To outline or not to outline…?

Consider this a combination writing-process-post and request for help.  There’s always a debate about whether it’s better to plunge right into writing a new draft or to craft a meticulous outline first.  I know of hugely successful authors who do both, and I think a lot of it comes down to what works for the individual writer.  But what if you’re a plunger…working on a project that wants an outline?

I’ve never really been an outline person.  More often than not, I start a new book with a bare-bones premise and a fairly clear sense of who the characters are, and then I let them guide the story.  I write every night but usually go to bed without a clue as to what will happen next.  Then I sit down the next night, read over what I’ve written, close my eyes for a few minutes, and watch and listen until the characters do or say something.  Then I write it down.   I keep doing this over and over until eventually I can see the end. 

It’s the driving-at-night approach, where the headlights illuminate things bit by bit, but only as you move forward.  In THE BRILLIANT FALL OF GIANNA Z, for example, I was writing about Gianna’s grandmother for months, following her around, thinking, "Why does she keep doing things like this?" before I could see that she was showing real signs of dementia and that was what was really upsetting the family apple cart.

All of this plowing ahead and figuring things out as I write leaves me many, many messes and dangly bits to clean up in revision, but I’m good with that.  I like revision, and the whole process has worked pretty well for me.  Until now. 

Enter the  middle grade mystery project…the one that makes me bounce up and down in my chair with excitement.  The one that sent me off to Washington D.C. a couple weeks ago for research, certain that completing said research would throw open the doors and make the process work for this book, too.  The research trip was wonderful and illuminating and really, really fun.  But I have started writing this book five times now, and I’m ready to face the truth.  It wants…no…needs an outline.

So here’s the request for help part… If you are an outliner, what do your outlines actually look like?  Are they formal outlines?  Or  just summaries of each chapter, written out in a synopsis?  Do you use some fancy-schmancy outlining software that stores only sell to organized people?  Index cards? 

And are there any "plungers" out there who have needed to outline for a particular project?  I’d love to hear how it all worked out.