This post is for Lisa, who said: While I often come across people saying that they outline, and there's definitely much discussion of the plotter/pantser dichotomy, I feel like I haven't encountered a lot about what's actually involved in outlining
I wrote a post
a few years ago about the details of my writing process. My process has changed a lot since then, for two main reasons: I've written three hundred thousand words of fanfic in the interim, and learned a ton from that; and I've read a dozen or so books about writing. Those books are often frustrating to me because they overwhelmingly consist of shit I already know and shit I disagree with, and most of them are irritatingly self-satisfied about the timeless wisdom they believe themselves to be imparting... but then here and there, usually somewhere between two and ten times in one book, I'll come across something useful. It's not an efficient use of time, but oh-so-gradually it's helped a lot. (Story
by Robert McKee is my favorite so far. It's about screenwriting, but most of it applies to novels too. He's kind of a dick--especially the part where he's all "race and gender have nothing to do with success! if your script is good it'll get attention!"--but there's a lot of good advice in there.)
I don't need to do much outlining for short, simple stories, which is a lot of the fic I've written. With that kind of thing, the process I previously described works fine--jot down some notes in a separate file and periodically refer back to it. But when I get into anything plotty without serious outlining, I find myself losing track of threads and messing up the pacing of my subplots just because there's so much to keep in mind.
So here's my current process:
1. Generate premise. Spend a few days rolling around in how awesome it is. Manically begin writing the first scene from the vague shape of a story in my head. Immediately stumble across a major plot hole and realize that this is going to be way harder to execute than I thought.
2. Braindump ideas--plot twists, characters, backstory, worldbuilding. Get distracted by a minor character detail that will never get more than a passing mention in the final product. Write fanfic of my own canon before there's any actual canon. Laugh at myself for being ridiculous, but nonetheless gain a better grip of the characters through the exercise.
3. Organize all the scattered notes into the chronology of the story, with chapter breaks. Freak out that the story will be too short and rushed. Add in unnecessary subplots to make it longer. Sleep on it, come back to it, shake head at myself, and remove said unnecessary subplots. Add actual plot-relevant information to chapters that seem too sparse, instead. (This step probably isn't necessary for most people; I gather excessive longwindedness is a much more common problem among writers than excessive concision.)
4. Try to articulate the theme. Undergo a crisis about whether the story even has a theme. Go for a walk. Come up with four themes. Undergo a crisis about whether they can all be incorporated at once. Undergo a crisis about whether I can even call myself a writer. Go the fuck to sleep. Come back to the outline with a fresh head and realize that the theme is obvious. Undergo a crisis about whether it is in fact too
5. Break out the corkboard.
Everything here is incredibly subjective and will not apply to every other writer, but I suspect the corkboard is a particularly individual thing. I doubt any two writers organize their index cards in quite the same way. Here's how I do it.
First I tack on an index card for the opening scene at the top left, and four cards along the right side: the final scene of Act I, the midpoint scene of Act II (commitment to the goal), the final scene of Act II (the low point), and the last scene. The top and bottom rows get filled in first; Act II is a pain in the ass but eventually, reluctantly, plods into place. The smaller cards on the far right of each row are wordcount targets; I'm not super worried about those yet.
I write the general gist of each scene directly onto the index card, and use those little colored Post-It page markers to track particular threads: one color for the main plot, one for character development, one for the progression of an important relationship, etc. TMM is action-focused, so on this board I have a color for action scenes. This is to give me a visual idea of pacing, so I can be sure I'm not abandoning any particular aspect of the story for too long. I don't really refer back to these a whole lot--I keep the detailed notes in a document. But if I do any major restructuring, I check back on the pacing.
Then I go over it all with little colored dots that represent characters. Again, I don't refer back to this much; it's just to make sure all the major characters show up in the right number of scenes. This helps me figure out which characters need more presence and which need to be cut. The card at the top right is a key to the character dots.
And then I reorganize it. Stare at it. Reorganize it again. Go back to my outline document, bring it up to date with the corkboard, and in the process reorganize it again. Add scenes. Remove scenes. Lie on the floor, arguing with myself about that one scene I can't remove, it won't work
without it, but it's not working with
, uuuuuugh, and eventually sit up and remove the damn scene. Merge scenes. Write new index cards to replace the ones that are all scribbled on. Eventually decide it's good enough to move on.
6. Think about the characters. Put them in random hypothetical situations and decide how they would react. Figure out which qualities of my main character each one brings out. Make sure each character challenges readers' expectations in some way. This overlaps with a lot of other steps of the process--it's a good way to keep connected to the story when I need to take a break from outlining. I once spent half an hour straight thinking about what my characters would each bring to a potluck while I was driving on the highway, and jumped out of my skin when the "get gas now, moron" alarm dinged.
7. Not!fic the thing. This is a very important step in my writing process that I never see non-fannish writers talking about, and even in fandom it seems to be going out of style. "Not!ficcing" means writing a sort of treatment of a story in a very informal conversational style, e.g. "and then she's like"... "so obvs he can't let THAT shit stand"... "they have a awk conversation about feelings and everyone is v I-love-you-bro-cough-cough about the whole business"... etc. This lets me sort through the details of scene progressions and such without focusing on getting the wording right, and it puts all my outlining in the right order within scenes.
8. Articulate goals, conflict, and emotions for each scene. (Most people probably don't need to specify emotions, but feelings aren't my strong point, so I prefer planning them out.) Check that there is either a "therefore" or a "but" relationship between each scene and the next. Plan the theme statement in Act I, and make sure it resonates throughout. Make sure the first act sets up all the characters to be the sorts of people who would react the ways they do in the next two acts. Make sure the first half of Act II is about stakes of obstacle (external conflict with the goal) and the second half is about stakes of issue (internal conflict: do I really want the thing? am I willing to give up another thing to have the thing? is the thing actually worth it? is this thing the thing I thought it was?). Make sure there are no coincidences past the midpoint of Act II, and after that point the narrative is driven primarily by the main character's actions. Make sure information is not introduced, only combined, in Act III. Make sure aspects of the main character's character development in Act II are applied during the climax. These are all guidelines, not rules, but they're the ones that usually make sense to me.
9. Get feedback on the not!fic. I'm almost at this point with TMM, and it's a little terrifying. But I want to hear opinions I trust about overarching structure and development before I waste time writing it out for real. If I'm going to do any more reorganizing, I want it to happen now.
10. Write the thing. Refer back to the not!fic constantly. Take occasional breaks to daydream character development and write scenes that won't be in the final product. Solicit cheerleading from friends. Start worrying about those wordcount targets.
11. Do a few more passes: a tension/conflict pass (at every point, either shit is going down or the reader is assured that shit is going to go down), a description/feelings pass (I tend to skimp on emotion and setting, so I need to double-check those and fill in what's missing), and a voice pass (make sure every single observation in the narrative is filtered through my main character's perspective).
12. Another round of feedback.
I'd love to see similar breakdowns of other people's processes, maybe yoink ideas, if anyone wants to link me!