The Incredible Shrinking Outline

Asking an author about their pre-writing process, in some ways, is like asking them what color their underwear is. While it’s an interesting conversation starter, the answer is really personal. I know authors who do a full bio sheet for each character, and others who just keep it all in their head. Me, I write massive and slightly strange outlines.

The way I learned to write outlines back in grade school was the typical bulletpointed lists with headings and subheadings. That’s great for some people but it’s too vague for my needs. You see, because of a childhood illness I have a chemically rewired brain. All that rewiring made my memory a little wonky. I can remember the most trivial details of a conversation I had three years ago, or the exact placement of a particular book on my shelves. But remembering what I meant by “Morpheus starts a fight” isn’t quite enough to tell me what kind of fight I’d intended for that scene or even who he’s supposed to fight. If it’s an early chapter, yeah the chances are good that I’ll remember. However, when I’ve put 10,000 or more words down, too much time has passed for me to recall every little detail. Plus I found that putting all of those little details in subheadings is visually annoying to me. In addition to that, my theater experience taught me how powerful a few key words can be when I’ve forgotten what my next line is. With all of that in mind, what I do instead is this:

(If you haven’t read The Moonflower, there’s spoilers ahead)

Chapter 13

Ariana’s class goes on an outing to the Louvre. Mr. Talbott takes them through an unmarked side door and takes them down to the basement. One of the students asks how he got permission to come down here. While down there, Ariana finds an old carved stone frieze from ancient Greece laid out on a work table. It’s one of Sair’s. She recognizes it from his workroom. She decides that she needs to know more. She runs home and re-enters the Demos Oneiroi in order to find him and learn more.

 Chapter 14

Ariana enters the dream. She searches for him in the field first, then checks all of the landscapes that they’ve visited before, but doesn’t find him. She is frustrated and scared for him. She tries to think of how he would search for her and remembers that he pops in and out of places at will. She concentrates hard on Sair and tries to will herself to his location. When she opens her eyes she is in a white marble Greek temple. A blindfolded woman dressed in white walks up and asks if she can be of any assistance. Woman is Dikaiosyne, the spirit of justice. Ariana meets Phobetor and Phantasos. Zosime is thrilled to see Ariana again and brings her in to see Sair. She says that she’s looking for Sair and the attendant escorts her without any difficulty.

I’ve found that a paragraph style outline is a lot more helpful to me. I can fill it with as many details as I like and since I’m the only person who sees it I can use run on sentences, poor grammar, wrong punctuation, leave out punctuation, use colloquialisms and slang…pretty much whatever I feel will give me the right cues. Sometimes the outline paragraph is only three or four sentences, and sometimes it’s half a page. I just keep writing until I get the full scene mapped out. I’ve even been known to put things in my outline that usually have no business being in an outline. Things like character descriptions or a song with the right tempo and mood for the scene that I need to play in the background. That doesn’t stop me from adding them because it’s a cue that I’ll need later.

I also don’t outline the entire book. I outline all of the major/really important chapters, whatever minor chapters I can think of, and then put all of those events in linear order. If I know what chapter 9 and 11 need to be but not exactly what comes between I’ll leave empty chapter headings and fill it in later. All of this though usually only covers about 2/3 of the book. It never fails that once I get about a third of the way into a manuscript I think of another cool twist or two that adds more depth and/or character development or I finally figure out what is supposed to be in a hole I left so I purposely leave room for those additional chapters.

Yes, there’s nothing unusual about that. I realize that many writers outline this way or in a way that’s very similar to this. But this is only half of my outlining process. What I do with that outline is where it gets unusual.

I’m a disciple of Alton Brown in that I like tools that can multitask and that’s exactly what my outline does. You see, there’s a reason that my outline is in bold. When I’ve finished typing out my outline, the very last thing I do before I start writing the book is make a second copy. The first copy of the outline stays in a file, pristine and untouched so I can refer to it when I’m working on subsequent books. The second copy is what becomes my manuscript. You read that right. I write the book in the second copy of my outline, right under the outline paragraph. When I’ve completed one of the items in the outline I delete it. That way I don’t have to re-read what I wrote the previous day in order to figure out where I’m at. I can look at what’s left of the outline for that chapter and immediately know where I left off. Life is crazy and NaNoWriMo in particular is crazy. Some days I only have thirty minutes to write and I can’t spend that time re-reading. This makes it so much easier for me to jump right into it so I can make the most of the time that I have. (It’s another reason that having the right cues in my outline is so important to me.)

