Posts Tagged ‘nonfiction’

Why Do I Need (or Want) an Outline?

Happy Tuesday, squiders! It is freezing in my house and I can’t find–oh, here they are. Never mind.

We’re continuing to talk about outlining today, tackling why you might want–or need–to have an outline.

What’s the point of an outline?

An outline serves as a guide for you while you’re writing the story (or nonfiction book). It helps you remember what your plan was, keeps all your information in one handy spot, and can help you develop ideas from vague thoughts into something deep and meaningful that will make your story super cool. It can even help you spot problems before you get started.

An outline helps you write your story, simple as that.

Aren’t I trapped?

This is a common misconception that comes with outlining. Many people think that if you have an outline, you’re trapped. The story must happen exactly as you’ve planned it. Creativity is dead!

This is not true at all. An outline works for you, not the other way around.

That’s why, in the intro section, we talked about experimenting with what information, and how much, you need for your outline. And the good news is that an outline is not a static document. 

If you write a scene, and it’s more natural to go a different way than you’d originally envisioned? Great! Update your outline. If your planned ending feels forced? Try something else. There’s nothing that says you have to stay with your outline if it stops fitting the story.

I would recommend updating your outline if you decide to radically change things, but we’ll go into that in a minute.

Additionally, you can outline at any point in your writing process. If you started off pantsing and find yourself in a corner, you can start outlining from that point as a way to figure out how to get from where you are to where you want to be. This is actually how I started, once upon a time–I would pants the first half or so of the book, then outline the end, so I could make sure all my loose threads would be tied up in a logical and entertaining manner.

You can also outline revisions and rewrites. Because you already know the story (and what’s wrong with it), it can help to lay out what needs to be changed and how, to limit the amount of drafts you have to go through in the end.

Outlines are the solution to writer’s block

The biggest pro of outlining is that it virtually eliminates writer’s block.

(There are exceptions, as there are to everything. That’s another subject.)

Have you ever been happily writing along, throwing every terrible thing you can think of at your main character, and run into a brick wall? Things have gotten too terrible, and you don’t see how they can ever get out of it. Or your main character is flitting around from subplot to subplot, not getting anywhere, because you’re not sure what they’re trying to get to?

As I said before, an outline can be basic. Just knowing what your character wants (and whether it will be a good or bad thing when–if–they get it) can help shape your entire narrative. A little more structure, and you can know where you’re supposed to be at what point (“okay, at the midpoint, she finds out that who she thought was her sister isn’t her sister at all”). Nothing has to be specific–you don’t have to do any great detail–but knowing where you’re going, even vaguely, helps eliminate that flailing feeling where you don’t know where to go next.

NOTE: It can also be useful to outline the next day’s writing when you stop writing for the day. This can help you easily remember where you were and what was happening when you come back, and it gives you an idea of what you need to do for the day. It’s always faster to write when you know what you’re doing versus when you don’t.

(If you’ve ever read one of those books or articles about increasing your daily word count, you’ll know they almost always talk about having a plan for your daily writing. Same idea here.)

Next week, squiders, we’ll start delving into the types of outlines (complete with examples).

Thoughts on outlining?

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What is an Outline? (Part 2)

Good morning, squiders! Last week we started talking about the basics of outlining. We’ll finish that up today.

What are the parts of an outline?

Again, this varies wildly from author to author. A basic outline, the one most people think of when they think “outline,” contains the plot. Plot, in this case, is the order of events that happen in a story. Things like “Characters A & B discover a dead body in their garden” and “When they call the police, they discover someone has framed them for murder.”

And, to be fair, this is an integral part of almost all outlines. Even if you’re a pantser, and you just need to know where to start (“In a park, where Character A has just seen Character B, the most beautiful man she’s ever laid eyes on”), there’s still a tiny bit of plot. Having at least a basic idea of the story you want to tell is typically a good thing.

How the plot is laid out again varies, based on the type of outline one is using.

