Posts Tagged ‘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?

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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!

Ill-advised Interludes

Ah, Squiders. I may be doing something very stupid, but I’m going to do it anyway and see how it turns out.

You guys know I’ve been working on a rewrite for a while now. Well, I worked on getting ready for the rewrite for several months, and then at the beginning of the year, I started the rewrite itself.

And you guys know it’s not been going well.

In fact, it’s going so poorly, I haven’t touched it in over two weeks. Aside from this blog, I haven’t done any writing in two weeks. (Well, I wrote a synopsis, but that doesn’t really count.) And that’s a waste and it’s driving me mad.

So I’m going to take a week or two off and work on something else, and then come back to it and see if I can’t figure out how to make it go better.

I pondered what to work on for a bit. A short story or two would seem to be the logical choice, but I’m a little burnt out on that front. It feels like, for every short story I sell, I have five floating around in limbo. Do I really need any more floating around right now?

Things related to the rewrite would be another logical choice. Maybe by working on related shorts, or drabbles, or something along those lines, I could shake loose whatever’s blocking me from getting work on the rewrite done. And I’m not against doing that, if something comes to me, but the thought of potentially hitting my head against more brick walls isn’t terribly appealing.

So, you may be asking, what did you decide, Kit?

I decided to start another novel. One completely unrelated, completely different in tone, etc., etc. I’ve been joking about writing this for about eight years now, so maybe it’s time to finally get on it. I always thought it would be a novella, maybe 30K, though my outlining is implying that that’s wishful thinking.

It’s the same universe as Shards, with some overlapping characters. It includes a frame story, which I’ve always wanted to try my hand at.

While I understand that it’s a bad idea to start another novel while in the middle of one already, I’m hoping that this will at least get me moving again. And if it doesn’t, well…

Hopefully it does.

I’m going to skip Thursday, Squiders, so I will see y’all back here next Tuesday. I hope your Feb/March cusp goes well!

Pantsing vs. Plotting

Sometimes, Squiders, it’s good to go back to the basics. I would divide the writing process into the following steps:

  1. Outlining
  2. Writing
  3. Revising
  4. Editing
  5. Submission and/or Publication

Would you agree with that?

The first step of that is (arguably) outlining. It’s said that writers fall into two categories, plotters (people who plan a story before writing) and pantsers (people who write by the seat of their pants without an idea where the story is going).

I would argue that we all plot, at least a little bit. Even a pantser typically doesn’t go into a story without having an idea of length, main character, and premise. I mean, I’m sure people have, but I’m not sure they got very far.

Perhaps that’s a point for discussion another time. Does planning things out make it easier to finish a story? My experience says yes, but that’s only one bullet point.

So, I would argue that we all fall somewhere on a sliding scale between true pantser (no planning whatsoever) and true plotter (detailed, several thousand-word outlines, character sheets for all major and minor characters, world map, etc.).

People on the pantser side of the scale like to jump into a story with a minimum amount of planning and see where the story gets them. They can add in whatever cool new thing catches their attention because they don’t have to stick to an outline.

People on the plotter side, in general, have an idea where they’re going. This makes it easier to stick with a story and not get stuck. Plotting also helps you remember things, especially if you’re prone to forgetting your latest great plot epiphany or character motivation.

I think people kind of float back and forth along the scale throughout their careers. As for me, I started out close to true pantser, many years ago. My first novel, all I had going into it was a premise and a genre (murder mystery). It stands uncompleted at 29,000 words, and will probably never see the light of day again.

I’ve been drifting more toward plotter ever since. At first, I would pants the first half of a novel and then outline the rest so I could pick up the loose ends. My last few novels I’ve outlined the whole thing before I started using a fairly loose method that identifies key plot points (inciting incident, midpoint, climax, etc.).

Oh my landsquid, this makes it so much easier. It doesn’t kill your creative wiggle room, and taking stories in chunks, knowing where you need to be at a certain point and what you’re working toward overall, makes it easier to get there without wallowing in unproductive middles.

Of course, that’s just my experience. What about you, Squiders? Are you a pantser or a plotter? How have your methods changed throughout your career?

The Changes of the Process, Part 2

Along with the revision/editing post from Tuesday, I found a post about outlining from February of 2011. A little newer than the editing one, but still completely different from my current process.

Again, for those too lazy to go back and read the original post, I shall summarize: at the time, I made a list of characters with plot-specific characteristics, freewrote out my premise and the story that I had thus far, and then usually began writing. At some point I would use phase outlining (where you outline by writing out sentences or phrases in chronological order, usually in bullet point form), usually after I’d written some of the story.

One of the things I’ve noticed as I’ve become more experienced and serious about my writing is that more organization has come into the writing process. There are still some situations where I will pants a story, but they’re increasingly rare. Short stories I always completely outline (admittedly, by phase outlining) before I start. There’s no room in a short for meandering about trying to figure out your direction.

But past!me didn’t do short stories, so that’s a moot point.

