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Friday, September 12, 2008

Not an Outliner, but Must Succcumb...

So, (I start a lot of sentences this way... must break the habit) I have mentioned many times before that I am not an outliner. I blame it on Mrs. Oken - my 9th grade English teacher...

I had a habit (yes, I have many) of letting my English teachers read my poetry and short stories as a way of getting on their good sides. Hey, I struggled for my grades. I needed to use anything I could to get an advantage. Anyway, Mrs Oken, after reading a compilation of poems and stories, asked me to stay after class one day. She wanted to know what my outlining process was and I said... "Oh, I don't outline." And she said, "What? You must! Real writers outline and if you want to be a real writer, you must outline too." Well, I grabbed my papers and puffed out my chest and said, "I just write," and left.

Obviously, this had some affect on me, if here I am still writing about it some er... harrumph... well, a few short years later... And so, I have carried on in my stubborn (but adorable) way of 'just writing.' I hang my head low and must admit defeat... Yes, Mrs. Oken, real writers outline... *sniff, wiping tears*

Truthfully, real writers do a myriad of things. And every writer's process is completely and utterly unique. I have written many times, about owning your process and being proud of it. And I still hold that I am. However, I must admit, the "just writing" process can only take you so far when you are writing a novel, especially if you wish your novel to be one of many in a series. You NEED to outline.

And not that you need to adhere to this outline like the gospel, or that your characters don't have the right to change your outline... but you need a plan, a road map, if you will, something to drive you forward, something so that when you are in the dark, murky depths of novel writing, you can say, AHA! Wait a moment, don't I have that nightlight somewhere! Ah, yes! Here it is, my outline! (I picture saying that in the superhero stance and for some reason I am wearing a cape - I don't know why...)

So, I have begun a pre-outlining process. I actually began it over the summer. Here's what I did...
  1. I read from the beginning to my current latest page (pg 85 - which is as far as I got w/o an outline, trying to remember everything in my brain, instead of in an outline...). I took copious notes. I included every time a new character was introduced and on what page. I wrote down sentences that sounded like foreshadowing, or that I definitely wrote as foreshadowing on purpose. I wrote down any objects used by my MC that could have significance and be used later. I wrote down holes in my plot, questions that seemed unanswered, and things that led to questions in general. Finally, I wrote down things I must add/delete/change for subsequent drafts and things I must research.

  2. Then I pretended I was each major character and jotted down all the questions I could think of off the top of my head for that character to answer.

  3. This week I have been answering all these unanswered questions. Anytime I came to a plot hole, I began by asking more questions... what could T do to stop LB from succeeding? What would happen if T did this... what would happen if T did that... And I wrote it out until I felt it was a satisfying answer to this plot hole or question.

I am just about finished with this ever-growing brainstorming session. Next, I will begin to outline. I will be outlining chapter by chapter, summarizing the ones I've written already and truly outlining the ones I've yet to write. I will want to capture certain aspects, such as... what characters are in the scene, does the scene move the story forward, is there an emotion rise and fall to the scene, does it raise the stakes, does it present more obstacles for my MC or solutions to previous obstacles, has anything been foreshadowed, any objects used or hinted on, etc.

I have read about some choices for outlining on many of your blogs . Now I want to know, what forms work particularly well for you? I've heard of a friend who buys those large desk calendars, you know - the ones teachers use... and he uses each month as a sequence of scenes (this is based on screenplay writing though) There are 12 sequences of scenes in a movie. Each sequence is made up of a number of scenes. I think this could relate though, somewhat to novel writing too. I am a visual learner, so I like the idea of having the whole story laid out before me visually like this... So, let's share... what outlining techniques have worked for you time and time again. Or... what outlining techniques have not worked for you...

20 comments:

Barrie said...

I am a huge outliner. don't always love doing it. BUT I do love writing from one! I start off with the major plot points, darkest moment, etc. Then I start weaving in The Writer's Journey stuff. Then, it's an outline of chapter by chapter. That's just me though. I'm a bit of a control freak. Ask my kids. ;)

The Anti-Wife said...

My outlines are very basic, but I love the idea of going back to what's already written and doing a detailed outline. That seems like a good way to get more focused on the story.

beth said...

Hate outlining! But this new book I'm working on is pretty complex, so I am actually doing much more than before.

Basically, when I'm at my computer, I type the story. Sometimes, I'll be too tired to keep writing, so I jot down on screen my ideas for the end of the scene/chapter, whatever, in italics just at the bottom of the page.

Whenever I want to work on the book, but not actually type story, I use a legal pad to write down everything I can think of. I've got ideas on the world, the motivations of some main character, a rough sketh (like a sentence or so) of each chapter, and notes on what I know will be a very generalized version of the end. I've even got some rough drawings (I am not an artist) of things in the book.

For me, just handwriting the notes down is enough to keep me on track. I remember the notes when writing, so I don't go too off course. And if I do get stuck, I usually just refer to the notes and find an idea.

Sheri said...

Barrie, I think the tides are turning and I am finally seeing the benefits to outlining. They are HUGE, actually. Thanks for the tips, I will be sure to highlight the hero's journey as I am outlining so I will be sure I have all story aspects. Thanks for the reminder! Duh!!

Anti-wife - I think probably people do that kind of outlining for subsequent drafts... but it's all good as long as I have crossed every t and dotted every i, no matter how I get there, right?

Beth, this is similar to what I used to do. But now I find, there is so much to remember and be sure I have resolved, that the remembering of it all kept me from writing forward. So now I am switching mid-way to outlining it and getting it all out of my head and scratchy notes and into an actual outline. From one non-outliner to another, though, I'll let you know how it goes.

keri mikulski :) said...

