Sunday, February 21, 2016

How I Learned to Outline

Also known as: The Lazy Guide to Outlining.

Basically: it was an uphill battle that I happened to win with my eyes closed.

Here's how it went: I wrote a story. I've written many stories the same way, just by 'going' with an idea and maybe a few notes in a book. But I never outlined, barely did so in school and certainly wasn't going to get bogged down by it now.

But afterward, I had a half-baked idea that I quite liked, and began to imagine ways to improve it. I wrote the first draft, what I'm calling 'the rough', while living in Germany for a couple months. Upon returning I worked on expanding what I had for a couple months and then took a break. I created an outline from what I had and what I wanted to include. Worked on the book for a few months, finishing with a fun looking outline.



Then I took another break where I wrote a romance novella, and then came back this last fall with more than a little disappointment. My outline is a mess.

(Is. Still is.)

But I decided to not focus on that, not to work on the beginning because a huge amount of the ending was missing. Up until the end of January 2016 I was working under the assumption that I could write myself out of the mess I'd created. But then I took the equivalent of a 'writing bender' and just wrote down the arc and the parts I wanted as I saw them, breaking it down for the newest draft, and inserting things I had decided I needed. Then I finally was able to go beyond.

When I finished the rough in 2013, I felt like I hadn't hit 'the end' so much as a pause between parts. I worked on that second part while refining the original part. A lot changed. I began my 'complete' outline in January, because I realized the vague ideas about a sequel might actually be better suited for this book after all, and maybe I needed to rearrange some things.

I've been looking at my three part outline with some dismay, and decided I should go back to that Killjoys fanfiction I had been so excited about last November. I logged onto an app I'd discovered, a lite word processor that lives on the internet called Novelize. While playing around with its features I was prompted to tell a summary of my novel in a few sentences. Simple. I thought I'd just ignore what lay beneath: empty text boxes for a beginning, middle and ending summary. I wanted to wing it, sketch some idea of direction and suddenly the summaries were pouring out of me. And they were exciting.

Moving onto the next page I was prompted to break these summarized sections into chapters and scenes. Carrying on the momentum of my summarizing, I described each chapter as I saw it.

VoilĂ . The entire 'unknown' of this off-the-cuff story was laid out, and damn, it felt like I could do anything.

Now, I've kept working on the outline since then, as fanfiction is basically a serial story worked on and published a chapter at a time, but having it has made things so much easier. I've since moved out of Novelize because I need more than a lite app.

Chiefly, I want to be able to edit and view my chapter and scene summaries while being less than a click away from rearranging them. In Scrivener I can jump between an editable outline view and the manuscript without changing screens.

I'd like to apply what I've learned to my novel. I'm sick of being overwhelmed by all the work I have to do, and just do it. I'm a little mad I didn't just embrace the outline years ago, but a wiser woman might say I wasn't ready. I had to do my own journey my way.

Well, I might done other things with the time. Might have, might have.

Here, in summary, is what I did:
  1. I laid out the entire story's plot in a sentence, but yours probably should be no more than two or three.
  2. I wrote in slightly more detail the arcs of character and major plot points I wanted for the beginning, the middle and the end. (As I did this I saw things I wanted to happen sooner and more things I wanted to pack a punch in the end, moving things around. Finding what parts to balance in the middle is more about gut for me. I just went for it.)
  3. Then I guessed what kind of chunks could make a chapter and how quickly things should happen. Things that were earlier I could already break down into scenes, and as I wrote and thought I could do that for more and more, including moving scenes and events around.
But actually here's how I should have done step three:

Forget chapters, forget anything bigger than a scene after you've gotten your three part summary. Maybe you don't even need three parts, maybe just summarize what you start with, and what you end with. If you know what happens in the middle there, great, go for it.

Just break the story into scenes. Mark them with POV if you have them, and don't commit to chapters or parts* until very late.

I would also encourage you to experiment with your outline. I just did a rewatch of Killjoys and found many things in canon conflicted with my story and needed to rearrange as well as omit scenes. So, for the first time, I wrote all the scenes on flashcards and laid them out on my bed. I combined, separated, saw what was happening too late and excised everything that was no longer relevant. It was great!

Going from this though, I'd also encourage you to write a list of scenes you'd like to write (from a list, or from the top of your head) and write them on flashcards, too. You can insert these where they seem to fit. Flashbacks are obviously the most versatile because they do not need to happen chronologically, they just need to bookend scenes they are thematically relevant to.

Forcing yourself into an outline does not necessarily mean you need to start writing immediately, however. It may turn out that way, but you may need to labor over the outline itself for a couple days or weeks until it 'settles'. When I knew I was ready to resume writing Wreckside, it was a gut feeling. This is important to note because if you're giving the outline method a shot, see how this can save you time in the long run, or get you toward writing a serial story sooner: by focusing on reworking and fixing bumps on the outline you don't have to worry about rewriting, revising or entirely dumping hours worth of writing that you may have edited into near perfection, only to realize it is no longer applicable. You can sometimes adapt scenes, but sometimes it's better to just start fresh.

I hope sharing my learning process was helpful to you.

Josephine

*Unfortunately Scrivener isn't forgiving if you begin with a simple novel and want to turn it into a novel with parts. You can organize it in the Binder, but when you compile, you'll have Part I be called Chapter 1 and then the first chapter will also be Chapter 1 and its just sloppy. If you know a work-around, please contact me so I can include it here!

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