New website is under construction.

Jun 11, 2012

Maybe THIS Outline Method Will (Finally) Work

Here's my plan. It's pretty straight-forward.

You know how They Say there's two kind of writers, those who outline methodically and those who fly by the seat of their pants? Outliners and Pantsers.

I'll be darned if I know which one I am. I seem to suck at both. Ugh.

A series of twelve novels is too complicated to just write in one sweet session of red hot inspiration. Or even a bunch of sessions of red hot inspiration. Red hot inspiration is indispensable, but unattainable, if I don't first have some clue about what I'm doing.

Hence, outlines.

The problem is, I don't have much luck with outlines.

"When I let go, sit exactly where I tell you, and don't move.

You can do that, right?"

My scenes are more like cats than dogs. And you know what They Say about herding cats.

I write what seems like a perfectly suitable plan for the novel, only to find halfway in that my outline left out too much crucial detail. Like, where the heck are my characters? How did they get there? Are they there before or after another bunch of characters arrive and do something else there? Logistical stuff. I'm  lousy at it. Even when I tried to write detailed outlines, I seemed to leave the logistics out. That meant when I got around to writing the scene "for real," I would suddenly realize it made no sense. I had to answer basic questions ignored in the outline, and often this sent the whole scene reeling a new direction.

This made the story stronger, ultimately, but it also meant that it was not possible to reach the word count I needed each day. I spent too much time backtracking and second-guessing myself. Sometimes I wanted to poke my eye out with a pen rather than look at the same dumb scene one more time.

But I'm terminally optimistic, so, I have a new plan for how to plan. A meta-plan, if you will.

POV: Character (Third Person, Past Tense)
CHAPTER: B5-C4-S4 - Chapter Title

Now I'll break it down in more detail: 

POV: Character (Third Person, Past Tense)
I have long chapters, almost more like sections, but a lot of short scenes. The majority are close PoV, third person, past tense, but sometimes, to either make the scene feel more intimate or more distant, I shake that up. You know how They Say don't risk annoying your readers with self-indulgent crazy shit that is really only interesting to you, the Writer? Well, I say, screw that! Bring on the crazy! I'll switch to First person, Present Tense or even something outlandish like Second Person, Future Tense. Yeah, there's actually a scene like that in The Unfinished Song: Initiate. Oh, the madness. (Brownie points if you can identify it!)
CHAPTER: Book #, Chapter #, Scene # - Chapter Title
This is important just to remind me where in the series, book and chapter I am. You'd be surprised how often that escapes me.
The Hook is the first line of the scene. Not all my hooks are that great, some just establish who the PoV character is and what he or she is doing. For instance one scene begins simply: Zumo dipped his fingers into the mix of blue powder and rendered fat, which he daubed into careful stripes on his face. This raises at least a modest question, Why is he painting his face? Why is it important to be careful? The first line, or at least the first paragraph of every scene should introduce a person with a problem. In this case, the real stakes aren't revealed until a paragraph or so into the scene:
He strapped on his blue beaded headband and tied it at the back of his head. His room was a fine one, with bright white walls, a blue ceiling with white spots like stars. It was on the third floor so two large windows allowed wind to pass through and cool the room, even when, as now, the afternoon sunlight made the walls and white and blue blankets glow.
He would miss this room if he never saw it again.
“Aren’t you done yet?” His mother Nangi stood in the doorway to his chamber. “Fa, but you are vainer than a virgin bride. How neatly you paint your face isn’t going to impress your uncle.”
“I think it’s a mistake to go,” Zumo said. “Not that you care that he will be as like to eat as feed me.”
“He may kill you,” Nangi agreed.  
Even if I don't exactly know what my first line will be yet, I should know what the problem is for this scene. The outline version of this scene was: "Zumo prepares to attend a feast given by his Uncle, whom Zumo fears may want to punish him."
This is as detailed a synopsis of the scene as I can manage. Sometimes I write out dialogue here too. Or any other juicy bit that occurs to me. I wrote this scrap for a scene with Hadi: In the market, Hadi saw a man offering sheepskin boots. The fluffy white fleece faced inside, to cuddle the foot as gently as a mother snuggled her babe. The skin, tanned and greased, facing outward, repelled water and snow. The thick sole was sewn to the two side-pieces with neat stitches planted like rows of corn. The boots even smelled comfortable. Hadi’s cold, sore feet ached for those boots. A pity he had nothing to barter. Anyway, he was here to make a different kind of trade: A life for a life. Blood for blood. And all that muck.
I like this paragraph because it contrasts what Hadi values (comfort, craftmanship and compassion) with what he has come to this village of his enemies to do, which is take revenge by killing a lot of people. It may or may not make it into the final scene.
Every scene should end on a new cliffhanger. No problem should ever be solved without a new problem being introduced. I admit, I do have a scene that ends with Dindi just falling asleep. But she's sleeping next to her captor who has promised to kill her soon, so it should still be a bit of a cliffhanger, I hope.
If it were a screenplay, who has speaking parts?
And who are the walk-ons?
I know it's weird, but I often have no idea ahead of time WHERE things take place.That's because I'm focused on other important things about the scene, like that one character is about to ambush another.  I have a vague idea, like, "on their journey to..." but that's not too exact. Where the ambush takes place doesn't seem important, until I suddenly try write the scene, and then have to figure out what terrain would work for an ambush. How about a river! Oh, shit, how am I going the ambushers to a river when in the last scene they were crossing a desert?
Another thing that trips me up is not just knowing that they are fighting by a river, but having a vivid sense of what that river is like. I don't want it to come across as just a generic river. The strongest images should also serve double duty as metaphors for the emotion and conflict in the scene. More than one scene can transpire in the same place, but the description should shift with the mood and the PoV of the character seeing it.
So as not to shortchange the other senses, I decided to write reminders to include them right into my outline. Not every scene needs to have these. I'd rather leave out smells in my description than force in artificial smells. Once I caught myself writing on every other page that this thing or that thing smelled of "cinnamon" because that was the only smell I could think of. I re-read it and wondered, "Why the heck would ANYTHING in this scene smell of cinnamon?" 
I confess, I have a terrible sense of smell, so it's hard for me to remember to include it. There's a good reason we have Television, not Telesmell.

Maybe not my best idea ever.

That's it. That's my new outlining method. I think I've probably spent more time blogging about it than using it, soooooooo.... no promises this will actually work.

I know you're all dying to know if this works. I'll keep you updated.


Christine Rains said...

Good luck with your new method! I think it makes sense. I'm the same as you. I can't outline. My plot points are cats and a few of them might be wild!

Charlie Rice said...

This sounds like an excellent alternative to outlining. I'm also between methods. I usually write a general synopsis followed by a detailed chapter by chapter outline, then I toss it aside and write what I want! Needless to say the plot drifts to another place altogether. Sometimes it's a meandering mess but other times I wind up with something far better than my original idea.

Your new method seems to combine both worlds. I may adopt (steal) it myself. I'd like to know how it works for you.

Michelle D. Argyle said...

This is fascinating! I say, do whatever works for you. Everybody outlines differently. I remember I did an outlining series on my blog a few years ago, and I learned a lot about how many different ways there are to plan things out - or not plan things out, but just organize them, lol.

I can't even imagine getting all of that straight for so many books. I admire you!

Michelle D. Argyle said...

This is fascinating! I say, do whatever works for you. Everybody outlines differently. I remember I did an outlining series on my blog a few years ago, and I learned a lot about how many different ways there are to plan things out - or not plan things out, but just organize them, lol.

I can't even imagine getting all of that straight for so many books. I admire you!