When I wrote my first novel, I didn’t outline. I just went along from one scene to the next, deciding what happened on the spur of the moment. The result was something that will remain forever trunked. It’s not that it’s a bad story, just the opposite. One day I’ll rewrite it. But in the manuscript’s current state, there’s a lot of nothing going on and a lot of character inconsistencies. There’s also a lot of extra characters I don’t need. Back then, I added them because I’d hit spots in the novel where it just sort of wandered and I naïvely thought adding more characters would make everything much more exciting. Wrong!
The second novel I planned out a little better. I still didn’t do a full outline, but I did jot down a few lines of notes for each quarter of the book. Still, I wound up with extra characters and some character and plot inconsistencies. I’ve since done a major overhaul of my second novel and I’m quite happy with it. Still, all those revisions and rewrites took longer than writing the initial first draft. I didn’t see that until recently.
My third novel was an idea that hit me like a freight train and I went back to just writing it by the seat of my pants. I knew so many parts of the book I didn’t feel the need to outline.
I think I should have. It’s still my favorite manuscript, and I hope it’ll find a home.
For my fourth novel, I decided to outline. A full blown one. Seeing as I had never extensively outlined a novel before, I had no idea what I was getting into. First, I decided on Randy Ingermanson’s Snowflake method. I felt a bit overwhelmed. Don’t get me wrong, if you can go through the whole thing as he does, I’d imagine you’d have a very solid first draft. But, it required too much pre-writing for my patience. For those who know me, patience is not one of my virtues. Still, for those with a lot of patience, I recommend starting here.
Then, I looked through author Kelley Armstrong’s method of outlining. I belong to her site’s OWG (Online Writing Group). If you’re a writer and haven’t joined, I can’t recommend the OWG enough. Through the OWG I’ve made lots of writing friends, found invaluable crit partners, and truly learned how to be a better writer. I could digress here and tell everyone what a wonderful person Kelley is, both online and in person, and how much I enjoy her books, but I’ll stay on track.
Since I’m a researcher at heart, I guess I couldn’t resist digging further. I wanted novel number four to be written better than the other three, and while I know that my writing skills improve with each manuscript, I didn’t want to make the mistakes I’d made with my first and second novels. I don’t want to spend three times longer rewriting than writing. I know I’ll need to revise and revise again (and again and again), but it’s ripping out huge sections of a manuscript and writing a third or more from scratch that just seems a waste of writing time. And painful. Oh boy, is it ever painful. So, I found another site that I found valuable information: author Jim Butcher’s blog. Jim has some incredible tips here, so I suggest popping on over to read them. Especially the part about the Great Swampy Middle. A millions thanks to Jim for posting that part.
Okay. So at this point, I’ve got three ways to go about mapping my shiny new idea. I decided to take the best pieces and pull them together, along with yet another method: Syd Field’s Paradigm.
If it sounds painful, it was. But here’s what I went with. First, I wrote what Jim calls a two line pitch. Then, I went a step farther and did what Kelly and Randy call a one sentence hook, or what screen writers call a log line. Both ended up being something that’ll be useful in my query.
Next, I used Syd Field’s paradigm combined with Kelly’s method of outlining. I made seven index cards. (I use a Mac application called Scrivener instead of real index cards). I created one each: Act 1, Plot point 1 – inciting incident, Act 2 – 1st half, Midpoint, Act 2 -2nd half, Plot point II, Act 3 – Resolution. The only things I wrote on these cards were the combined tips from everyone – aka, things I need to keep in mind while plotting. Then, I went with a shortened version of Kelly’s character outlining crossed with some helpful tips from Jim. I wrote a paragraph on each character, gave them goals, conflicts, and stakes. I jotted down one or two tags to associate with each character, knowing I’d add more as I wrote. This is where I think I hit gold. It’s easier to see where your story is going when you have a strong character outline. I don’t need it so detailed that I know what they had for breakfast, but I needed to get a real feel for their personality and motives.
Then, I made seven more index cards that corresponded to the ones above. This time, I wrote a one or two sentences on what happens in the novel for each card, keeping in mind everything I jotted down on the place holder cards. This really helped flesh out my book. Next, I wrote a single paragraph to sum up my story. If this looks like I’m writing a query, I am.
At this point, I had lots of ideas for scenes, for which I created an index card for each, keeping them at one or two sentences tops. I placed them behind the index cards I thought they’d best fit.
Now, I need to use Randy’s and Kelly’s method of expanding that paragraph into a page. And, again if you’re thinking this looks strangely like a one page synopsis, you’re right. I’ll print everything out and put it in a notebook beside my computer for handy reference while I’m writing.
Once that’s done, I’m down to business – hammering out the first draft. I’m not quite sure if I’m in or not for Nano – I’ve got a few things in the non-writing life in the balance at the moment. I’ll know more in a week or so. But, I think I’ll have a game plan that should help me crank out the fastest, most accurate (narrative-wise) novel yet. I’m also sure that I’ll ditch some scenes and add new ones, even move things around a little. I’ll change the hook and the synopsis to reflect as I go through each third of the manuscript. When I’m done, I’ll have a decent draft of my manuscript, query, and synopsis. Not bad!
Then, it’s just a matter of revisions, revisions, revisions. Those, I actually enjoy. Maybe this outlining thing will be a lot easier with each new novel.