I’m not especially devoted to either planning or pantsing stories. (Pantsing, yes, by the seat of your pants you scribble your way through the story.) I will say that since I started “outlining” stories, my first drafts are cleaner and my revisions are less intensive. But I don’t do roman numerals alternating with letters and numbers. I don’t outline like they taught us in school. I stayed away from outlining for probably five years longer than I needed to, because I associated it with dreary classrooms and stifled creativity.
Note to teachers: maybe not so much with the rules. The people who are going to follow the rules of narrative, are gonna follow it because that’s what they write, that’s what they read. The people who aren’t gonna follow the rules of narrative? Might be the next Alice Hoffman, the next Joseph Heller. Leave ’em be.
I follow the rules. I always did. I wanted to be edgy and experimental back in college because that was the expectation of my crazy hippie school. But no. I write a linear narrative, and there aren’t a lot of bells and fuckin’ whistles. If I write a guitar, it damn sure symbolizes a musical instrument called a guitar. (You didn’t follow that link, did you? Pablo Neruda: “The dove signifies the dove and the guitar signifies a musical instrument called the guitar.”)
My fear of outlining came from a true place, where I used to obsess over scenes, the good ones, the carrot scenes I knew were coming, that I looked forward to all story. I’d obsess and then I’d know those scenes so well, I’d stop writing. It was like short-circuiting a fantasy: my writerly brain had already orgasmed over the best scenes, so there wasn’t much point in writing all the stuff in between. So for years I wasn’t even allowed to think about stories at the scene level until the day I was writing the scene. I ended up with a collection of 120k, 150k, 200k first drafts, with so many middles and ends that they utterly lacked coherence.
Then I stumbled upon Chuck Wendig. Wendig came to outlining kicking and screaming, and wrote a post called “25 Ways to Plot, Plan and Prep Your Story”, and that shit revolutionized the way I thought about outlines and all pre-writing work. In a weird way, it was a little bit like Wendig shouted down the chorus of teachers and rules and diagrams in my head for how outlines work, and suddenly I could outline. I wasn’t just staring at an empty page trying to organize my thoughts–I was making mindmaps and using spreadsheets and brainstorming on Evernote and researching beats.
(If you are reading this before August, 2014, the following section will contain spoilers for the Scientific Method stories. You’ve been warned.)
Every story is different, but these days I never sit down without doing some amount of prep work. Maybe it’s just pounding through three beats over and over in my head while playing hide and seek with the kid. Three beats will get you a beginning, middle, and end. Or an inciting incident, a midpoint, and a climax. Sometimes the outline fleshes out about ten thousand words in, like the one for TBTTK. The Boyfriends Tie the Knot is technically a revision, so I thought I had it pretty well worked out. It’s got half a synopsis in a Google doc somewhere, and a query letter/blurb in some other Google doc, so hey, I was on it.
Then I stalled out, right around 11k. And this is a fun story. This isn’t I stalled out because fuck, now I gotta write the scene where some shit goes down. This is a pretty fun story start to finish.
So I hit the outline. I tried to beat it out. I tried to finish the synopsis (from which I’d already diverged, of course). Nothing.
I went back to Scrivener and played with the views, until I got this:
That’s basically chapter headers with brief, brief, brief descriptions. And those chapter headers will probably change, or I’ll decide to go with no titles for chapters, but right now they’re giving me something to work with, and that’s all I need. Just a nudge.
This particular book bounces between two points of view, Will’s and Molly’s. It’s important to me that I don’t go seven chapters from Moll’s perspective and forget about Will, or vice versa, so I have each chapter marked clearly with who’s seeing that part of the story. I’m not sure necessarily that it will fall as cleanly as that–every scene in every chapter will be exclusive to one POV–but I think this story will obey the rules a bit more than others. (Breaking Down, for instance, is all kinds of POV-fucked, but no matter how hard I tried to hammer it into some more sensible arrangement, it wouldn’t fucking obey.)
TBTTK is a more straightforward romance story (you know, with lots of kinky menage thrown in, like y’do), so the POV issue slides into place pretty smoothly. It’s still not perfectly alternating between them, like my OCD brain wishes it would, but right now, this is how the chapters shake out.
Note to writers, writing multi-perspective stories: it should be relatively clear to you whose POV is necessary in a scene. It has been my experience that if I have to scratch my head and wonder who’s seeing a particular scene, or if it doesn’t seem to matter, then that’s a scene where I haven’t worked out yet what it needs to be doing. It should always matter. Every scene keeps the story moving, and the POV is a relevant, sometimes pivotal, element of a scene.
I don’t consider myself a die-hard outliner. I’ve got a story on pause that I thought through, every night, for weeks. It played out in my internal screening room as I fell asleep and the first half of it wrote fast, super fast, crazy fast, 20k words without blinking. I need to write the wedding fic, so I paused it, and I can feel that perfect knowledge of the story slipping away, so I’ll probably end up scribbling some notes when I go back to it. (Another good argument for some more tangible form of outline: man, I can’t keep all that shit in my head. At the beginning of this month I had three entire fucking novels just sitting in my head, and it was too goddamn much. Maybe in my youth. Not no more.)
It’s also good to know something about the theme of the story as you’re playing with it, rolling it around in your hands, molding it like playdoh and fine-tuning all the pieces of the story to better achieve a unified picture. (But, y’know, not too unified.) If you know what the fuck you’re saying, it’s a little easier to focus the threads you’re weaving together. But fuck it, you can write a dozen books without paying attention to theme if you find it too overwhelming. Your stories are likely going to have theme regardless, but no one said you had to pick them apart to see how they work. Or project them apart to see how they work, if they’re not written yet.
So: outlining. Total revelation in my world, and now it’s a fun part of the early work. And when I say “fun,” I don’t mean I jump for joy doing it–it’s one of the things I spent the last week procrastinating about–but definitely it’s one of the ways I get to know the story.