So many pre-writing tools are single purpose but if you’re an outliner there’s no reason why it can’t serve multiple purposes and be adapted — even Frankensteined — to be tailored to your exact needs. Besides, it’s just a tool. It doesn’t have to be pretty. It just needs to do the job efficiently.

Six Jedi Mind Tricks for Writers

A Guest Post by David Farland

    1. Write in your sleep. The day before you plan to write, stay up a little late and plot out the scene you will write. As you do, consider where it will be set, who will appear in it, when it will occur in relation to other scenes, who will be your viewpoint character, and what actions or changes will occur in that scene. Write a quick sketch of a paragraph or two about the scene, then go to bed. You subconscious mind will worry about the scene while you sleep, piecing it together, and in the morning it will appear vividly in your mind so that you write it with ease.
    2. Create a “Sacred Writing Space.” When you plan to write, some people find it helpful to write down the goal: I will write tomorrow from 6:00 AM to 10:00 AM. Then, when you go to work, do not let anyone violate your time. That means that you don’t check your mail or talk to friends on Facebook. Your writing time must be dedicated to writing only. If you plan to start at 6:00 get your butt in your chair a few minutes early, open your files, think, and begin typing at or before 6:00. In the same way, the space where you sit must also be dedicated to writing. Some people find that over time, they get in a habit of doing some things—like watching videos—in a certain chair. It might be difficult to break that habit consciously, so it may be easier for you to move your chair or move into a new room to create your sacred writing space. I don’t know why, but I tend to write with fantastic ease while sitting in airports.
    3. Shut the freak up. Doctor Jerry Pournelle once pointed out that the desire to write arises out of a profound need to communicate. If you stop communicating with others—by turning off your television and your radio, stop talking to friends, don’t answer emails, and simply let the silence grow around you, you will find that very soon your imaginary characters in your story will start speaking to each other, so that you will find yourself writing dialog. (This may take a couple of hours, but it works!)
    4. Put yourself in the writing mood. Sometimes you sit down at your writing desk and just don’t feel in the mood to write. You may be anxious about other things, or tired, or whatever. Don’t let your mood derail you. Simply close your eyes and take a few deep breaths, then remember as vividly as possible a time when you were writing freely and without effort and enjoying the act. Hold that emotion for thirty seconds. If you don’t feel ready to write, try it again, only time hold in your mind a time when you felt excited to right. Hold it for thirty seconds. If that doesn’t work, try it again, only this time sit and remember times when you receive praise or awards or publishing contracts for writing. Hold the emotion for thirty seconds. You will soon find yourself “in the mood” to write.
    5. Develop the habit of getting into your “Writer’s Trance.” We all have times when we slip into our imaginary worlds fully. Sometimes it happens when you’re driving, or exercising, or washing dishes, or late at night while listening to music. Once you find yourself in that sphere, simply stop whatever you are doing and write! I often keep a notepad in my car, for example, so that if I find myself vividly imagining scenes while driving, I can stop and take notes. In the same way, listening to music late at night often gives me inspiration, as does lying in bed and thinking about my book before I fully wake up. Find out what works best for you, and learn to court your muse.
    6. Learn to think. Many times, a writer will try to sit down to write, only to find that he doesn’t know what to do next. Perhaps a certain character’s voice won’t come, or the writer hasn’t plotted his novel well enough to begin composing. Many writers feel intimidated at this point and feel “stuck.” Instead of giving up, simply imagine that you are getting up from your “stuck place,” and you are moving to a more creative spot. In other words, focus your mental energy on solving you writing problem. Getting stuck is a common part of the writing process, and it’s perfectly natural. A real writer doesn’t give up—instead he begin brainstorming, thinking about how to handle the upcoming scene. Simply put, you have to brainstorm the scene, looking at it from all sides, until you get excited about writing it. As ideas come to you and you look at the scene from different angles, some of those ideas will feel so “right” to you, that you’ll find yourself growing eager. When you’re ready, just write!