Aside from plot (and subplots), outlines might also include:

  • Character information (names, ages, appearance, personality, history, etc.)
  • Setting information (helpful to have all in one place for consistency)
  • Theme(s)
  • Arcs (internal, external, relationships, plot, character)
  • Target word counts (“this chapter should be about 2000 words”)
  • Goals (“this scene introduces Love Interest B”)
  • Bits of prose or dialogue (to remember to include)
  • Premise
  • Chronology (if you’re mixing timelines or telling a story out of order, or in a specific pattern)

Getting started outlining

Last week we touched briefly on how to know how much of an outline one needs before they start writing. While experience is the best teacher here, I find that the best way to feel your way out if you’re just beginning is incrementally.

Start with your premise. A premise is the idea of the story, like “What if Hamlet only pretended to die?” or “Romeo and Juliet, but told in space with pirates.” This is your starting point, in most cases, the idea that popped in your head that you want to try out.

Stop. See how you feel.

Next, try out a basic plot OR characters. Most authors write either plot-driven or character-driven stories, so a lot of people find one or the other comes to them first. If you need some inspiration, feel free to go through the Story Ideas section of the blog.

You don’t need to do a lot of work here. Your character can be “Carrie, 27, newly arrived on the orbiting station.” Your plot can be “Recently-graduated engineer arrives at her post to find it completely deserted.”

(Hm. I kind of like that one.)

Stop. See how you feel.

The temptation can be to do a ton of work up front. And to be fair, sometimes you need to. If you want to write about a subject you know nothing about, research is essential, and can help form your plot and characters moving forward. And some people need five pages of notes/outline for each chapter of their story. You might be one of those.

But I want to warn you about a phenomenon I call Plot Death. I see it in conjunction with NaNoWriMo a lot, where there is a set starting date when people can begin writing. Since they can’t write, they plan. And they plan. And they plan, plan, plan.

And they overplan. And they lose all interest in the story.

Most people have a general range of information they need to start writing. Too little, and they get stuck, unsure where to go. Too much, and the story has lost its magic. What fun is writing if everything’s already planned out? Where’s the magic of discovery, of creativity?

(Again, as a disclaimer, some people love–and need–that level of detail. But it should be something you work up to, not start out with.)

So do a little at a time. Plan out your basic character. Feel like you need their backstory before you start? Add it in. How do you feel? Ready? Still need more?

Start with a basic plot. Feel good? Go. Want more structure? You can plan out the first couple chapters and try that, or hit your major plot points, leaving the spaces in between up in the air. Now how do you feel?

At some point, the story is going to start coming to you. You’ll get an idea of side characters, or scenes, or conversations. (Write these things down so you don’t forget them.) And then start writing. See how it goes. Do you find yourself struggling to think of what comes next? It might help to outline a little more (maybe adding in other viewpoint characters or side plots). Words flowing? Keep going.

Adjust as necessary.

As time goes by, you’ll start to instinctually be able to tell what information you need, and how much of it. For example, I don’t need to do a lot of prep work on characters–they come easily to me–but it’s helpful for me to check my structure and my plot points because my pacing gets way off without that. You’ll learn what’s best for you.

Next week, we’ll discuss why you need–or want–an outline.

How are you doing, squiders? Thoughts on getting started outlining?

What is an Outline? (Part 1)

Okay, squiders! Let’s dig into outlines.

What is an outline?

In the most basic terms, an outline is a plan you make before you begin a story.

You’re probably familiar with the form they teach you back in elementary school (five paragraphs, intro, three body paragraphs–strong, weak, strongest–and a conclusion), with the alternating letters and Roman numerals.

This is indeed an outline–and you’ll see something similar if you go into an outline mode in any word processing software–but that’s only one type of outline, and really more of a style than anything else.

(If you are writing a technical or nonfiction document that requires an outline, this is what you’ll want to include. But fiction works differently.)

