Outlining My Outlines

Outlining My Outlines

I had a comment on one of my recent posts:

Do you structure your stories or just sit down, start typing and let them grow organically?

Good question – especially since some days, I can’t think of  anything to write a blog post about! And today is one of those days. So, I’m going to address this question, even though it’s going to lead to a longer post than I really feel awake enough to write. *sigh* The things I do for you, lovely readers.

In the past, I’ve been what’s generally known as a ‘pantser’ – somebody who writes by the seat of their pants, doesn’t plan anything, and just sees what happens. It’s a fun way to write as you’re constantly being surprised by the plot, and you also tend to write faster as you want to know what happens next. However, it has its disadvantages. You’re more likely to get stuck halfway, and the editing afterwards is HORRIBLE because you have to sort out all the pacing that didn’t really work.

However, I have also written to proper outlines. It never worked out for me.

What I tend to do at the moment is a bit of a combination of the two. I started writing from an idea I had, and I wrote a couple of chapters. Then I sat down and thought about what I’d written and what could happen next, and wrote a brief three-line outline for each of the next three chapters. I wrote the first two of these – so still had an outline for the third left – and then outlined the next three.

This technique has some massive advantages if you’re like me and you don’t entirely know how you’re going to finish the book or who the murderer is, as it doesn’t require you to have the whole plot hammered out in advance but it means you always know what’s going to happen now and so are less likely to get into a hole while writing – you can just keep going. Always planning two or three chapters ahead also means that if you write more than you expected, you don’t run out, which is why I’d counsel against just outlining one chapter further.

That said, I didn’t use this technique for Watching, Destroying or Returning, my three favourite novels that I’ve written at the moment. Watching would have turned out very differently if I’d had an outline.

I started the thing in January 2010, wrote four chapters, then forgot about it completely until mid April, when I started writing it again. I couldn’t remember what I’d intended to write before, and without an outline I couldn’t recall that, so I turned it into something that is probably completely different from how the original would have turned out (especially since the old title no longer fitted at all and I had to change it). The others were the same. Returning in particular was interesting, because I wrote most of it on a boat in Norfolk / staying with a French family in France, and so it was all fragmented and in a notebook and I had no reference notes or anything and had a lot of [XX LOOK THIS UP] notes in the margins :)

Note, I’m talking about first drafts. Edits are a completely different matter.

You may know that I’ve rewritten Watching about six times now, and when I was starting the sixth draft just before Christmas, I knew it was going to be a major edit. I wrote an outline for that. I got about half way through, as until the end of Part 1 the only major change was the character of Mel, who now existed in the first half and hadn’t previously, and then sat down and basically, talked to myself on paper.

No, seriously. If you open my writing folder and go to the section labelled ‘notes for ‘Watching’ and ‘Destroying’ rewrites 2011/2012′, the first line on the piece of paper (save for the title), is this:

And the first thing I am going to do is outline what plot I have to go.

There are some points when I do appear to be talking to myself:

Oh, good, he can heal Leah’s arm. Yeah, cool. He does so.
Well, this is cosy. What next? Oh, fight off the midnight invasion by Courtiers ….

…. and so on – don’t want any spoilers here, ha ha!

This outline (which is actually from Chapter 10 of Part 2 onwards) is about a page and a half long, and I generally just followed a train of thought on the paper. Some things made it into the draft, some things I left out or modified. However, it did help me a lot. I was writing very quickly, while ill, to meet a deadline, and it was useful whenever I got stuck to be able to pull out the piece of paper and see that if I just got past this bit, I’d get to write whatever came next, and to KNOW what came next.

With Returning, while I was writing it I kind of had an idea how it was going to end, and what that would do to the characters, but it was just a question of whether or not that would fit. I’ve had things in the past that I’ve thought would be a great ending but in the end weren’t right considering what happened next. Returning needs a lot of tightening up and editing, but I’m keeping that ending. It was so painful and devastating and I wrote it in a notebook sitting on a bed in France and halfway through the most emotional bit my French penfriend came in to tell me it was dinner time and I had just completely forgotten how to speak French because that was my world right then and I have never felt that way about writing ever since but I hope I will some day. Yes, that sentence was four lines long. Bite me.