For novels, I’ve been experimenting lately by outlining by structure. For my space dinosaur adventure story that I wrote for Nano last year, I noted internal, external, and character-based arcs, and then found the “tentpoles” for all three plot lines (inciting incident, midpoint reversal, and climax). No phase outlining. I did write down my worldbuilding and characters before hand (mostly rank and position, as well as appearance). And it worked–by knowing where I needed to be at a certain point, the story naturally built toward the necessary goals.

I’m working on a co-authored story at the moment, and we’re working in a similar manner, though with more “acts.” (Five, I believe.) But I’ve also mixed my phase outlining back in. I identify where I need to be and how many words I have to get there, and then I make a list of everything that needs to happen between the current point in the story and the next turning point. And then I arrange those points in a chronological order, and tada! Phase outline.

I used to believe that outlining killed the sense of discovery one had when writing, and that identifying what needed to happen when would force you to ruin the flow of your story. And I always used to say that I wrote because I wanted to know how the story went. But I haven’t found any creativity drain by putting in some organization, and I’m much more pleased with my first drafts now than I was back then. In many cases, they just need tweaks instead of a major revision, which is awesome.

Believe in outlining, Squiders? What’s your process? Tried anything new lately that’s really been looking for you?

Character-Driven vs. Plot-Driven

Evening, Squiders. I hope it’s not as hot where you are as it is here.

When we were talking about pacing last week, we mentioned that slower pacing tends to emphasize character over plot, and faster pacing tends to emphasize plot over character.

Which brings us to a classic breakdown: the character-driven story vs. the plot-driven story.

What do these terms mean? Well, arguably, every story has both plot and character development. Plot is, of course, the events that happen in a story, and character, in this case, refers to how a character changes over the course of a story.

A simplistic definition is that plot-driven stories are more concerned about what’s happening–that it’s not important for characters to grow or change as much because what’s happening is awesome. Character-driven plots care more about what the characters are going through with less concern about exterior events.

Another definition I’ve seen used is that plot-driven stories are reactive (i.e., things happen to the main character) whereas character-driven stories are proactive (i.e., the main character is doing things).

You will hear these terms thrown around a lot, but in most cases, especially novels, stories are both. I’ve started to see a shift in terminology to external and internal arcs.

An external arc is plot-driven. It’s the events happening around the characters. To use my favorite Star Wars examples, the external arc of the original trilogy is the war with the Empire. A lot of plot points are directly linked to this: Vader’s attack on Leia’s cruiser, the destruction of the Death Star, the Empire’s attack on Hoth, etc.

An internal arc is character-driven. This is the internal dilemma a character faces throughout a story. Luke must go from snotty farmboy to Jedi knight. Han must learn to stop putting himself first and be willing to fight for what he believes in.

Any decent story has both. I’ve actually made a change in how I outline my stories in the last year to outlining separate internal and external arcs, which has proved to be immensely helpful. Without an external plot, it’s hard to draw your readers along a narrative, and without an internal arc, it’s hard for your readers to care about your characters.

(Note that all main characters, if you have more than one, need their own internal arc.)

Don’t get me wrong–stories still can hinge more on action or more on decisions. But, like pacing, most are a mix of plot driven and character driven bits.

What do you think, Squiders? Agree or disagree with me? Have any excellent examples of a story where the internal and external arcs are tied together really spectacularly?

Even Outlining Goes Awry

Ah, outlining. Some people hate it. Some people swear by it. The longer I’ve written professionally, the more I’ve come to like outlining, both as a writing tool, but more as an editing tool.

One of the last steps I do before I start in on a major edit is to create a new outline for the story. (At this point, I’ve already identified plot and character issues, missing worldbuilding, etc.) And then I go through and see what’s salvageable from the original draft and link it to the new outline, so I can reuse things or move them around instead of rewriting everything from scratch.

And I make note on each new scene of the associated old scenes, and how much of the original scene is useable. Sometimes a scene is brand new, and needs to be written from scratch. Other times, the original scene is more or less fine as is, and just needs some line editing here and there. Every other one falls somewhere in between.

Doing it this well tends to be very beneficial, because it helps me know the amount of work a particular scene will take, and how much time I need to budget for it.

But, as lovely as this method is, it’s not always fool proof.

Take my current scene for an example. My notes denoted that the original scene was about half useable, though I would need to pull in information from a couple of later scenes. It’s always a bit of a pain in the neck to graft scenes onto each other, but you know how it goes–sometimes things simply aren’t in the right place the first time through.

In this case, though, my notes ended up completely wrong. The scene needs a complete rewrite. There’s almost nothing that’s useable from it.

Some people argue that outlining means there’s nothing to discover in your story. I think it’s cases like this that proves that statement wrong. This was a fairly detailed outline, with everything in its place to make sure that I’m getting the most out of my editing process.

Part of it is an evolution process. When I outlined, this scene seemed perfectly reasonable. And indeed, the characters involved, and the order of events, are fine. It’s the nuances that no longer work–conversations sharing information that came out earlier, or changes in the characters’ relationships that make a particular set of actions no longer make any sense. It’s hard to predict that sort of thing, no matter how much work you put in.

Any opinions on outlining, especially for editing, Squiders? Tips or tricks you’ve found really work?