Friday, February 05, 2010

Do You Outline?

Let's say you have an idea, but can’t figure out how to get started writing. What do you do to jumpstart yourself?

Usually, for me, the first step is researching. If there's any area I'm going to have to know more about, I like to research as much as I can before I get started. I know I'll be doing additional work during the writing of the book, but the more I can get done up front, the less interruption of my flow of thoughts I'll have later.

Don't feel like you're a train stuck on the tracks. While you research, keep a notebook where you can jot down ideas or comments on characters, scenes, plot twists, the book climax, so on. All the time you're working on one aspect of your book, you're thinking about other points. Sometimes I see characters doing things. (Usually this happens just before I fall asleep, which is why I keep a lighted pad and pen by my bed.) Sometimes I hear a particular character's voice. (No, I'm not insane. At least not more than other writers.) Write down the phrases they use or their pattern of speech. If the setting is important to your book, you might begin to see the layout of the town or house or whatever. Go ahead and draw it out or make notes.

By the time you're through with your research and brainstorming, you'll probably have a pretty good idea of where the book is going. At this point, we could probably divide writers into two categories. Those who write extemporaneously and those who do an outline.

If you outline, what kind of outline do you do? An extensive outline, maybe even a formal one with Roman numerals? This happens, this happens, then that occurs, and so on. Or a more casual outliner? No Roman numerals.

For a lot of writers, the more casual approach is the easiest. You start with the 10 to 12 major points of the plot. I'm talking about the big things that turn the story. That's not too hard, right? Just the dozen big scenes essential to the plot.

Then divide those plot points into smaller, necessary scenes. What has to happen before this first big scene? What five or six events occur before this next plot turn? What do I have to set up here in order for there to be a payoff later? By doing this you'll end up with 50 or 80 scenes or events. Your plot will be "fleshed" out. At this point in your preparation, you'll most likely begin to see what the theme of your story is. What the major goal of your protagonist is. You're beginning to really know your story.

Now, set it aside.

Remember, you're not a train. You can leave the tracks. Write your story. Let your characters talk, move, live. Watch your setting expand and flourish. Your outline is a guide. If you feel you've strayed too far from where you thought the story was going, refer back to it. If you realize you haven't a clue what should happen next, dig out the old outline and remind yourself of your original intention.

Or you can keep the outline in clear sight, tacked to the wall beside your computer. Refer to it daily, if you want. Just don't let it stifle your creativity. Sometimes you have to surprise yourself in order to surprise your readers. And sometimes your characters will surprise you.

So ... how do you start a book? Come up with a whiz-bang idea. Do research either on information you don't know, or on your characters or setting or dialect, or whatever you need to know for this book. Do an outline. Write. ‘Course, some writers will tell you they never outline. They write and let the characters take them to the end.

Either way, writing a book is not as easy as non-writers think, is it?

[P.S. This morning I’m at the Story Circle Network Conference doing heart-to-heart coaching. I’ll be back this afternoon to visit blogs and answer comments or questions here.]
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31 comments:

  1. What's the statistic I read recently? Something like 75% of the American public think they have a novel in them? Do they read? Do they write? No! They don't seem to think that matters much. They have a word processor. They have thoughts. They send queries to agents. Yikes.

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  2. Nice; you make writing a novel look easy >:)

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  3. I outline, but like you've wisely said Helen, it is a guide. Without exception I often veer from it as I go along.

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  4. Writing books definitely isn't easy, is it?

    I do very short outlines for just a chapter or a scene or even a page. I don't outline farther ahead than that.

    Elizabeth
    Mystery Writing is Murder

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  5. I wish I was an outliner - it would be so nice to feel like I was in control of the story but alas, it is like my longing as a student to keep my notebooks clean and organized ALL year instead of just the first week. Never happens. The manuscript I've got out trying to find a home was inspired by a conversation I overheard at a gallery - I found out about work I had never heard of - being a rock walker at trecherous Peggy's Cove and I was off. I didn't even know that I was writing a mystery when I started. Usually, after I get well into it - I will make some attempt to map out where I've gone and where I might be headed. Quite often this is a mind map, in my most recent wip it is index cards with the beats on it and a set of questions that arose from doing that. I feel like I'm in the dark with a weak flashlight seeing only a bit of the path ahead and I for sure get off even this funny twisty path on occasion.
    It is so interesting to find out how others do what we do - thrilling to me that there is so much difference and maybe so much in common. We are trying to find our story.

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  6. I'm an outliner!! Big time.

    My outline is a slow ramble through the story. It's usually a line or three for each scene, just enough so I remember what was happening.

    I know so many don't like to outline because they feel restricted. What if they want to change something? But I always view the end of the story as the target, and how can one hit the target if you don't know where you're going? Details can be changed, but I find my basic outline holds true until the end.

    I think the outline is the easiest thing to write, but then I have a weird way of creating the story in the first place. Maybe I should blog about my unusual process!

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  7. "Outline" is probably too restrictive of a word. There are so many ways to outline a book, from notecards to detailed outlines to basically winging it by making notes after you've written a chapter. Every writer is different. Just like every story is different. And why are stories different? The writers who write them are unique.

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  8. I don't outline, but I do carry a pad and pen to jot down ideas or descriptions of places I visit, etc.

    A lighted pad by your bedside? That's a great idea.

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  9. I use the major plot points approach. Usually I start with a general idea and write a few pages to get going. Then I sit down with pen and paper and write out some points of conflict that might fit the story. I transfer those to note cards and play with the organization awhile and make notes on the cards. That's about all the structure I add.