You’re welcome to use that if it works for you, but, seriously, an outline is just a plan. Any plan. And how much, and what’s included varies person to person and story to story.

Some people pick a main character and a starting situation and jump feet first into the actual writing. Other people write hundreds of pages, outlining dialogue, characters, theme, arcs, plot points, relative word count, etc.

Most people fall somewhere in the middle.

Some people jot down a few ideas on a napkin. Others use Scrivener, or Word.

But basically, you need something to start writing a story. And whatever that something is is part of your outline. You may not call it that. It may not feel like that. But it is, nonetheless, essentially an outline. Even without the indents and Roman numerals.

Plotter vs. Pantser

If you’ve been around writing communities, you’ve probably heard the terms “plotter” and “panster.” A pantser is a writer who write by the seat of their pants. They require very little starting information before they jump into a story. A plotter is a writer who painstaking plots everything out before they begin writing.

(NOTE: It is interesting to note that a pantser may still have an outline for a story. It won’t be a “this happens, then this happens” sort, but they may still flesh out characters, world, theme, and general arcs in a less official format.)

Most writers fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. Some may pants some types of projects but prefer to outline others. And those writers that do outline may do different levels for a short story versus a novel, or between one genre and another.

In my experience, most writers start off as pantsers and move toward plotters as their careers progress. This is not always true; Stephen King famously does not outline, and neither does John Scalzi, as examples.

How do I know how much outline I need?

You’re not going to like this answer, but–experience. As you write more, you try new things, and you learn what works for you and what makes you want to jump out a window. And eventually you find a process that works best for you (or maybe a few, if you write multiple lengths/genres).

If you’re just starting out, however, next week we’ll talk about how to get started with outlining, and how to try out different levels of outlining to find a good starting place. You’re not going to find your perfect outlining process on the first time out, but you can probably triangulate an amount of information that will work, even if it’s not perfect.

Any thoughts on outline basics, squiders? Agree that your outline is essentially your plan, whether you call it an outline or not?

Outlining Introduction

So, my darling squiders, I have gone through my nonfiction book ideas, and there’s only ONE left for the series.

Madness, I know. Thank you guys again for coming along with me on these book posts! After this one is done, the idea will be to consolidate the posts off the blog, add new information/sections where applicable, and release them as ebooks.

But, for now, let’s talk about outlining. Or talk about the fact that we’ll be talking about outlining.

Outlining can be scary for many new writers. There are a lot of misconceptions about what an outline is or isn’t, what the point of it is, and why you even need one. We’ll tackle all of these concepts, as well as types of outline and how to tell how much outlining works for you personally, in the coming weeks.

If you have any questions about outlines that you would like me to address, please drop them in the comments!

I’m excited to get into this subject because while I am not that detailed of an outliner myself, the whole process appeals to the analytical side of my brain. And the poor analytical side needs some exercise every now and then.

We’ll start whatever day next week ends up not being Red Mars day. See you then!

Writing Around Life: Personal Anecdotes?

Hey, squiders, a question for all of you that have been following along with the writing around life posts:

Would they be better with personal anecdotes?

I’ve been in most, if not all, of the situations described in the book. Most of the tips and methods described are ones that I have used in various situation.

Would it be beneficial to include “Back when I was in college, I would blah blah blah”?

Or is it just extraneous information and the tips/methods themselves are enough?

I can’t decide if showing that I’ve tested the methods out and know they work would be useful to a potential reader.

The other issue is that I’m concerned that they’ll come across as bragging/discouraging. “I wrote 50K in a month while working full time AND working toward a master’s degree in aerospace engineering, so what’s your excuse?”

So, help me out, guys, Yea or Nay?

Writing Around Life: Work/School/Kids

Here we run into the ultimate combination–work, school, and children.

(This is also our last official post in the writing around life series. If you think I should add anything, or you have any comments, please let me know!)