David Farland:

David Farland is an award-winning, international bestselling author with over 50 novels in print. He has won the Philip K. Dick Memorial Special Award for “Best Novel in the English Language” for his science fiction novel On My Way to Paradise, the Whitney Award for “Best Novel of the Year” for his historical novel In the Company of Angels, and he has won over seven awards—including the International Book Award and the Hollywood Book Festival, Grand Prize—for his fantasy thriller Nightingale. He is best known, however, for his New York Times bestselling fantasy series The Runelords.

Farland has written for major franchises such as Star Wars and The Mummy. He has worked in Hollywood greenlighting movies and doctoring scripts. He has been a movie producer, and he has even lived in China working as a screenwriter for a major fantasy film franchise.

As a writing instructor, Farland has mentored dozens who have gone on to staggering literary success, including such #1 New York Times Bestsellers as Brandon Mull (Fablehaven), Brandon Sanderson (Wheel of Time), James Dashner (The Maze Runner) and Stephenie Meyer (Twilight).

Farland judges L. Ron Hubbard’s Writers of the Future, the one of the largest worldwide writing competitions for new fantasy and science fiction authors. In the video game industry, he has been both a designer and a scripter and was the co-leader on the design team for StarCraft: Brood War. He set the Guinness World Record for the largest single-author, single-book signing.

David Farland has been hailed as “The wizard of storytelling” and his work has been called “compelling,” “engrossing,” “powerful,” “profound,” and “ultimately life-changing.”

You’ll Never Know Until You Try It

The first time a member of my writing group told me about Nanowrimo, I thought they were joking. Then I thought they were insane. 50,000 words? That alone was daunting, but in a month? 30 days? Just under 1700 words a day? I don’t think I’d ever even used the word count feature in the old Microsoft Word. (This was back before the counter automatically came up in the bottom corner.)

I told my friend she was crazy and that I wasn’t doing it.

 

But it niggled at the back of my mind for a couple of weeks. Surely I could write a novel. I’d read enough epic fantasy stories that I could cobble one together. Right? Just go through the cliché’s like a checklist of groceries. Thief? Check. Rouge? Check. Prince? Check. Wizard? Check. Grouchy old guy? Check. Impossible quest? Check. Witty banter? Check. Riding horses? Check. Er, I mean. No. I’m not doing it!

I resisted. I didn’t plan. I ignored the little voice in my head…until three days before November.

I remember it clearly. I was in the doctor’s office. Waiting. I had a pen and paper and I pulled it out and wrote down a single line. My plot. I already had characters I could steal from a stupid story that a couple of friends and I made up. And they didn’t need backgrounds, because I would give them amnesia at the beginning of the story! But not normal amnesia, this is a curse, and they have to figure out who they are, but if they get to close to the truth, their heads will explode.

 

It was so bad I thought it just might work.

However, on the way home from the doctor’s office, I stopped by Barnes and Nobel and got the book, “No Plot? No Problem.” I read through it in the few days I had before November 1st. I psyched myself up, shoved my inner editor out onto the back porch for the month and started writing.

It was amazing. I found out that I could type 1700 words in forty five minutes. I totally used the mental list of clichés. I woke up on more than one morning more excited about what my characters were going to do that day than I was about anything else.

I hit 50,000 words three days early.

The experience really empowered me. I hadn’t planned. I hadn’t agonized. I didn’t even have a thumb drive to save the file on until after I’d started. And yet, at the end of twenty seven days, I had a novel. Sort of. It wasn’t finished, and it wasn’t good, but it was there.

It took me two more Nanowrimos to finish that first story, and since then I think I’ve done it five more times. None of them will ever see the light of day. Sometimes I do a detailed outline, and other times I have an idea in mind and I start to write.

