Secrets of an Outliner

I promised last week to reveal my secrets on how I outline. This is my process, refined over years (decades, gulp) of writing. It’s what works for me. If you are still struggling to find what works for you, then give it a try. If you are already happy with your process, then read my blog for fun and enjoy another writer’s method of giving birth. (Bring on the spinal for writer’s block!)

First, let me put your fears at rest. I don’t use the structured outline form we all learned in grade school with Roman numerals and letters. And since I have a pathological fear of index cards spawned from giving school reports, I don’t use them either. (Why do all my neuroses stem from school?)  I believe in a free-form, organic outline—able to stretch and morph into different shapes while I figure out what I want to do. Basically I just make notes about a story idea until I have enough to start writing. Sounds pretty simple, but it’s actually a lot of work—efficient work, maximizing time work, but still work.

Story ideas come from different things. Sometimes an article might spark an idea—adopted teen searches for biological parents. You can play the what if game with that. What if he finds out his father was a rapist? Serial killer? Or a prominent politician running for a high political office? Sometimes an idea comes from an image like a photograph or a dream. I once dreamed of a kid astride a bicycle watching a building burn. I knew  in my heart that he was going to be accused of setting the fire and at the same time I knew he was innocent. That kid in my dream became a teenager astride a Harley and turned into Pyro, a YA novel looking for the right home. Sometimes an idea can come from a memory. You can draw on something that happened to you, or a family member, or an acquaintance. You can explore the event and change it for better or worse, as fits the story. The point is the idea, wherever it comes from, is just the start of the process. An idea is not a story. It’s the spark that starts the engine. You have to feed it if you want to go anywhere. But how do you fill the gas tank?

I start by writing down the basic idea first. I create a new Word doc and give it a working title which might or might not survive the rewrites. I like to give it a title rather than just calling it “untitled” because it makes it feel like I’m one step closer to making it a book. After I write down the idea, I’ll start asking myself some questions. Let’s take the idea of a teen finding out his father is a politician. First off, do I see the character as a boy or a girl? My first thought was a boy, but then I tend to write more boy characters. What would fit this story better? There’s a connection between girls and their fathers. Fathers generally feel more protective of girls and competitive with boys. How do I see this father? Will he be threatened by the revelation? Will it torpedo his political goals? Does he already have other kids? Does he have one the same sex as my protagonist? How did my character’s birth come about? Clearly I have a lot of questions to answer. I’m not ready to start writing yet.

The next step is one too many new writers skip over. They are hungry to start writing their book. After years of dreaming of being a writer nothing is going to stop them now they’ve started. But I can’t stress enough how important it is to stop at this stage and simply take time to think about your story. And I’m not talking about a few hours of thinking. Nor am I talking about setting aside a certain amount of time each day for a week to think about your story. I’m talking about putting your story in the back of your mind and letting it sit there for months while you let it ferment. Ideas will occur to you. The main character is the daughter of the love of his life. They met in college but his family interfered and she ran off to have a baby he didn’t know about. When I get an idea I add it to my notes. I don’t judge whether it’s good or not. I write down everything. Judging comes later. Another idea would be to make the pregnancy the result of a drunken pledge act in college. What if the person who was drunk was the mother, not the father? When confronted with the pregnancy the father claims, truthfully, that he wasn’t the only one to have sex with her that night. It was pre-DNA testing (just) and so he got away with it. Or perhaps the mother was too ashamed to admit she couldn’t be sure of the father so never had a test done. But now DNA testing has confirmed the father. I haven’t decided which way to take the story yet so I’ll write down that too. Over the months I keep writing down ideas until I have 4-5 pages of notes. At some point I’ll start leaning towards one idea or another and more of my ideas will be on developing that line for the plot. She’s the daughter of his true love. He married the family’s choice of a spouse—someone with money and connections. He’s never loved her or taken much of an interest in his legitimate child, also a daughter. The wife and daughter feel threatened by the main character. The father embraces his long-lost daughter. Instead of hiding her, he has her on stage with him, acknowledging her. The main character wants to reunite her mother and father. She wants the fairy tale ending to her story. Until she gets to know her half sister and sees how her father ignores her. Can she be responsible for hurting this girl who is desperate to have her father’s love and attention? A desire she shares? Conflict is the heart of story and you need a lot of it to keep readers turning the pages.

When I feel I’m ready I take an afternoon and read through my notes. I’ll organize them, copying over the ones I like into a new document. I don’t delete the ones I decide not to use because you never know—you might want to come back to one of those ideas. As I read through my notes I group them according to how I want the action to develop. I don’t go so far as to break it down into chapters. I just put it together chronologically so I can see the rise and fall of the action, see the arc of the story and the arc of the character, and see how the different lines of the plot develop. If I feel there are still weaknesses in the plot, and there always are, then I’ll get together with my favorite brainstorming partner, Hilari Bell, and talk it over with her.

Which brings me to the next step in the process—brainstorming. It helps me tremendously to talk over a story idea with another writer before I start my first draft. But I need to know enough about my story before I do this otherwise I wouldn’t be able to answer Hilari’s basic questions. She is quick to point out something that doesn’t work and to offer suggestions on how to make it stronger. We bounce ideas off one another until the plot works on several levels, as does the character arc and motivation. I know a lot of writers don’t like to talk about a work in progress for fear of jinxing it, or because it would make it less their story. I have a lot of superstitions (I’m half Italian) but I would find it impossible to write a strong, compelling novel without feedback from writers I respect while I’m putting the story together. It would be like writing in a vacuum. I would probably still be able to write a first draft, but it would need a LOT of rewriting. I’m all for shortening the process and brainstorming helps me skip over a couple of rewrites. It’s like getting the benefit of a critique group’s comments before you write the first draft. Brainstorming also energizes me and propels me into writing the first draft.

But first there is one more step. After the brainstorming session I return to my notes and add the changes I figured out (with Hilari’s help). I still don’t divide the material up into chapters although I maintain the chronological order of the events. It’s also at this point that I look at the structure and make sure I’ve laid the foundation for the motivation for the characters’ actions, have enough twists to send the plot in  unexpected directions, and that the climax is big enough for the story. Once I’m satisfied I start the first draft.

I refer to my notes/outline quite a bit in the beginning of writing the first draft to make sure I’m getting everything in where I should. But there comes a time, about a third of the way into the first draft, that I stop looking at the notes. I’ll check them occasionally to make sure I haven’t forgotten something, but usually I’m so deep into the story I don’t need them anymore. I know what’s going to happen. That’s the advantage you get from spending the time to think about your story and putting together an outline. You’ll have a confidence about what you are doing. Unexpected things still happen in  your writing, which if fun, but they won’t derail your story. In fact, more often they’ll strengthen what you already have. That’s the way the subconscious works. Outlining is fun, it’s exciting, and it’s a time-saver. Give it a try.

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