“Headlight” Outlining: What It Is and Why It Might Work for You

Photo by adrian on Unsplash

It’s like driving a car at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.

E.L. Doctorow

“Headlight” outlining was something I knew about prior to NaNoWriMo 2020, but I’d never tried it. Then, because I decided to participate relatively late, with little time to prep, I only had a rough scene outline for the first five chapters when November 1st came.

When I reached the end of those five chapters, I took my writing notebook to work with me, and during downtime, I thought, “okay, so what happens next?” and wrote down everything I could think of. Before my next writing session, I turned those notes into a few more chapters of outline, and then turned that outline into a few more chunks of story.

When I got to the end of that, I got out the notebook and did it again. I had no intention of reinventing the wheel, but because of my situation, I did “discover” the headlight novel-writing method for myself.

I’m not done with that novel–I got through roughly 2/3 of it that way before the event was over, and my usual diligence in keeping “NaNo” going until I had a finished draft fell by the wayside in favor of working on the Fifty-Five Days publishing process, because I didn’t have the energy to do both. I’ll go back to it as soon as possible, but I did enough that I feel comfortable talking about (and possibly recommending) the process to others.

Pros:

  • It’s plan-as-you-go, which alleviates the mental burden some writers feel when trying to follow outlining advice that suggests everything about your story needs to be worked out ahead of time. For many, that’s their preferred method, but for others, that’s simply too big a task to undertake.
  • It breaks a long project into smaller pieces by alternating the type of work done. Write what you have at the beginning until you run out of steam, stop for a bit to brainstorm more. Do it again, and again, until you get to the end of your story.
  • It allows you to get started when you have a beginning and an ending, but not necessarily a middle (which is a common thing for me, since I write romance, and happy endings are the norm to shoot for.) The middle will mostly take care of itself once you get the story underway.
  • Because not everything is set in stone at the beginning, this method can allow for more freedom to explore new ideas that come up during the writing process. Don’t like where that brainstorming session took you? Go back to the last chapter you like for sure and take a new path to your destination. (The road trip metaphor really shines here.)

Cons:

  • For writers used to strict planning, this might feel too loose and wishy-washy. No one method is right for everyone, all the time, so if you’re happy with your stricter system, whatever it is, run with it.
  • It does rely heavily on linear chronology within the story to make the method work. If you already know your story isn’t going to fit within those bounds, the natural “if this happens now, then that happens next” logic that the method uses isn’t going to help you plan much. It’s possible, of course, to write the first draft chronologically and rearrange it later in revision, but depending on your process, that might just be creating more (unnecessary) work for yourself.
  • For anyone who struggles with finishing a first draft, those “stop to brainstorm” points might turn into “but I’m out of ideas so I’m giving up” points. I’m a little worried for myself, despite my early success with this method, because I’m taking a break to work on something else–I know I might have trouble getting started again. (Though for me, obviously it’s too late to get off this train, because I can’t go back in time and have it all planned out retroactively.)

With each book I’ve written (or attempted to write) my process for the first draft has looked a little different, depending on what ideas I started with, what I didn’t find working from my last project, and what advice I’d absorbed in the meantime. My first two books were written non-chronologically, both starting in the middle where I had the best scene idea, and working outwards to some extent from there. (Also, I wrote the last five chapters of What We Need to Decide in one go, very early on in the drafting process, then had my action meet up with it later. I changed the middle of that story three times before I made it work.) What did I learn from that? Well, everything I’ve written since has been largely chronological, because it makes less work for me in revision, though if I have strong feelings about the ending ahead of time I will write a sort of zero-draft set of notes on it to aim for, even if I no longer commit to writing the actual chapters.

One novel I wrote (and may never go back to) I wrote chronologically, but with absolutely no planning at all, relying on daily prompts for the inspiration for the first half, and my own “well this is how it started so this is how I’ll finish it” inspiration during NaNo for the second half. What did I learn from that? Prompts are fun and I enjoyed the process, but I didn’t get a very solid story out of it in the end, and even after substantial rewrites I left a lot of plot holes and unanswered questions. Conclusion: complete lack of planning is murder on consistent worldbuilding, not well suited to a fantasy setting.

So what have I learned from this newest almost-novel? Headlight outlining seems to be a good fit for me, though next time I try it I should probably plan my time better so that I don’t have to take a break during the drafting process to work on something else, because I feel myself losing momentum and enthusiasm for the project. (I can also blame the pandemic-altered holiday stress, too, writing never exists in a vacuum.)

While I know about myself at this point that I’ll never be a total plan-ahead type–the Snowflake Method, which I tried for an abandoned idea back in 2015, basically reduced me to tears within two hours–I’m open to changing my process from project to project in order to find something that suits me better than however I did it before, and this time, I might have struck gold. It’s not going to be right for everyone–again, no one method is–but as I had such a positive experience with it, I wanted to talk about why and inspire others to try it, or at least consider it.

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