    Recently I discovered Scrivener. Scrivener is a program that includes a word processor, an index card generator and a virtual cork board for moving the cards around. It also has windows for comments and notes and a filing system for storing web pages and other documents generated or discovered during research. Now everything is on my laptop within sight. No more scattered index cards, note books or file folders with research.

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  10. Man, I think I back in totally differently. I usually start with a 'set up'--a very vague scenario that makes an interesting background and write just a scene or two to see what i think of the characters and how they might act and what kinds of things might happen to them. Then, after a LONG stewing period, I write that 5-10 event outline and start. Then I write a little more detailed outline in stages (just to get me to the next 'big point')

    I research for the rewrite. I use [points I need to look into] in brackets. I am too easy a mimick otherwise--story altering for things I find, which are only tangents, and it gets long and unruly... better to have the main thing nailed down first.

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  11. I do research, and love it. It has a way of really informing the story, giving me characteristics and actions that I can incorporate into the work, sometimes ideas to move the plot. As for outlines, in various forms, yes. I do keep a journal for each project which is very, very casual, filled with all kinds of notes. And often will outline. Sometimes the whole story, other times just aspects of it to be sure it'll all play out.

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  12. Haven't arrived at the "need to outline" stage yet...but I think my tendency at first would be to "just write," until I realized that the outline is a tool to make the "just write" part easier and more logical. That's why I feel there is a fiction class coming up in my near future...to teach me things that work...as did this post and your comments.

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  13. I outline first and then do the research. I usually know what I want to do, just not exactly how I'm going to do it.

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  14. Mine is definitely a more casual approach. Like you've suggested, I jot notes and do a little initial research (if warranted), and the like. But I don't sit down and fill spreadsheets and plot charts. That's too much for me.

    Great post, Helen!

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  15. I outline roughly- nothing too intenese. It helps give me a feel for my story idea. Chapter outlines gage where I want to go and help keep my scenes tight.

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  16. I love reading how other writers work. I'm right with you Helen about how I start, but it isn't always the same thing that points me to a story. Sometimes it's a character, a setting, a name, an incident. Whatever. I don't ever know until it makes a big enough sound in my brain. My only outline consists of a few notes on a sheet of ruled paper, and I have a general idea of the main characters and who the protagonist and antagonist are. Usually I know how it will end. I also know the types of things that will occur on the journey, but no details until I write.

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  17. I've decided to try outlining this time, just for a change. I'm using the Snowflake software - was lucky enough to buy it cheaply on its release day. It's certainly encouraging me to think things through a bit more, and my characters are giving me their surprises before I start writing this time.

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  18. I outline very much like you've described. I certainly allow myself to go 'off-track', but I try to have the discipline to get back sooner rather than later.

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  19. Thanks for letting us know about Scrivener (Mark) and Snowflake (Sheila). Sounds like both are worth checking out.

    It's quite interesting hearing how each of us outline or use some method of organizing.

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  20. My book is coming in bits and pieces, no rhyme or reason to it. I'm eccentric, so I'm okay with an unorthodox process. Working with a writing coach (Mark David Gerson) is a godsend.
    Karen

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  21. Good post, Helen. I have to be both a pantser and a plotter. Plot first, but plenty of off the tracks...

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  22. I think I'm a bit of a pantser, as well.

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  23. Yeah it is a common misconception that just anyone can write a book. Puppycock. I sometimes start out with a loosely sketched outline, but seldom do I ever wind up following it, except to start and end where it says to - and sometimes even the end goes off on a different tangent, lol.

    Marvin D Wilson

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  24. I spend a lot of time with my main character before writing. I keep a basic outline in my head until I get blocked in the middle of the story. At that point, writing it down helps me move forward.

    I write down snatches of dialogue, family trees and back story. But for the most part, I get right in there and write scenes or descriptive passages once I have a clear picture of my character and why I care about him or her.

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  25. I'm a Pantser. Randomly going where my imagination takes me. Trying to teach myself otherwise, however. It would be much easier to outline/plot.

    Good post :)

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  26. I'm an outliner. Some are more detailed than others, but I couldn't imagine just diving into a big writing project without generally knowing what was supposed to happen.

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  27. I don't outline much at all. My stories all start with the central character and some significant issue and go from there. That usually gets me into the first few chapters, then if I get stuck, I will stop and do some plotting and outlining. But, like Jan, I seldom know where a story or character is going at first. I just need to go along for the ride and figure out the destination later.
    It would probably be easier in some respects if I could outline, but it has never worked for me, even though I have tried. A good outline can help with writing the dreaded synopsis.

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  28. For some unknown reason, many of my ideas come to me in the form of a scene right at the end of my book. I let it mull around in my head for a few days or weeks (I don't consciously think about it), then I start to write. Kind of scary when I say it that way.

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  29. I do a very basic outline- I think of that as the skeleton. This part is on paper in an exercise book.

    Then add the action sequences- they would be the muscle.Again, this happens on paper.

    Then add the dialouge and filler, which makes up the rest of the body. This I make up as I go along!

    See- anyone can do it!

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  30. I like to outline, usually 3 points per chapter. But I tend to leave the research until I start writing.

    Really Angelic

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  31. It's interesting to see just how permeant digital memory has become in our every day lives. It seems like everywhere I turn, I see something with a card slot or USB port . I guess it makes sense though, considering how much cheaper memory has become lately...

    Gahhhhh... who am I to complain. I can't make it through a single day without using my R4 / R4i!

    (Posted on Nintendo DS running [url=http://kwstar88.insanejournal.com/397.html]R4 SDHC[/url] NetSurf)

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