Tuesday, April 12, 2011

My Process (or, why I suck at outlines)

Once upon a time I decided to write a book. I'd taken some creative writing classes in college, and I'd read thousands of books, so I had the basic idea down. I got out my computer, opened to a fresh document, and started typing.

That project was a bust. I stopped, thought of a new idea and started writing again.

That project was only marginally better. It got trunked, too.

Then I got this GREAT idea. SOO much better than the others. I devised a magic system. I built characters, backstory, and genealogies. I started right at the beginning of the conflict and off I went. My MC cried 5 times in the first three chapters. She was a total wimp. Still, the basic idea still seemed workable, so I did some tinkering and kept writing. It was amusing. It was fun to write.

At the end of chapter 4, I had no idea where to go from there. I'd written myself into a corner and couldn't get out. Just what did I want this book to be about, anyway?

So I tried outlining. Epic. Fail. How the heck was I supposed to know what happened next before I saw what my characters did with the last disaster I threw their way? Fuggedabout the WHOLE PLOT. Outlining was clearly not for me.

Then I read this great book by Evan Marshall called The Marshall Plan for Novel Writing. I made it my bible, developed an elaborate spreadsheet (yay spreadsheets!) and was finally moving forward. If you haven't read it, I recommend it. Now, I didn't follow the whole Plan in detail (sorry Evan). I filled out the section sheets in my spreadsheet, but I didn't go through the whole book before writing the first word. My favorite part about the Plan was the system of benchmarks--you set several benchmarks and drive your characters toward them. It totally worked. Still, even with the major plot benchmarks, I could never actually plan more than 2-3 sections ahead of where I was. If I tried, I ended up changing most of them when my characters refused to do the ridiculous things I was requiring of them (you would, too).

So that's how I got through the first draft of my very first WIP, but I keep hearing about these outline things. So many people swear by them. I do love organization....

In steps Aprilynne Pike, #1 NYT Bestselling author of WINGS, SPELLS, and the upcoming ILLUSIONS. I first met Aprilynne at LDStorymakers 2010, where she served as my bootcamp instructor. (Oh, yeah. I'm cool.) She absolutely murdered my chapters with her red pen, gave me tons of great advice on how to tighten everything, and was generally invaluable. Also completely funny, down-to-earth, with a dry wit and wonderful imagination--which shows in her books.

Aprilynne will be joining me on David Farland's Authors' Advisory tomorrow night, Wednesday, April 13, 2011, at 9:00 PM EDT. She will be telling us how to Outline. (Also, we might try to pry some details on ILLUSIONS out of her....) Please bring your outlining questions (I know you have them) and join the call. See the Authors' Advisory blog for call-in details. Talk to you then!


  1. I am so not an outliner either. I write by the seat of my pants. I've tried to outline several times but it just makes me crazy! I need to check out that book that helped you! Maybe I could actually plot a little bit before I write! lol The Author's Advisory sounds awesome! I'll have to check it out! :D

  2. Chantele: Do--I don't think I could have gotten past chapter 4 without it. :) Evan Marshall also developed a workbook and software to go with it, if you're interested, though I haven't tried either.

    Aprilynne gave me more details on her topic for tonight--it's going to be fantastic advice for anyone who struggles with plotting or outlining. Make sure you come!

    (Thanks for the comment!) :)

  3. I'm a mix between outliner and seat-of-the-pantser. I need a basic outline to get me started, so I know who the main character is, who the villain is, some backstory, and so on. If I don't have something to get me started, I'm stuck. But it's not until I'm writing my first draft that I actually work my way through the details of what happens in the story. My first drafts are a mess, but it works for me. I would find it IMPOSSIBLE to outline in so much detail that I knew everything that was going to happen. My brain just doesn't work that way.

  4. I had a similar experience when I started writing without any road map or outline. My own creative writing class helped. They used a book called The Writers Journey (http://www.amazon.com/Writers-Journey-Mythic-Structure-3rd/dp/193290736X/ref=sr_1_4?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1302722301&sr=1-4) which outlines 12 basic steps in almost all hero's journeys derived from looking at mythological story structure. I outline those 12 basic scenes and then work toward the next one or ask what happened just before that scene and work backward to the previous step in the journey. That works for me. It gives me enough structure to feel comfortable and enough freedom to feel creative. I always like more hints though and will try and make the call in.

  5. Stephanie--I think we're a lot alike. I keep flashing back to the Oracle in Matrix: "you can't see beyond the decision you don't understand." I can't understand why my characters make the choices they make until I work them through it--then a bit more of the forward plot becomes clear and we write on. :)

    Josh--James Frey wrote a great book about the hero's journey: How to Write Damn Good Fiction Using the Power of Myth. Where Marshall helped me structure my plot, Frey helped me decide what should happen next.

  6. I'm totally buying a copy of that book! And it doesn't hurt to plot loosely and know that what you planned may never see the page. You have to be flexible to move in other directions as dictated by the characters and their experiences. Great post!

  7. I'm still trying a lot of different ways to do these things, hoping to find the right fit.

    I tried the outlining and it worked until I made a major change in what would happen which completely negated all the subsequent outlining. That was for NaNo, and I still haven't gotten back to that story. Stopped me right in my tracks.

  8. I wish I could have been able to join that chat with Aprilynne Pike the other night! I did, however, listen to the interview and I thought her advice was fantastic! Can't wait for the next one!
    By the way, you are a great host! You have the cutest voice and you're so energetic! :D

  9. Thanks, Anita! I was glad that Aprilynne gave us tips on how to use a rough outline and still discovery write. That's sort of what I do, so it was cool to hear some validation. :)

    Donna--most of what I wrote when I first started my WIP is now defunct. I changed the characters, the plot, the motivations, etc. I think you have to get used to trashing your hard-written words when they don't match up anymore.

    Chantelle--thanks so much! My voice always sounds so high to me. "Cute" is a very cool description. ;) The energy comes, of course, from being nervous. I genuinely love public speaking, but I tend to laugh a LOT while I do it.