outlining, damselfly-style. (with footnotes.)

I don't talk about my writing process overly much, or with a great deal of specificity when I do — mainly because every time I contemplate the topic, I always trip over the "what (barely, if at all) works for me won't necessarily work for anyone else" hurdle; and if I manage to make it past that one there's always the "I'm hardly an expert!"

But it occurs to me I should, mainly because I like hearing about how other writers work. So, you know, share and share about and all that.

So, given I've been whinging so much lately about the plot (or apparent lack thereof) of the faerie novel, I thought perhaps I should share how I currently1 approach outlining.

My first novel2 I wrote out of order, and without any outline at all. Literally scattershot. I wrote 350,000 words worth of novel, and then wrote a summary of each scene on an index card, and only then did I put the scenes in order. It was inefficient, and messy, and led to a whole lot of continuity errors. But that's okay: at the time, I was writing solely for myself, without any guidance or practice, to see if I could not only start a novel but finish one.

I'm not quite that inefficient any more — although I've not progressed far along the spectrum yet.

Shadow Queen I wrote without an outline, and without any planning in advance, but at least this time I wrote the story linearly, meaning I started at Chapter One and plugged right on through to Chapter Eleven.3 With Pledged, thanks to it being a continuation of the story, I had an idea of the turning points that needed to happen4 to get the story to the end I had envisioned back when I started writing The Binding books — which gave me some leeway to write not-entirely-linearly without messing up the continuity too much. (Heh. Two distinct skills, having an outline and writing in order. I can't do either one particularly thoroughly on its own; I definitely don't like to do both together, apparently.)

I've tried outlining up-front, using various approaches, from loose character sketches and a few key plot points, to the uber-detailed snowflake method. Ultimately, though, none of those tricks work for me unless I've written at least some of the alpha draft already. And by some I mean at least a good third of the draft.

At that point I know the world and the characters well enough to know where the story I started is heading.

To assess that, I use the four-act structure. It's a narrative structure I picked up from the Crusie Mayer blog (which no longer appears to be available online, so this is from the notes I made at the time and may have skewed from the original that Jenny Crusie presented):

  1. Inciting Event: the first conflict, which starts Act I
  2. Turning Point 1: the protagonist makes a decision they wouldn't have at the start of the story, thus ending Act I and kicking Act II into gear
  3. Turning Point 2: at the midpoint, the protagonist makes a decision which demonstrates how utterly they've changed from the story's outset, thus ending Act II and ushering in Act III
  4. Turning Point 3: the dark moment, at the end of Act III, when the protagonist is all but defeated
  5. Climax: the end of Act IV, and only one of the combatants is coming out a winner

Jenny Crusie had approximate wordcounts by which each of these turning points should occur, but I forget them. For my purposes, I find a "not quite quarters" approach works nicely for me: the fourth act needs to be shorter, for pacing reasons, whereas the second and third acts can stand to carry a little more weight.

It's all arbitrary, anyway — I for one have seen plenty of other-act structures out there, from the 3-act5 to the 9-act. I find 4 works for my brain because there's enough turning points to hang the story on, but not so many that I get lost and frustrated in the agonising process of trying to figure out the story without writing it first.

Usually, because I've written about a third of the draft, I've either written the first turning point, or I'm not far off it — so it's simply a matter of figuring out two more turning points and the climax to resolve everything. And because my characters are invariably capable of having an argument in white space which lasts a good 10,000 words, having from 20-50,000 words between turning points isn't too daunting and in fact can sometimes feel a bit rushed.

I'll also sometimes write a blurb or (usually incomplete) synopsis at this point, because that captures the mood of the story better than turning points, and knowing the mood I want to evoke is just as important as knowing what happens. One of my friends makes word-lists (brine in preference to salt, for example) to make sure she can pin the mood to the page, and sometimes I'll do something similar. Theme and symbolism might also get a few quick notes at this point, too.

The Binding books, being first-person, had only the one set of turning points, as the other characters' storylines played a very definite second fiddle to Matilde's. The faerie novel, on the other hand, has two protagonists, who are not always working together, so I have two sets of turning points happening, sometimes coinciding and sometimes in counterpoint. Here's hoping I can make that work.

I do find that with each book I attempt I'm wanting slightly more outlining up-front, so who knows? Maybe one day I'll end up being uber-detailed, outlining every beat of every scene of every chapter before I even write a word.

Although that would be a world gone topsy-turvy.6

  1. Processes change with time, of course, but also with books. I'd heard writers saying before that every book is written differently, demands to be written differently. Every book is a first book in the sense that you never learn how to write books, you only ever learn how to write the book you are currently writing. Before I'd actually hit the magical =30= on my first novel, I didn't disbelieve them, but neither did I entirely understand. Surely tricks learnt in writing a previous book would stand an author in good stead in writing the next book? Yes, in the sense that the author now knows those tricks and will try them, but no in the sense that the tricks in question may not help wrest the book out of the head and onto paper, and then the author is back to square one: whatever works. []
  2. Not Shadow Queen, that's my first published novel []
  3. Which, in the published version, roughly align with Chapters, oh, about 2 to um…however many chapters there ended up being. Thirty-odd, from memory. I don't have a copy of the book to hand to check, and I am too lazy to walk into the other room to find one. []
  4. Ooh look! that almost sounds like a bona fide outline — for very loose and nebulous interpretations of the word outline []
  5. Which is generally the same, Act II of the 3-act structure being equivalent to Acts II & III of the 4-act structure []
  6. As evidenced by this very post. Most people can explain their outlining process in a sentence or two, or a quick concise list. Me? Over a thousand rambling words. I sigh in a resigned fashion. []

3 thoughts on “outlining, damselfly-style. (with footnotes.)

  1. Thanks, Deb!

    Your advice couldn't have come at a better time. I'm 15,000 words into draft 1 of my latest project, and I'm using the "just write and see what happens" approach. I hadn't considered the idea of set turning-points for the lead character, but I can see how they'll add some focus to what is fast turning into a nice thick plot-soup.

    Please feel free to talk about your writing process as overly much as you like 🙂


  2. You're very welcome! I find the small number of turning points gives a bit of cohesion and drive to the "just write and see!" approach that makes the edits a smidge easier, without getting me so bogged down into over-analysing that I lose all urge to tell the story. It really did take me a while to figure out that even what scant outlining I do really works better for me mid-first-draft rather than pre-first-draft. Oh to know what each book needs from the start, instead of working by feel and guesswork…!

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