how some folks would do.”

My own experience with writing novels tells me that the first steps onto the page begin to lay out a trail I can follow as I go. I’m convinced we can learn to let our novels write themselves.

Henry James said, “The only obligation to which in advance we may hold a novel, without incurring the accusation of being arbitrary, is that it be interesting.” Perhaps the most important ingredient to the forward motion of a novel, then, is curiosity, not only for the reader but for the writer as well.

So much of writing a novel is a matter of arousing your own curiosity and then paying attention to the cues you yourself set down as you write. Isak Dinensen said, “I write a little every day without hope, without despair.” If you can do that, and if you can let your own desire to know propel you into narrative, you can fill the pages of your novel in no time. Start by crafting an opening that makes you curious. Think about how one action creates another. Follow the chain to its end.

I often tell my students that every choice a writer makes costs him or her something while also gaining something. My choice to not outline a novel, but instead to make myself curious and then follow a causal chain of events costs me time, I have no doubt. Time spent wandering around in the wilderness, chasing after this and that, throwing things on the page in hopes something will stick, but what I gain is to me much more important. I gain the spontaneous spark that arises when what I imagine for the novel meets up with what I didn’t know I was capable of imagining. The novel I thought I was writing becomes the novel I didn’t know I was writing, and, in the process, the characters and their situations come to life for me in surprising and thrilling ways—ways that have the ring of truth, an authenticity I had no idea I was seeking.


  1. Jeanette (Josie) E. Cook on January 2, 2017 at 12:38 pm

    I believe it is about the whole process and what a writer is discovering during that time spent wandering through a jungle of ideas and events. As the writer revises and edits, the story becomes clearer and different, and it makes more sense as a complete unit.

    • Lee Martin on January 12, 2017 at 1:58 pm

      Josie! I’m so sorry your comment escaped my attention so long. I agree with everything you say! It’s that writing that brings about clarity and discovery.

  2. Ilse Watson on January 11, 2017 at 3:38 pm

    I’m so glad I’ve found your site. Awesome advice. Thank you.

    • Lee Martin on January 12, 2017 at 1:59 pm

      I’m so glad, to, Ilse! Thank you so much for reading my blog and for taking the time to leave a comment.

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