What Do I Do With a Happy Surprise? (Holly Schindler)

You've heard it often: writers talking about those happy surprises. Something cropped up during drafting--a character behaved in an unexpected way. A plot turned in an unplanned manner. And then--why, everything about that book fell into place! The story I'd been struggling with for ages made sense! I could see the ending clearly!

Or something to that effect.

But often, when you're in the midst of drafting, it's hard to know if, in fact, that crazy idea you just had really was a happy accident. (Sometimes, they're plain crazy ideas, brought on by too much caffeine and too little sleep.)

I'm a big proponent of outlining. And I think outlining a book before writing can help recognize or make use of those happy accidents.

Outlining lets you figure out if this crazy idea will work without having to draft new chapters. (!!!)

Yes, since you're already outlining, you don't have to draft. You can just start in at the point you're at now, and re-outline the remainder of the book (without completely deleting the original outline, of course). This allows you to see how the new idea would impact the rest of the book without having to spend a month writing a bunch of chapters you'll potentially delete. Win-win.

Outlining allows to tweak your crazy idea.

Sometimes, the idea itself is not quite there. Not quite fully formed. If you've got your outline handy, you can see how this new idea might mesh with your existing themes and project goals--and how it might conflict. It allows you to look at the full book, and perhaps take your initial spark and tweak it just a bit before plunging in to outline or draft a new segment. 

Outlining makes it easier to retrace your steps back to the wild idea.

Let's face it: sometimes, those ideas aren't really happy accidents at all--just plain accidents. If you've outlined, though, you always know where the detour from the original plan occurred.

If you're pantsing it, it can be painfully hard to figure out where that point of departure happened. Because, quite frankly, you were kinda halfway winging it as it was, and you only had a basic idea, and somewhere in there, about a month and a half ago, you had this ah-ha! idea for that plot twist, or you said, "Hey, I wonder if that character would actually do this instead..." and by now, you've written, what, twenty thousand more words? Thirty? And the whole thing's veered off course, and at this point, you're not exactly sure where that whole veering off actually happened. Or how to unwind it. Or how to fix everything.

You see what I mean. This can frustrate an author so much a manuscript gets completely abandoned. 

Don't abandon a whole manuscript. Outline first.

Happy surprises really can save a work--but because they can be hard to recognize, they can also potentially derail a project. Outlining can help you incorporate an unexpected idea so that you're the next author to say, during an interview, "It came to me as a happy surprise..."