Elizabeth: Back to Basics – The Outline

For the past month or so Stories Yet To Be WrittenI’ve been talking about the new contemporary romance (tentatively titled Second Chances) that I’ve been working on when I need a break from revising my previous book. If you missed the first few posts, you can catch up on them here, here, and here.

So far I’ve used this new story to talk about the basics of writing. With Character, Conflict, and Setting taken care of, I thought I had everything I needed in order to get a good first draft on paper during this year’s upcoming NaNoWriMo event.

Apparently I was mistaken.

Frequent commenter to the blog, Rachel, showed me the error of my ways when she replied to my last post:

“Are you also going to plan out your storyline in detail before November (to go along with the character, conflict and setting work you’ve done) – or are you more of a pantser? I’ve just done a detailed outline for the first time and am now a complete convert.”

Outline. Ugh.

I considered pretending I hadn’t seen the comment, but then I opened up my email and there was a link to Chuck Wendig’s post How to Outline During National Plot Your Novel Month. Chuck didn’t just talk about outlines in general; he offered about a bazillion different ways to outline and then challenged his readers to try outlining.

The request was so convincingly put, one could hardly decline.

So, this week my focus is on: Outlining

A little googling turned up a number of helpful sites with how-to information for outlining a story. It also turned up about as many sites in favour of outlining as it did those against it. Like anything else about the writing process, whether to outline or not seems to come down to individual writer preference – sometimes varying from book to book.

The arguments against outlining generally cited a lack of freedom and curtailed creativity.  The writers in this camp were those who preferred their stories to develop “organically” rather than being forced along a determined path.

“At the time I begin writing a novel, the last thing I want to do is follow a plot outline. To know too much at the start takes the pleasure out of discovering what the book is about.” ~ Elmore Leonard

Those supporting the neutral position seemed to feel that having some basic guidelines in place provided a good starting point. Kind of like putting those metal cages in place when you plant tomatoes, so that they have a basic structure go grow against, but not something so confining that they are stunted or cramped.

“I never do a full outline, and if I did, I would not feel bound to it, because the view from inside a scene can be different from the view outside it. But neither do I just start writing and see what happens; I am far more disciplined than that.”   Piers Anthony

The writers in favour of outlining cited its importance for keeping track of plots / sub-plots, managing character arcs, and making sure that the story progresses in an orderly fashion without wandering off track.  They also suggest that having an outline makes the synopsis, back-cover copy, querying process a bit easier.

“Outlining is the most efficient way to structure a novel to achieve the greatest emotional impact. The most breathtaking prose and brilliantly drawn characters are wasted if the plot meanders and digresses.” ~ Jeffery Deaver

When I started my last book, I initially planned to do a complete outline before starting to write. Unfortunately, I was only able to put a very brief outline in place before I found myself stuck and unable to clearly identify what needed to happen next. As it turned out, I needed to write first and outline second, probably because I did not have a clear idea about my story (or characters or conflict) before I started writing.

Lessons have been learned and here I am, back at the start of a new story. This time around, however, I’ve done a lot of foundational work to get to this point, so outlining is turning out to be less of a chore than I was anticipating.

I actually started the outlining process by developing a (song) playlist for the story.   I went through my music library and picked out about two dozen songs that felt like they fit some part of the story. Once I had the songs, I then put them in order – trying to match the basic idea of each song with the appropriate place in the story. The songs fell into natural groupings, which matched the 4-act structure of the story.

With the musical structure in place, I was ready to start the traditional outlining process – the one (for me) that involves an Excel spreadsheet and colour coding. That’s what I’m working on this week. I’ve started with the starting/ending points for each act. With those nailed down, I can go back and add the details about what happens in each of the scenes that make up the acts.

In addition to using the outline to track what happens in the story, I also use it as a way to keep track of when things happen in the story. Though this book doesn’t have the kind of time pressure that my last one had, I still need to keep track of when things happen and make sure time is flowing in a reasonable way.   Depending on how creative I’m feeling and how well the process is going, I’ll add information about the character arcs in the outline as well, though that may be part of the Outline 2.0 process, not this initial cut.

My goal is to get a strong foundation in place before I start to write in a few weeks time. The challenge is to do so without taking all of the fun out of the story and the writing process. We’ll see how it all goes.

So, are you a fan of outlining before you start writing? If so, what kind of outlining do you do? If not, do you ever go back and outline after you write, as part of your revision process?

4 thoughts on “Elizabeth: Back to Basics – The Outline

  1. I started off my wip with an outline and somehow still pantsed it, lol! I really connected to what you said about the cages and the tomatoes.

    Now, however as I go through rewrites, I’ve re-outlined and the re-outlining helps keep me in track and keeps the story focused.

    So all in all, that first draft needed to be allowed freedom to grow but through revisions it’s being tailored and structured to become better. At least that is my process, I think it would have been a lot easier if I had just stuck to that original outline but then again, the story would be 100% different than it is now. *shrugs* to each their own I guess! 😊 I think that’s also the beauty of what we do as writers there is no real wrong way, there are harder ways for some people and ways that are proven to be easier for others but ultimately what really works for us is so unique to the individual.

    I love the community of writers the best and getting to share our experiences, so thank you for sharing today!

    • You’re exactly right, Nicolette, there is no real wrong way. Everyone has to find the method that works for them and what works for one book may not work for the next. I’m very structured in real-life, so I always thought that outlining would be my process but the first time around, that wasn’t the case. For this book, outlining is working much better – possibly because it is a different kind of story or maybe because I have more experience now and a better idea of what I’m trying to do.

      Thanks for stopping by.

  2. Pingback: Elizabeth: Back to Basics – Actually Writing | Eight Ladies Writing

  3. Pingback: Elizabeth: Back to Basics – Doing the Research | Eight Ladies Writing

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