My first three ghostwriting projects I was given a very specific set of instructions. I knew what events were supposed to happen in each chapter. The names of the characters were neatly delineated at the top of the page. I knew their hair color, their eye color, their motivations, and what was driving the plot.
Then I entered into a contract with my first long-term client. He gave me a genre–and to a lesser extent the sub-genre–and said go. There was very little oversight, little communication. “Do you like this?” I’d ask.
“Sure.” They’d say. “Do whatever you like. Just tell me what direction you’re going.”
And so, I had to outline myself. It wasn’t the first time I’ve ever had to outline. I do it quite a bit for my own work. The only exception was a paranormal romance I’d written. It was poorly done I admit, and it was a lesson in why I should always have an outline.
So how does this apply to ghostwriting and writing in general? Well I’ll give the pros and cons of outlining in a ghostwriting setting first, and then explain a bit on why I think these rules should (mostly) apply to your own original writing as well.
Pros of an existing outline
- An existing outline gives you all the pertinent information up front. You know what is expected, and exactly what the end product should look like. You can dive into the project immediately. Given the time constraints placed on ghostwriting (in my experience, you have to complete and edit 40k+ words in a month or less) this is beneficial.
- If there is something missing from the story, you can point to the outline for proof. “See? That plot point wasn’t in there.”
- The story you’re telling is not yours. (This can also be a con, depending on your view, but if the story sucks–and some do–you have to make the best with what you’ve been given.) At the end of the day, you did what you could. You can at least say; “At least it wasn’t my idea.”
Cons of an existing outline
- Most of the clients I’ve had the opportunity to work with have been very good. They’re flexible on deadlines, especially during flu season. They check in with me and answer questions I have. But that will not always be the case. Some clients will fight you on every detail. Clients who want you to follow a preexisting outline to the letter, are a pain. Adaptation is necessary to some degree.
- Some outlines aren’t specific. Sometimes a client has a lot of ideas and no clue how to marshal them. So they toss word salad at you and expect you to figure it out. At this point, it is almost like writing your own, with the added stress of worrying that you’ve left something crucial out.
- Writing from an outline can feel stiff and unnatural, especially if you’ve never written for someone else before. The lack of control will chafe, but you don’t want to back out of a contract because you didn’t get to plan the book.
Now that I’ve gone over existing outlines, let’s discuss writing your own. This task can feel especially daunting. You’re staring at a blank canvas, not sure what you want to paint yet. If your contractor is non-specific, or will be happy whatever you turn in, then you have free reign. If you’re especially Type A, like myself, this can petrify you.
Pros of writing your own outline
- It promotes better communication between yourself and the client. I usually take a day or two to hammer out a crude outline before I even begin writing. I send it to my clients before I start in on the project. Why? Because it shows I care about their input. There’s no use starting a project if your client will demand it be changed. I’d rather make changes to a two thousand word outline, instead of being forced to revamp a story I’m already fifteen thousand words into.
- You have (almost) complete creative control. The canvas is yours, do what you want with it. You build the world, the characters, the plot. You dictate everything. The world is literally your plaything. As long as it doesn’t go up in fiery Armageddon you can do what you want.
- It gets you into the habit of doing so for later works. Many ghostwriters like myself have aspirations to publish under their own name someday. Outlining for ghostwritten projects will prepare you for the process in later works.
Cons of writing your own outline:
- It takes time. As I said above, it takes time to write an outline. If you have thirty days or less to pen a novel, you’re going to resent using that one day to plan. I’d argue it saves time in the long run. You’re not tripping over your plot points, trying to figure out what you said about the worldbuilding three chapters ago. But I understand the sentiment. I don’t have time to plan, I have to write!
- That level of creative control can be petrifying. You don’t know where to begin. The thoughts that first pop into your head will feel cliche. You may not be sure what is motivating the characters. You realize that you’re in way over your head and you want to crawl into a hole until it all goes away.
- The story is not yours. Ghostwriting books is pretty much selling talent for a flat fee. If you get overly attached to your characters, it can be hard to sell them to someone who just wants to make money off of them. You will never be able to slap your name on that idea. You have to consider what you want to give to your client, and what you want to keep for your own original work.
- It will hurt more if your work is not well-received.
Why is outlining good for your own work? It gives you milestones to track your progress. Many writers throw up their hands in defeat after they get stuck with dreaded writer’s block. Projects sit on the shelf and collect dust for years, if they’re continued at all. Writing the ideas down while they are fresh preserves that first flush of excitement and will allow you to remember details you want to include.
It will keep your continuity straight. There are many readers who only pick up a work for the entertainment value. These people set the book down after it was done with a mild opinion about it one way or the other. These are the silent majority. But there is another type of reader. They are very invested in your world and they become apoplectic if something is out of place or contradictory. These are the readers who post scathing reviews online. I am admittedly the latter. When a book offends my sensibilities they go on a list to appear on this blog in a chapter-by-chapter review of how awful they are. This is why I’m extremely hard on my own writing. I have high standards for myself as well.
And finally, writing an outline will act as a springboard for your writing. You’re going to grow out of that outline, I guarantee it. You can use your outline as a spitballing session. You can decide what to integrate into the story and what you can discard. You have he skeleton of the house prepared. You’re going to add to it, make it pretty, and paint it different colors. But you have to start somewhere. Isn’t it easier to have a starting point?
As always, thanks for reading this article. I hope this has helped some of you. If there’s a topic that I haven’t covered on this blog that you’d like me to go over, comment below or contact me on my linked social media pages.