How Outlining Saved my Writer’s Soul

heavy-934552_960_720

all images complements of pixabay

Well, that’s probably an overstatement, but it did save years of revisions, which is almost the same thing.

I wrote my first book as a pantser, diving into the pages like a love-struck teenager. I was possessed, channeling characters like a medium with a direct link to the great novel in the sky. I loved the inspired feeling of freeing my characters to ramble shilly-shally where they would as they told their own stories. They had entire lives of their own; who was I to tell them what to do.

Halfway through my first draft, one of my secondary characters (a guy named Conall) informed me that not only was he refusing to die, but he wanted to be the main character! He lobbied the other characters, and being the personable guy his is, he got the other mutineers to agree. I was stuck and had to go back and rewrite the first half of the book!

Diana's BookAnd as you can imagine, by this time, it wasn’t your normal-sized book either. With all the escapades and tangents my characters insisted upon taking, the tome ended up a whopping 190,000 words.

Oh. My. Goodness. Help!

So, outlining is something that I learned the very-hard way. The end result of my initial foray into writing was two extra years of revisions. I pared away whole scenes, chapters, and characters – over 60,000 words. I felt like I was being flayed. It was excruciating!

I’m a true believer in the mighty outline.

For me, outlining a story is a monstrously important step in terms of how painful the editing process will be down the road. I learned that a well-thought out plot/outline is going to save tons of time, keep the story tight, the scenes relevant, and help tie up dangling threads. I won’t have big issues with wandering chapters, cavernous holes, and out-of-the blue surprises. I won’t be doing as much slashing, back-tracking, and rewriting just to get the story right.

GravestoneYet, what about the thrill, you ask? What about the addictive creativity of not knowing what’s coming next? What about inspiration, the free will of your characters? Trust me, as an outliner, you don’t have to erect a tombstone over your dead muse’s grave.

Aside from the usual wisdom to find what works for you, my advice would be to develop (or locate) an outlining method that still allows plenty of room for creativity. In other words, leave space for inspiration! My outlines are fluid and morph right up until I pop a period on the epilog.

This is going to sound like the polar opposite of “fluid,” but I keep track of my outlines in Excel. (Word, post-it notes, charts, and diagrams are fine too, of course). Most outliners suggest starting with the basic bullets of the story and growing it from there. I tend to jot down what I know from my musings – some of it detailed, some of it loose and full of gaps.

With those rough bones in place, the fun of fleshing out the story begins. I expand, add detail, fill logic gaps, and think through how to get from A to B and have it make sense. The joy of Excel is that I can insert, delete, reorder, and expand rows as the story takes shape. I can lump rows together into rough chapters. I can insert rows to capture bits of dialog or scenes that bubble into my brain.

At some point, hopefully, I’ve also started writing. Here’s where the old unpredictability and creativity kicks in. Over and over again, new ideas form, something unexpected happens, and characters run off and implement ideas of their own as if they’re in charge.

communication-73331_960_720

Like a benevolent dictator, I routinely call the insurgents into the boardroom for some outline brainstorming. We figure out where we need to backpedal, adjust dialog, add/modify/delete scenes, and place Chekov’s gun on the mantel. Together, we re-plan future scenes, trash everything they just wrecked, plug plot holes, mend broken threads, and get the whole outline making sense and flowing again.

By the way, outlines are also potent cures for writer’s block. I may not be in the mood to write, but I always know what comes next.

Are you a happy pantser, outliner, or something in between?

Happy Writing!

Striking the Motherlode

flightfoxcom

image from flightfox.com

Well, I have a gift for you today. NO, it’s not a book. Phew!

A friend of mine shared a link with me, and when I opened it, I gasped. My knees turned to syrup, and I wiped tears of delight from my eyes. I’d struck writing gold.

Brandon Sanderson, the highly successful author of Mistborn and The Way of Kings fame, teaches a master’s level class at BYU for fantasy and science-fiction writers. The class is so popular that only a small number of interested students actually get to enroll. In response to the flood of despair, the entire series of winter lectures were videotaped and are available on YouTube at zero cost.

image from thebooksmuggler.com

image from thebooksmuggler.com

You don’t write sci-fi or fantasy, you say.

I will assert, while skipping in circles with excitement, that the ideas he presents are 99% applicable to all fiction writing. He covers a broad range of choices and approaches, and rarely lays down any hard fast rules. Writers will fill up their brains with ideas while being told to discover what works for them.

(Just to warn you, he does hate passive sentences and has an odd aversion to the word “replied”).

Now, this is a ton of material that includes not only invaluable lessons on writing, but also on how to pitch, sell, and market a book. He’s tidily listed the lessons by content so it’s possible to pick and choose what you’re interested in learning about. The complete listing, with links to each lecture is here: Brandon Sanderson Writing Seminar.

Enjoy!