The novel I’m working on at the moment doesn’t have a title, so it’s harder for me to reference here. However, the first page in that section of my folder is titled Outline and has a three-line summary of every chapter from the Prologue to Chapter 8. yes, I know, you shouldn’t have prologues because readers skip them, whatever. Point is, I wrote the prologue before anything else and it was perfect but too short to be a chapter, and I wanted the actual book to start a couple of weeks later, so that became a prologue. Don’t shoot me. I ignore your literary rules!

Mwah ha ha ha.

Generally these chapter summaries sound very dry and uninteresting, although I like the sound of Chapter 5, since it starts with “Lunch with the contract killer!”. For those wondering, I’m currently halfway through chapter four, and have been for a couple of weeks.

I hope this answered the question. I don’t outline overall, but I look ahead as I go along so I always know what’s going to happen in the immediate future, even if I don’t know who the murderer is :)

19 thoughts on “Outlining My Outlines

  1. I’m no good at outlines. I just can’t seem to get myself to do them. I should adapt some method because inevitably I get stuck in the last 1/3 or the very end of my story. This is worth trying if for no other reason than I’ll have a better idea of my ending.

  2. I have two distinctly different ways of writing, one for short stories, and one for novels. The series of novels I’m working on now has a very rigorous outline already prepared, and I’m just editing Book One. I can’t write pieces longer than a few thousand words without getting hopelessly lost unless I have a very good idea of what’s going to happen in each and every chapter. Short stories, on the other hand, are nearly always written outline-free. I just get a premise, or an interesting character or two, floating around in my head, and I sit down and start writing. Usually the story turns into an incoherent fiction-ramble that needs to be heavily edited and cut down. I’m not really sure yet if I prefer writing novels or short stories, so it’s hard for me to say whether I truly am an outline or no-outline person.

    1. Interesting – I would have thought novels would have had more potential to be organic and outline-free. Then again, I’ve only really written two or three short stories before, so I can’t give an opinion on that.

      You do sound like much more of a plotter than me. A rigorous outline for a whole series? Ugh! Ha ha :)

  3. The one time I wrote an outline was a miserable fail. I find it better to just have the story outlined in my head and write from that. If it’s down on paper it feels too stiff and I can’t write it. So I’m a pantser-planner hybrid.
    And actually, that sentence was *five* lines long. And I’ll pass on the biting.

    1. It was four in the editing window. Probably varies according to what size screen you’ve got – I’m on a laptop which is wide but short :)

      The idea of outlining in your head is basically what I do. I know what’s going to happen – it’s like a whole load of threads that I’m holding on to, and sometimes they get rather jumbled up, so I tend not to leave them for too long. That’s why I write quickly. If I try and write them down, I can never get them in the right order and I’ll probably drop one while looking for a pen.

  4. Okay Leah I’ll bite! *giggles*

    I’ve been a pantser in the past, though when writing Phoenix Triumphant I knew what the climax would be and the ending. Getting the story there was fun at times. For The Nueri I knew whwere I wanted things to head but I did something along the lines of what you did only I’d outline just the next scene when I had to stop writing for a day. I think this helped tremendously for NaNo (plus it adds word count when you do it the story *grin*).

    But now that I have my edited drafts of The Phoenixes of Vervell, I’m going to outline. The first book is going to go through so much revision it may not even be recognizable (which technically it isn’t very recognizable from the first draft either, which I found the other day). I’m bound and determined to do it beause I want to make sure I’ve got the plot and sub plots I want because I’m publishing Sarah’s Phoenix by 2018! *grins*

    :} Cathryn
    P.S. I love you’re thread analogy in the comments. Thankfully I knit and crochett so I’ve got some skil in keeping my plot threads where they need to be… some skill… I’ve dropped a stich or two before *giggles*

    1. I once dropped an entire row. It’s in Returning, actually. There’s this really dramatic bit with a guy called Oliver – bam bam bam, he’s gonna kidnap them! Blah! (It’s the scene I put in DEloSpook earlier for other reasons.)

