Okay, as some of you know, my most recent novel is now out on submission (eek). And, of course, that means it’s time to turn my thoughts to my next work, which means outlining. So today, I just want to talk about my process and how I go about doing that.
First, however, I feel that I should tack a disclaimer onto this post. The method I’m writing about here is simply what works for me. That certainly doesn't mean that it's the only way or that it's a way that will even work for you. The most important thing for you is to find a method that makes sense for your writing. But if you’re interested in how I do it, here we go.
I used to be a hardcore pantster, but I eventually realized that just wasn’t working for me. As I pantsed first drafts, I found that I inevitably made the easiest decisions for my plot and characters just so I could get through it (I happen to hate first draft writing). By the time I was done the first draft I'd feel locked in to some of those weak decisions I had made and they ended up plaguing my books throughout the editing process. Since outlining, I’ve discovered I’m much better at noticing and strengthening those weak points before I feel I’ve gotten too far in. I now enjoy outlining and this is the (rough) method I use.
Once I have my basic idea more or less settled on, I'll usually spend at least a few days brainstorming around it. As brainstorming goes, this is a pretty random process and usually happens out when I’m walking (because evidently I have difficulty thinking and sitting still at the same time). Anything that I come up with (from characters to plot to world) gets written in my notebook.
Once I feel that I’ve gotten a good(ish) handle on the book, I’ll start my more focused outlining. I personally like using the Save the Cat outlining method. If you don’t know what that is, a good place to start is here: http://www.savethecat.com/. But there is a lot of information out there about it and a Google search will also do the trick. (Please note that this is a screenwriting method originally so if you Google it I would suggest putting ‘novel’ in there as well).
The reason why I like the Save the Cat method is that it breaks down a novel’s(/screenplay’s) trajectory into large chunks (for example, there’s the B Story chunk which deals with the book’s theme as well as the Bad Guys Close In chunk which deals with heightening stakes). I find this method is a good step to get me from my initial idea to my full scene-by-scene outline.
I first start out in a Word document. I’ll type out all the major sections (commonly referred to as beats) of the Save the Cat outline as headings in my doc. Using the ideas I’ve come up with so far, I’ll slot in what I have and then fill in the holes between those points. At this stage, everything is still pretty over-arching. Each beat might only get a sentence or two and for the most part I focus on the main characters and main plot. Once this process is over I usually have a somewhat workable, 1-2 page overview of the entire novel.
Then comes the outlining stage that I love the best: the cue card stage (what can I say? I’m a sucker for cue cards). First, I’ll write out all the names of the beats on their own cue cards and lay them out in a rough visual interpretation of where they’d fall over the course of the novel.
At this point, each scene gets one cue card. I’m a linear thinker, so I usually start at the first beat/first scene and work my way towards the end of the novel. Working from the rough outline of my Word doc I'll start to flesh things out, describing my scenes on the cards. Typically once I finish my first pass through, I’ll have already thought of more subplots and scenes to add in so I go back, inserting cards when needed.
This process ends up looking something like this (this is midway through, with the Save the Cat cards (in red) laid out in a four-act structure):
Eventually I’ll be satisfied by my scenes and where I’ve put them. (It should be noted, though, that although I’ve discovered the joys of outlining, my first drafts tend to be a lot shorter than my final or even second drafts. For this outline I ended up with just shy of 40 scenes. My finished novels usually have between 50-60. So although I do a lot of fleshing out between outlining and draft 1, I’ll also do a lot between draft 1 and 2 (though that’s a different post)).
Because of table limitations (I was not at home during this and the table was not full sized) I expanded at this point so I could see all of my cue cards. This is when I break out the markers. Besides being a very linear person, I’m also a very visual person and I find that marking up my cue cards with colour really helps me get a grasp of the different arcs I’m working with. In this case, the markings at the top have to do with plot and the markings at the bottom with characters. Usually the coloured markings will be accompanied by a quick note that outlines a plot or character point I want to be sure to hit during that scene.
Finally, at the end of all that I’ll end up with something that looks like this (with all of the cards neatly numbered for if (when) I drop them):
And that is basically what I work off of while writing my first draft. I should note that I do play fairly loose with the Save the Cat structure, but for the most part, it works for me. Who knows? Maybe it will work for you too.