Friday, January 16, 2009

The world's biggest outline nerd.

This post is for Denise, and for everybody else who's ever asked me about my outlining fetish.

Whenever I start a new book-length project, I've gotta have me a big fat outline. I don't know if it's a strength or a weakness, but I like to have the bulk of my thinking done before I sit down to write. But no, I don't sit down and write a hundred page outline just off the top of my head, the behemeth grows in stages, in kind of ever-expanding layers.

I take a notebook (yep, still do it longhand) and write the central concept/story idea on the first page. That usually takes a paragraph to half a page. Then I expand on it, basically writing like a four or five page synopsis of the plot, and just so you know, everything's fluid at this point. This stuff always changes dramatically -- I'll get better ideas or realize something is either too cliche' or just plain doesn't work. Point is: you've gotta have something to start with.

So after I have my four page synopsis, that's when I really have to put on the breaks. Until a few books back, my characters were always thin and wimpy and tasted like sawdust. So now I practically write their entire life's stories BEFORE I move into the main outlining phase. That way I know who they don't like and what they're keeping secret, and how they'll react to the things that are gonna happen. Having a firm and intimate idea of who each of my characters are helps me grow the plot around them, to allow it to be shaped by their personalities and decisions. This kind of stuff usually fills twenty-plus pages.

Kay, nuff on that. My kids are gonna get off the bus pretty soon.

So here we are: we know what's gonna happen in the story and we know what kind of people it's gonna happen to. And this, my friends, is the moment I live for -- the entire reason I write. This is where we get to make a story.

I basically do it with a bullet list. Nerdy, right?

I list every single thing that's gonna happen, in fairly strict detail, leaving about four blank lines between items. For a 200 page book , this outline will fill an entire section of a three subject notebook, for a large book (like Fiersom's Brood), it eats the whole dang thing. Here's an example of what my outline entries might look like:

-- When Biff gets back to the mansion, he finds that the whole staff is gone for the day (Buffy sent them home early then took Biff jr. to the zoo)

-- Biff gets excited and goes to his special closet where he hides all his gangsta duds. Then he cranks up the stereo and starts practicing the Soulja Boy dance.

-- Satan appears in the mirror. "Your soul is mine, bud."

So this little bit right here would probably translate into a two to five page scene, depending on how the conversation goes. Yes, I do put dialogue in my outline. Usually it's not something that's gonna be copied verbatim into the book, though, it's just meant to be representative of the conversation.

Alrighty then. The last thing I'm gonna mention is the spaces between entries, and you know what they're for, right? That's where the coffee stains go. And all the freaking inevitable changes. All of the things I forgot. Notes on plot twists. Sometimes even sketches. Let's just say, yeah, they get filled, and yeah, it looks like crap. But it makes writing the first draft very very easy. What I've got at this point is something very close to a screenplay, and all I've got to do is novelize it. Easy-peasy. I have never -- not once in my life -- experienced anything even remotely close to 'writer's block', and I can usually write about 60-80 pages a week, and I think it's because, like I said, most of my thinking is already done.

Once I'm done with my massive outline, writing my book becomes a matter of putting frosting on cake. (note: my outlining process takes one week, two if I'm lazy)

So now you tell me. How much work do y'all do before you start writing?


Debra Lynn Shelton said...

Ray, I've written two books: Little Pearls and Sparks Fly Sometimes. Little Pearls took nearly 13 years of on-again, off-again writing to complete. SFS took less than two months. I had no notes or anything before I started either project. I write stories like I write songs - I trust in the process and try to "clear" the way for magic to happen. (A friend of mine put it this way, "What works for me is to get my brilliant a** out of the way.") Pretty similar to the way you do it. (Not!) I have to say, I'm wildly impressed by your prep work. You really are the man.

Mary O. Paddock said...

I like the reference to the white spaces. :)

Logically speaking, outlines make lots of sense to me and I applaud anyone who knows how to use one effectively. Christopher Moore uses a time line in a spreadsheet format.

I've done it both ways. The first book was all about seeing if I could just finish what I started. I did, but had no idea how it was going to end until it did.

With the second book I used notes, and a time line (trying Chris's idea). I did this largely because the story took place in a small town and I needed to keep who was married to who and who was related to who straight. In that respect, it did help. I wound up unhappy with the entire 150,000 word project, though I finished it.

Troubled_Waters was born a complete idea sparked by a gift from a friend I met online. It didn't need an outline, but I did keep a few notes. It pretty well wrote itself.

Willow's Blood was pretty much the same, though I think I flew by the seat of my pants quite a bit more than I did with TW. I did write out an outline, but I didn't ever look at it. And I did write out some notes. At some point I did separate out the two POVs into two files for continuity's sake (since their stories were taking place separately). I think I'll edit them the same way.

For me the key seems to be knowing how the story is going to end. If I can "see" that, then the rest of it kind of falls into place.

Carrie Harris said...