      And then Oliver is NEVER mentioned again in the entire book. Never. The guys that kidnap them aren’t called Oliver. It’s just like, what? Who is he? What happened there?

      I didn’t even realise ’til recently. Most bizarre :)

      First drafts being unrecognisable is something I’ve found too. Look at the first draft of Watching! (Okay, you didn’t read that. For those that did!) And then look at the sixth draft, which you have read. Different characters at times, completely different plot, two people live that didn’t originally, blah blah blah. I kept some of the same lines in but all in a different order – baffling to read them one after the other…

  5. Very good post, albeit rather long ;) (Especially since I was reading it on my mobile)
    Myself, I am rather bad at writing detailed outlines. True, my stories, especially the serious ones, have some sort of an outline, but I could never do a chapter-by-chapter, blow-by-blow outline. I would just get impatient to start writing ;)
    As for the chapters themselves, well, I’m probably a bit of a ‘pantser’, as you would say. I know the overall gist of things, the chapters are just the ‘let’s get to the overall gist’. Though…that rather makes it sound as if I don’t care about my chapters :o

    As for prologues- we can high-five there, since I, too, point and laugh at the literary rules. I don’t know why, but there’s some part of me that innately says that I should have a prologue. Even before the minute ‘intro-chapters’ of Protagonize, I was all for writing a prologue to my stories (though that first ‘prologue’ was two pieces of mail, one from a police file, the other that led to the epilogue letter, between the protagonist and the secondary female character).
    I wrote the prologue before anything else and it was perfect but too short to be a chapter” That’s pretty much how I always feel, you know.

    The outline for story I’m writing at the moment is:
    Order of Play
    >Prologue- bye Petre
    >Agnetha gets letter- arrives in M-
    >1st Day- Museums, intros
    >2nd Day- interviews
    >Out to scene of crime- passageways to Nicky’s
    >Accusations, summaries, no alibis- mulling things over- late? Mother angry
    >3rd Day- around the city, sight-seeing, call from C, wants to talk about E, quiet, worried- afternoon to dinner and poisoning- Vlad talks about despising art, but liking change; his plans for ‘a better city’
    >4th Day- more sight-seeing, into crypt, D ‘s body- inspector arrives incidentally- Agnetha ‘whisked’ away? Talks to Ks about love-nest/relationship
    >5th Day- more questioning, Nicky upset?- politician is sporty, had connections- Mother looking around KH- A nearly caught.
    >Piecing things together a bit. Marina’s first alibi appears- B is the witness?, she in the clear- anger at C- E tells about stranger in the dark. (Day six?)
    >6th Day- things reveal, Nicky disappears- later, R and Agnetha go to find D; final showdown (and revelation of murder weapon) into:
    >7th Day- in hospital and going home.
    >Epilogue

    It is actually going pretty well, I must say ;)

  6. Hey, I was halfway through City of a Thousand Dolls before I figured out which of my suspects was actually the murder. :)

    I love that you have a system that works for you. Mine is to make lists of scenes that I know are going to be in the book before I start writing it so that if I get lost in the middle of drafting, I can look at my list and see where I need to go.

    1. From what I’ve heard, the whole not knowing who the murderer is is actually reasonably common, though you would think mysteries were the sort of to be planned in advance. I hope I’ll work it out, but I’m working on something else at the moment – and I’ve no idea where it’s going! It’s going to be entertaining… for me, at least. I think my FMC, Georgia, would feel differently.

  7. Tres interessant et tres formidable!

    I’ve been transitioning from “pantser” to what I like to call a garden approach. Flourishing within boundaries. I go to same place wet, usually around water, and then ponder (PUN) through various images and ideas. I then construct a bit of a plot then write a brief synopsis in a visual diary or something. From there I let the creative juices flow!

    Also “Lunch with the contract killer!” is an excellent way to start a chapter, or any other Saturday morning really…

  8. Very nice post. I just stumbled upon your blog and wished to say that I’ve truly enjoyed browsing your blog posts. In any case I will be subscribing to your feed and I hope you write again very soon!

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