Now, this can be intense, but isn’t necessarily. As we discussed in previous sections, you’re probably not full time on work AND school AND kids. Most people are full time on one and part time on the other two. For example:

  • Person A works a full-time job, 40 hours a week. They’re also taking a continuing education course and have two small children at home.
  • Person B stays home with the kids. When they can, they do freelance or contract work from home, and they’re also taking a MOOC course (massive open online course) to see if they’d like a certain career.
  • Person C attends university working toward their bachelor’s degree. They also pick up a few hours a week at a coffee shop, and spends time with their older kids when they’re not in school.

There’s infinite combinations of this, but most people fall into one of the above categories. You are primarily a worker, a student, or a parent. That’s not to say you’re not also the other things, but that one category takes up most of your time.

There are a couple ways to fit writing in around your busy schedule, and they’re primarily things we’ve talked about in the individual work, school, and children sections. Ideally, you can carve writing time in or around your main responsibility, leaving you time to complete your secondary ones. If you work full time, you shouldn’t be sacrificing school or time with your kids for writing.

So, running with the working full time example, if you can get your writing done during your commute and/or your lunch break, then you’re free when you get home to focus on other things. Likewise, if you write during short breaks at school, then you can help the kids with homework when you get home and work after they go to bed. And if you can write while the kids are doing their homework or while they’re napping, then you’re free to work or do your class once your spouse or other child care arrives.

And remember–if you’re too tired to write right now, don’t beat yourself up about it. Yes, you can make time for writing. It’s not impossible. But if it’s not working now, give it a break. Situations change. Classes end. Kids get older. It’s all right to take care of yourself.

Be realistic about the time you have available. Realize that even a little writing adds up over time.

Thoughts about writing around everything, squiders?

Writing Around Life: Work/Kids

Like some of the previous combination sections, squiders, we’re going to divide this into work part-time/kids and work full-time/kids. We’re also going to assume you have childcare worked out, whether a family member is watching the children or they attend daycare.

WARNING: Remember, check regulations and make sure all your work is done before attempting to write during work hours or using work resources.

Part-time work

The problem with part-time work is that it may not always be on a reliable schedule. You may work Tuesday/Thursday/Friday one week and Monday/Wednesday/Saturday the next, or find yourself switching between day time and evening shifts. This can make it hard to reliably schedule in writing, so you might need to find time as you can, or schedule a week at a time.

Several of the techniques we’ve discussed before also work here:

  • Work when your kids work
  • Use your commute (if you have one/use public transportation)
  • Ask the babysitter/daycare if they can keep the kids a little longer (if financially viable)
  • Try to have a night off once a week for writing
  • Work while they sleep

Full-time work

If you work 40+ hours a week, you probably don’t have a lot of time with your kids, so it can be hard to prioritize something that takes you further away from family time. Plus you may have a spouse to maintain a relationship with, or a house to keep up. So how do you stuff writing in?

This can be a good time to look at your writing goals. Do you want to eventually quit your day job and write full time? Do you want something to share with your kids? Is writing something you do for fun?

Once you’ve established what you want out of your writing, it can be good to break your goal down into steps. If you want to release self-published novels every few months, you’re obvious going to have to write more/faster than someone who has a single novel or memoir in them that is less concerned on speed.

And once you’ve broken your goal into steps and determined a vague schedule, you can begin to see how much time you need in a week. (I like to work in weeks at a go; others work in months or even years. Up to you.)

Depending on your goals, maybe you set aside a few hours every Saturday morning to work. You get some work done, and then the kids are up and you can do things with the family. Or, depending on how much energy you have, what your spouse (if you have one) is up to, etc., you can try writing for an hour or so after the kids go to bed.

Remember that you might have built-in time at or around work that you can use as well, such as your commute (if you take public transportation) or your lunch break.

Anything to add about working, having kids, and writing, squiders? We’re almost done. Next week we tackle the ultimate work/school/kids combo.