I don't always outline my projects. But I did for this latest one. Here's a picture of the fifty part outline I wrote by hand one night. I stayed up late drinking wine and scratching out this vision of the book I'd been vaguely turning left, right, up, down in my mind -- but never really fully forming it.
I worried as I started out on the book that the outline would feel too rigid. That's always been my fear, really. You can imagine and plot out the greatest story; but when you sit down to write that sucker, something may happen that you didn't expect, and the whole damn outline is shot to hell. Then what was the point in writing the outline in the first place? The other issue is that great prose has to be spontaneously created. It has to feel as if it's sprung from some place naturally, organically. You can't plan it, and you can't expect it to appear before you just because you're writing to the outline.
All that said, I went to work the other day and photocopied this document. (Later found out that faculty must now strictly limit their use of the photocopier!) I put one copy on the nightstand. I taped one copy to my office desk. Then I brought home the original, done in pencil, and I keep it by my desk. I have to keep a few inches away from the ledge of the desk; if I don't, the twins are likely to grab it and ravage it, tear it to pieces. And you know, that might not be a bad idea, considering my reservations.
But the good thing about the outline is that it forces me to consider how the story must keep going. The story must keep moving forward at regular intervals. There must be what Janet Burroway said "constant discovery and decision making." Sometimes my work gets bogged down in detail or lingers in scene too long as I grope to figure out what should happen next or what's going in a specific character's mind or heart. But this outline is all founded on the notion of continuing revelation and the central character doing something significant.
All the same, if I'm not open to potential changes or moments in the story, as it naturally arises, that don't jive with the outline, the story's going to have that same dead stagnant feeling that's worried me to no end on other projects.
The other thing...you've got to press through. You've got to keep going every day, or you'll lose touch with the story, with the people, with the themes and the whole world you're creating. The outline helps there. I've demanded, of myself, that I get through every numbered section, every day; that keeps the story going forward and it marks progress, about 1500 words a day. After that I'm toast. Also, that takes about ninety minutes, and with all I have to do, that's about the most time I have on my hands, on a daily basis, to write. Yep, it's come down to that.
I've stapled the outline to a few blank sheets of paper. I get ideas about how a certain section should work better after I've written it. But I've got to press on. I've got to shape the whole contraption first, then see if I can tweak the gears or oil the grooves better later on. Pressing on is really a big deal. Get that first draft down; along the way, I'm noticing what could be done better. But I just have this sense that if I go back and try to correct things or reshape things, I'll be writing section one forever. Can't let that happen. This story is potentially the one. Not gonna blow it.