Not long ago, I decided to read a book. That in itself may not come as much of a surprise, but the book was Patrick Rothfuss's The Name of the Wind, a book that promises to be filled with oddly spelled names and cities and more that its share of kings and sorcerers--in short, all of the things that characterize one of the only two genres that I absolutely never read.
So why did I decide to read Rothfuss's book? It's simple. I read his blog. In fact, I so enjoyed his blog that I began the patchy-and-definitely-not-daily custom of Quote of the Day posts on my What's Wrong Around Us? blog. And it occurred to me that if the man could spin the saga of spending time in a bookstore when he should have been writing into interesting reading, I was pretty confident that he could hold my interest in a novel, even if his main character did have to begin his narrative by explaining how to pronounce his name.
A similar thought came to me recently when I read C.S. Lewis's Till We Have Faces. The story is a classic myth (that of Cupid and Psyche) retold, somewhat altered, but not so much so that there's much question about what's going to "happen". It doesn't matter, because Lewis has that way of creating prose that slips through your brain like sand through your fingers, requiring almost no effort, feeling warm and pleasant as it passes through, and leaving tiny traces that you'll be finding long after you've moved on.
This reminded me of how often I've heard novelists and would-be novelists debate the value (and even necessity) of outlines. You already know that my answer to the outline question is "write in the way that works best for you", but suddenly the outline question seems to me to run deeper than just whether or not they're necessary. The outline question raises the issue of whether we might be focusing on the wrong thing altogether. I've heard and read at various times that there are only 7 plots and that there are only 5. Undoubtedly, readers and writers could quibble all day about whether certain plots were subplots of other plots already described or each was unique, but the point is that there aren't a thousand plots. There aren't ten thousand. And there certainly aren't new plots created every day.
In fact, in some genres (romance springs to mind, but it seems unlikely that it's the only one), the plot is nearly identical for nearly every book in the genre. But some are better than others. Some make their authors wealthy while others are on the shelves only for a few weeks. Some keep us up late turning pages while others are returned to the library unfinished. Why? It's not the plot...it's the telling.
You'll be the very rare writer indeed if you come up with a totally unique plot, and you won't necessarily be a successful one. But come up with the right turns of phrase, the authenticity of expression, the writing that carries the reader from one line to the next like she was floating along on a gentle wave barely noticing the forward motion, and you will make a compelling story of whatever tale you tell.