I never outline.. But, I should. Because the problems I have to fix when I revise could have be averted if I outlined. Grrr..

Thanks for asking.. Because I'm learning a bunch about outlining from the comments. :)

K. M. Walton said...

Hi Sheri,
First, thanks for your insightful comment on my blog. Weird you suggested I get those mansucript copies back because my sister called me last night to say she had done just that. And, I wish I had an agent. Still working on that one...

As far as outlines go, nope, don't use 'em. However, I do see value in them if they help the story get out of one's head and onto paper.

I know that is all of our ultimate goals!!

Sheri said...

Keri - But you have a book coming out! How did you write it without outlining???

KM - right there with ya sista! I wish I had an agent too. But I know I'm not ready. Well, my story's not ready. But as soon as it is... I will be querying agents, not publishers.

Chad Aaron Sayban said...

I've been enjoying your blog and I figured I should say 'hi'.

I didn't outline at all, including during my first novel. That is probably why it is 265 pages of ick, waiting for some future time when I can go back and rework it from scratch. For my current novel, I have a scene-by-scene outline and it has made a huge difference. It lets me skip around between different scenes without losing track of the story and forced me to develop the plot before I wrote myself into a corner. For someone who used to believe that outlines were a waste of time, I have become the converted. Good luck with yours!

Sheri said...

Welcome Chad! And I'm glad you finally decided to say hello and that you've found my blog - enjoyable! 8) I've heard the first novel is the learning experience. Sounds like you definitely learned from your first experience too! My first screenplay sits in the bottom draw of my file cabinet - probably never to see the light of day! (or the dark of a theater either!!!)

PJ Hoover said...

i experiment every time, I spend months outlining and character developing on one project, but on the next I spend day and can't stand it and start writing.
So maybe each book is different?
Oh, wait - I see Beth has said that below!

Have a great weekend, Sheri!
Real writers do not have to outline.

Sheri said...

Thanks PJ! And I agree with you. I think I will find that each book has a life of its own and demands certain preparation.

Oh and thanks, you enjoy your soggy weekend too!

Jeanie W said...

When I approach a new project, I start with an overall outline: what major things should happen in each chapter. Then as I'm preparing to write each individual chapter, I create a more detailed outline of the scenes and events that will happen within the chapter.

I often find as I'm outlining a chapter a scene will begin to play out in my head. I don't fight it in favor of continuing the outline work, but go with the flow and write the scene down right then. I don't want to waste the moment. Losing myself in an emerging story is what makes me love writing.

I was working on a new novel last spring and had to stop about two months ago. I am really glad I have a detailed outline waiting for me when I get the chance to return to it. Otherwise I'm sure by now most of my original ideas for it would be lost forever.

Thanks for the great topic, Sheri.

Sheri said...

Jeanie, that sounds like great advice and something I am more likely to do - write the outline until I can't - write the pages until I need to outline again, and keep going around that way until it is completed.

I guess the lesson learned here, is there is no one way to write a novel - not even for novelists. As PJ said, each novel seems to need different things from her as the writer. Let the novel tell you what is needed, don't fight the process, and go with the flow.

Thanks everyone! This has been very helpful for me.

ChrisEldin said...

This is interesting because I've been basically resisting this.
I like to outline in my head. I'll write a chapter, then go back and edit previous chapters.
I have an idea of what to include, but I find outlining frustrating.
Just me....

Angela said...

I'm not much of an outliner -usually need a first draft before an outline. I'm looking forward to reading everyone's comments.

Sheri said...

Hey Chris! Me too! But now I am finding I actually need an outline. I want to make sure I tie up all loose ends. When I went back and read my first 85 pages, I was amazed with how many loose ends I had actually forgotten. so, alas, I will have to transform into an outliner... The thing about outlining is I used to think it was dull and boring. I loved the thrill of writing the story for story's sake. But I actually have been finding these brainstorming sessions really fun and motivating.

Beth - I hear you about writing the first draft and then outlining. The first draft is when we actually discover our story. I have been writing, and editing, and rewriting, and revising as I go. So my first draft is really like a 1.6 draft. I guess that's why I need an outline at this point...

Funny Poetry Girl said...

I used to not outline. Then I started outlining and it got out of control. I was focusing so much on the outlining that I wasn't writing or moving forward with my stories. Now, I lightly outline. I like that better.

Sheri said...

Good point PoetryGirl. Anything that keeps you away from the goal - which is writing - even if it's an outline - is not a good thing!

Devon Ellington said...

That's interesting, Sheri.

I think every project has its own process, and you kind of have to reinvent the wheel a bit.

I also find that the more I publish, the more deadlines I'm under, the more projects I juggle, the more I need to outline to stay on top of everything. I have to be able to sit down and the computer and dive down the well of whatever project's on the top of the heap that day.

However, I CANNOT write ABOUT my characters in notes. I can write plot, setting, even snippets of dialogue -- but if I try to dossier a character, I lose the character. I need the discovery process of the character in the first draft.

Yeah, I'm a freak, I know.

Sheri said...

Devon, that is really interesting about your characters not wanting to be simplifies in an outline. I can really see that. It feel un-organic when you do that with characters. I mean, even think about us... if we try to describe ourselves in an outline, we wouldn't really capture our essence. I can see how that is true for characters as well.

“Personal limitation exists only in our ideas of who we are. Give up all notions of who you are and your limitations will vanish.”

- Anonymous