If outlining works for you, do it. If it doesn’t, Nano is a great time to explore a story you’ve been thinking about. If you don’t think you can do it, think again. Toss that inner editor out for the month and start writing. If the story gets boring, find a cliché and use it. Ninja robot monkeys. Flying carpets. Self-braiding nose hairs. Skip whole sections and go to the part you want to write. Don’t stress about it, just do it.

 

 

 

 

NaNoWriMo: The perfect starting place

Like many of the other Fictorians this month, I’ll be talking about Nanowrimo in my post. There’s much to be said on the general subject of pre-writing, but I cannot pass up an opportunity to speak of that magical time in November when the internal editors go on vacation and writers all over the world just let it fly.

Nano was so critical to me in starting my serious writing career that it’s not hyperbole to say that without Nanowrimo I’d likely not be a writer today. Nano provides what I feel is the perfect safe starting point for that writing hobby or career you may have always thought about but never took a serious run at. It certainly was for me, and I can’t imagine where I’d be without it.

In 2013 I was 44 years old, and I had been carrying one story in my head for more than 25 years, an experience I have found many writers have in common with me. Perhaps you have one too. I had taken a few shots at actually writing it, but when I decided to give Nanowrimo a try that year I hadn’t written a word in a decade. 1,600 words a day? I didn’t know if I could do a hundred.

As it turned out, I could do the Nano pace fairly easily that year, no outline needed. I was, after all, writing a story I had been thinking about since I was a teenager. I just learned to turn off my internal editor, allowed my writing to be as good or bad as it was on that first pass and went to town.

It’s repeated ad nauseam in the writing community, but that lesson of my first Nano was one of the most important tools I have learned in writing and one I still have to pull out often: JUST WRITE IT. You can fix it later, you can make it better later. You can’t fix an empty page. Get it written, get it done. This is why you revise after all (and revise, and revise – but that’s a blog post for another day).

Using Nano of 2013 I got that first novel off the ground and put my first 50,000 words into it. Once I had done that, it was easy to continue when November was over and by next spring I had a completed novel of 130,000 words. It was a feeling of accomplishment that is hard to describe. Lots of people talk about writing a novel, but I had done it. It was ugly, clumsy and tropey as all hell, but it was there. It existed. 

I’d like to come back to this moment as I think there’s a key lesson to share here, but first I’d like to talk about my remaining Nanowrimo experiences. I have participated in Nanowrimo every year since, and I have ‘won’ every year and I think it is on the strength of outlining. I say this despite the fact my first win was completely pantsed.

I usually start preparing for Nano in September as I decide what I want to use November for. I then spend October on prep. I have a complete scene-by-scene outline done. I have all my characters worked out in terms of back stories and motivations. I know where my big act breaks are, and a decent idea of themes I want to explore.

Once November starts, it’s time to write and not worry about the polish. I write everything this way now, November or not. First drafts are allowed to be rough, the important thing is to get from the beginning to end. I can’t stress this enough: Start, follow through, finish. You can fix later.

Despite the heavy outline though, I try to leave room for creativity during the writing process. Even though I document my characters beforehand, I usually find their voices while writing the project. I also pay close attention to that little voice that tells me to make radical changes to big scenes, outlines be damned. Folks, listen to that voice: it’s almost always right.

So like writing itself it’s still just about showing up and doing the work. 1666 words a day is more for some than for others, but I think it’s an achievable pace for most. If you are pantser, more power to you. I find that I’ve heard more people go in with some kind of outline, and for me the more detailed it is the more successful I’ll likely be.

One last thing I’d like to add before I close, with the caveat that it’s not really on point. If you are like me and you use your first Nanowrimo to finish that big novel you’ve been carrying around for years, when its done – congratulate yourself. Pour yourself your favorite beverage, brag on social media, pat yourself on the back. You’ve done an amazing thing.

Now write something else.

Put it in a drawer and write at least one other story before coming back to it. I have met many writers on this journey who are still working on that first novel years later. Still polishing, still revising. *Years later*. That may be the correct road for some but I am glad it is not the one I took. That first baby of yours will always be there to come back to but what will really level up your skills is *repeating the whole process*. Of all of my writing decisions, that was one of the smartest for me.

Good luck and I’ll see you in November!