Friday, August 8, 2014

The Brave New World of Outlining

Image by Karen Woodward, via Flickr
Okay, I have a confession to make. I’m in the process of going against everything I believed about my writing style. As long as I can remember, I’ve started the writing process with nothing but my characters and a situation in mind. It’s the way things have always been. I, Merry Farmer, was a pantser.

As comfortable as pantsing has been, though, I’ve had this sense that there might be a more efficient way to do this novel-writing thing. Over the years my pure pantsing style has evolved to having a clear idea of the end of the book and a few major plot points along the way, then writing notes about what I’m writing as I write it to make sure I’m still on track. It’s served me well…and caused a lot of editing and revision.

This summer, a light bulb of sorts went off for me. I started talking to several authors who write super fast. The common thread between them is that they outline their stories extensively before they start writing.

So I thought, I have a huge “To Be Written” list and more ideas than I know what to do with. Maybe if I could outline those books and write with a pre-scouted path to guide me, I could get some of those books written sooner.

And so the journey has begun. Now, I don’t know what kind of outlining methods other people use, but the trick or tool that I found most helpful in exploring this process is my old standby of writing notes. When I say “notes”, I mean that I whip out my handy legal pad and an old fashioned pen, find a quiet space, and write freehand anything and everything I know about the story. I naturally incline to writing about the characters’ back story, their current motivations, what just happened to them, what’s happening to them now, and where I see their story going. I write continuously with no concern over continuity…or spelling or even legibility. I just write. I come back and write more notes any time I get stuck. The surprise to me is that outlining is not a matter of evolving your plot in bullet point form like a math problem. My brain doesn’t work that way, and I suspect a lot of writers’ brains don’t. The change that I’ve made to my story construction method is that I took a lot more time at the beginning of the process to write notes that covered the entire arc of the story plot. I basically told myself the story in short by writing it in scatterbrained note form on a legal pad. The revolution for me has come in then taking those notes, scanning back over them, and distilling each action, twist, and reaction into short, descriptive sentences. From there, I lined them all up in order. Voila! Outline!

Okay, that sounded much easier than it’s actually been. And to tell you the truth, I’m also in the middle of taking a course on outlining offered by Patti Larsen. I hope to impose a little more method to my madness. The result I’ve had so far, though, is that I’ve gone from my standard 2k words a day in first draft mode to an average of 4k per day. Not only that, because I already know what’s going to happen, I feel like I’ve been able to concentrate more on the craft of the prose than on discovering the plot as I write.

Yes, outlining has improved the quality of my writing, not just the speed. I still don’t know if outlining is for everybody. I do think it’s about to revolutionize my own writing style. Who would have thought? I would have sworn that I would live and die a pantser, but results are results. I urge all the pantsers out there to give outlining a try. If it doesn’t work for you, if pantsing really is your modus operandi, then hey, awesome. But unless you try something new, you’ll never know.

Merry Farmer is a history nerd, a hopeless romantic, and an award-winning author of thirteen novels. She is passionate about blogging and knitting, and lives in suburban Philadelphia with her two cats, Butterfly and Torpedo. Connect with Merry at her Facebook Author Page and Twitter.

13 comments :

  1. I outline extensively. I average around 5000 words, with my longest outline being 7000 words. And I'm a slow writer - I write every day, but my minimum goal is only 100 words. And that's doable, but also takes some doing in between "Mummy, I'm hungry." "Mummy, can you open this?" "Mummy, can you take a sticker off here?" (That was my past five minutes trying to write this comment!) Me: "Hey! Stop killing your sister!"

    Where was I? Oh, yes. 100 words. I usually end up with beautiful, pristine first drafts. Which I then rewrite :-/ following critique feedback. I probably need to relook at my approach too.

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    1. *LOL* That's the advantage of being a single writer. I only have the cats to interrupt.

      Do your outlines end up looking like bullet points or are they more prose?

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    2. Headings and bullet points with lots and lots of text under each, especially when it comes to the synopsis.

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  3. As a pantser, I can highly recommend A Path To Publishing with Martha Alderson(The Plot Whisperer) and Jill Corcoran (Literary Agent). A dynamic and organized method that does not replace or hinder creativity, but guides it emphatically to the very best story you can tell.

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  4. Helpful post, Merry, and I think a real key in it is a willingness to try something new. If we get stuck in just one process, the end result can suffer. I have always been a panster, but as I am working on a new book in a different genre, I am feeling the urge to do some outlining. Then I started thinking about all the non-fiction books I did. Those started with research then... yes... an OUTLINE. Duh, Maryann. LOL

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    1. Thanks, Maryann. I'm convinced that the more we are willing to try new things as writers, the richer our efforts will end up being. Best of luck with the new book!

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    2. Thanks, Merry. The new book really is a departure for me, and so far it is coming along at a rapid pace. Well, rapid for me considering all the other things that I do, especially at the art center with theatre. I am seeing where an outline will be good for this project.

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  5. I have always outlined - it ends up as bullet points. I consider it my map through the wilderness and it's essential when I want to find my way after wandering off the path! Remember though, that I write mysteries. A mystery without structure is a puzzle missing pieces.

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  6. My outlines are limited at this point to my detailed character sketches. Like Polly, I work chapter by chapter, and the direction of the story often takes an unexpected turn I didn't see coming.

    For me, limiting my outlines to those character sketches--which describe personality, likes, dislikes, strengths, weaknesses, physical attributes, education, family background (including parents and grandparents, even though these may not appear in the story), etc. Now that I have more time for writing, we'll see if I need to extend that kind of detailing to the story itself. Good, thought-provoking post, Merry.

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  7. I'm a mindmapper. I've probably blogged about that here. :)

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  8. I did write a comment, but it was too long and my laptop refused to upload it. So I turned it into a random post on my blog. I tried posting on a different post, but the internet refused to allow. This is just an comment test.

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The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.

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