Wow. You ARE a nerd, but the kind of prepared nerd that makes me envious. :) I figure out the gist of the story and the first scene, then I background the bleep out of my characters. I have some idea of the ending, and then I just start writing. A little anticlimactic, huh?

Madison said...

I HATE outlines! Detest them! In order to start writing a story, all I need is a beginning and knowing how the story's gonna end. I'm actually going to put a post on my blog soon about how I write my stories, but I can't till Blogger lets me post my pictures for the post. You know how much I say I detest outlines? Well, I loathe my stupid dial-up even more!

Vikki said...

I didn't do an outline for my first book, and it was (and still is) a scattered mess! But, for my current WIP I did one looooooooong winded outline (I think it was about 50 pages), and it has been the best thing ever. If I get stuck, I go to the outline. It helps me get along better with myself, and that's always a good thing.

Keri Mikulski said...

Impressive.. :)

Anita said...

My first draft, I started with zero outline. When I got to "The End," I thought, "Should've done an outline." Now I'm on about the fourth revision. The outline is beginning to look more like yours.

Next book, I'll start with an outline.

Anonymous said...

I write very rarely. And only what comes to me, so I start out with these fractured bits of story, never in sequence. When I figure out what the picture is, I glue them together. There's a sense of accomplishment in solving a story.

shortensweet said...

I NEVER think about what I'm going to write...can you tell?

So BPV - what are the birthday plans? Jan 20 is right around the corner!

Jewel Allen said...

Wow, this is great. After I read your post, I rooted around my office supplies and found an empty notebook. I'm gonna give your method a try for my next book. I have a premise, some conflicts, the ending sketched out, but I need to flesh out the other stuff; I'm hoping this'll help.

I have tried outlining a million times, but I get so impatient to get writing I usually abandon it halfway. Sometimes it takes me a couple of drafts to figure out what is going on, and then based on that, I rewrite a new synopsis and last draft.

I usually stick to the synopsis until a subplot or minor character hijacks my plan. I then tear my hair out and eat lots of chocolate.

Anonymous said...

Ray, perfect. That's exactly what I wanted to know! Not just, "Yeah, I use an outline, and background my characters", but "here's how many pages it takes up and how many spaces I have to leave for future stuff".

I have used an outline, but I have the impatient problem too, and I don't end up putting enough into it to make it particularly useful.

Your success has encouraged me to put in the effort this time. I decided to put the NaNoWriMo novel on hold because it ended up such a mess. Knowing the beginning and end didn't help much with the middle. It felt like holding a string at both ends; the middle can waggle all over the place.

But I've got this new idea...

Ray Veen said...

Debra - I have nothing against people who trust in the muse. You go girl.

Mary - I'm starting to think that, for your more 'artistic' writers, outlines can be a liability.

Carrie - Totally anticlimactic. In fact, the best part of your comment was when you called me a nerd.

Madison - I used dial-up exclusively until a little over a year ago. Hated it.

Vivi - Finally, someone who appreciates meticulousness. Sounds like we're in the minority, my friend.

Keri - Glad you think so.

Anita - It's not the only way to write a book. I won't even say it's the best way. But it does work for certain people and maybe you're one.

Blackbird - Because you are one of those 'artistic' writers I mentioned above. I use writing as a way to show everybody the wild crap I come up with.

Shorty - You missed the birthday party, so, just send me a check or something.

Pink - Super good luck with that. I hope it works for you. Based on what you're starting with, I think it'll be magic for you -- if you're able to restrain yourself from the writing for an extra week.

Denise - From what I know of your story ideas, they usually rock. I hope my outlining method totally helps you walk it out.

VeeFlower said...

This comment refers to your last post. I love the Beatles tune, and it couldn't have come at a better time. Somehow, this snow and ice and bitter cold just melts away when I hear that tune. Takes me back to fires in the backyard, and walking outside without wearing polar bear fur. It sort of inspired me to post something on my blog if I can get the video to publish.

Elizabeth said...

I'm learning from you bud.
I will probably outline my next book as I already know what I want to happen. See? You're smart and I'm going to copy your smartness.

Tracey said...

Currently not writing a lot of anything.

colbymarshall said...

It's amazing you do so much! I thought I was compulsive about it until I read this :-) I do a pretty good outline and in depth character profiles in my handy-dandy notebook.

Frank Baron said...

Sheesh Ray! (And all you fellow fiction writers.) That's too darn much like work. I'll stick to writing (mostly) truthy bits off the top of my head.

But then there's the revising....

Ray Veen said...

Vee - Thanks Mom, liked your vid too. Robert Frost is still one of my faves.

Elizabeth - Copy my smartness? I don't think anybody's ever said that to me before. It makes me feel all tingly.

Tracey - Get to work, woman. You is a writer like us is.

Colby - Handy dandy notebooks rule.

Frank - Ouch. I should be revising instead of posting, shouldn't I?

Sarah J Clark said...

Ray, why is it that your wife dedicated a blog to you, wishing you a happy birthday on the 12th if your birthday is on the 20th?

Are you trying to scam us?


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