Let’s talk outlines, writing without one, and my own hybrid method.

What are you? An outliner? A pantser?

Let’s talk about which is which, specifics, then we can get into my hybrid method. After that, we can work out which is best for you. You may find out that what you thought about each method isn’t what you expected. I hope I can remember all the different methods I’ve heard discussed for each. If you’ve heard/read about a different method, feel free to drop it in the comments.

What is an outliner. What on earth do people mean when they talk of outlines?

An outliner pretty much sounds like what it is. You outline the story before we work. That’s not the only method to outlining though. You can outline the work while we’re working. You can also outline the work after we write it.

outline-feelings
This is what we want to avoid as much as possible

Outlining the work before you work means that you figure out all the details you can before you begin to write the actual story. You can even outline a short story. Technically at this stage you don’t need to worldbuild until you’re blue in the face, but you can if that’s what interests you. What’s important is the writing. So the world only needs to be developed enough that you have an idea of where you’re at, what takes place, and what it’s like to live there.

The basics of the world you’d need would be things like: what are the rules of the place? If magic can be used, does it exhaust the people who use it? Or things if you like. They don’t have to be people. What kind of world is it? Are the basics observed? gravity is the same as it is for us? What sort of foods do they eat? How do they live? In homes? Huts? What’s the temperature? Air quality? Do they breathe air, or water?

We’ll go into more about worldbuilding later on. This is purely a discussion on outlining.

Now, when it comes to outlining your story before you write, it doesn’t mean that while you write the plan doesn’t change. Characters are . . . troublesome. They don’t cooperate with our plans. Even if you make the outline detailed, that doesn’t mean that you should remain to it with everything you have.

As you write, use the outline as a map on where to go, but if you find one direction blocked: be open to changing the rest of the outline around afterward. Another way you can do it is to see if the characters come back to the outline you have. Most important: that doesn’t mean force them, or lead them. If you get yourself stuck in a rut, grab that outline and peruse it. See if where you’re stuck is a place where that original outline can be used to bring you back to your original point.

No matter what, don’t force it. Trust the creative process. Trust yourself to know what your story is doing. It’s when you think you have to stick to the original plan that you get yourself in trouble. Be prepared to throw the outline out and start a new one. I wouldn’t. I’d technically keep it handy just in case, but I’m always a “just in case” person with everything. I tend to hold onto something unless I know for SURE I won’t need it.

Another way to help yourself if you feel your story hasn’t followed the original track, is to pause and simply go back in time to read the chapters you’ve written. If I have somehow derailed, I go back a few chapters and start reading. I’ll force myself even farther back if that doesn’t help. Then I read the outline again. Sometimes the outline needed a fix, or an extra scene inserted to get things back to where they’d been going.

How to outline.

To build an outline depends on what method you want to use. Below is a few that I’ve come across.

Steven Pressfield talks about Act I, Act II, Act III. If you want more details on his method of using one sheet of yellow pad paper to outline his books, you’ll want to check out his talk on The Foolscap Method. Here are YouTube videos discussing that process. In case you don’t know who he is, he is the writer behind The Legend of Bagger Vance. His website where you can find more information on his process – StevenPressfield.com

As you can see with Steven Pressfield, his method doesn’t actually mean that he knows every single detail. He leaves himself so much room with his outline that he has the basic idea down of what to include. But every last detail? Not even close.

Another version of outlining comes from Holly Lisle. There is a class she teaches, which is called How to Think Sideways. Right now she is only doing the class once a year, but when she opens it up, I usually mention it on this blog. You can peruse all her other courses here – https://hollyswritingclasses.com. Sign up for her writing newsletter and you’ll get the notification before the class launches. Her method of outlining is what you think of when you think about someone outlining a novel.

world-1264062_960_720-1
What you think of for traditional outlines – this pin connects to this pin, which connects to over here, and then here.

In her method of outlining, you figure out your scenes. You figure out who will be in the scene (whose POV you’re writing from), and you make up a single sentence to represent each scene. Place them on notecards, then rearrange the cards to fit the story you want to tell. Her reasoning being that it’s much easier to rearrange scenes before you write, rather than after you’ve already put the scenes on paper. I agree. You’ll also see that again, the scenes aren’t completely written for you. It’s one sentence. On a notecard. The details are up to you, the people are, the setting.

Again, since that’s her method and she has a huge class for you to go through (only available through her) I’m not going into details for it because that’d be an entirely new blog. But that’s a basic lesson of her method. She gives you even more tools and help in developing that outline method.

One of my favorite people to subscribe to — just love her personality — is Susan Dennard. She goes into her method to outline and plot her books on her site. I have to say that outside of the above people, she has been a huge help for me in a lot of how I plot out my stories right now. I’m not sure why. I don’t do everything she does, just like Holly Lisle, and Steven Pressfield; but that’s why I learn, then discard what doesn’t work for me.

Here are Susan’s posts about her process.

  1. How I Plan a Book, Part 1: Of Plotters and Pantsers
  2. How I Plan a Book, Part 2: Before I Start Drafting
  3. How I Plan a Book, Part 3: Scene-level Planning
  4. How I Plan a Book, Part 4: Coaxing Out the Magical Cookies
  5. How I Plan a Book, Part 5: Writing Journals

What I most like about Susan’s method is that it’s like a hybrid of both worlds. Like my own. You’re figuring things out beforehand, while you’re writing, when you’re editing, and you’re still exploring everything. Then you end up with some amazing notes.

One final method for outlining a story before the actual writing of the story which for me would be way (read: oh my gerd, no!) too much detailing beforehand, is the snowflake method. With the snowflake method, it’s what you think of when you take a snowball and turn it into a snowman. You start with a snowflake. Every one will be unique. Then you take that and turn it into a ball. As you keep rolling, it becomes a larger and larger ball. Or in this case, you start with one line (story idea). Your entire story pitch in 30 seconds.

If I did it for Dark Illusions, I would say something like: A human gets stuck in the middle of a war that’s been raging for centuries between vampires. Granted, that doesn’t sound superior, but I’m not finding my notes and I did that off the top of my head, lol.

From there with the snowflake method, I would take that and expand it into a paragraph (could use for back matter), then I would follow the rabbit trail and turn it into a few paragraphs of what the story was about (could use for synopsis). And from there, we follow the treats to the evil witches house. Er . . . we spiral into never land. Nope, that’s not it either. Oh! We keep going until we end up with one line for each chapter, then expand and expand and BAM we have a book.

[rubs dust off screen]

Sorry about that.

Website to explain in more detail – http://www.advancedfictionwriting.com/articles/snowflake-method/

Outlining as you write

I had never considered this before, but I have done this. And I sort of do it every time that I write and then jot down something that I might want to include later on. Even my {note – more details} comments that I make in the midst of my story. Just like I did there. That can also be considered outlining as you write. As far as some authors/writers are concerned, what I do is draft write. That means that I write the story out as fast as I possibly can, but I put notes in the manuscript so I remember to focus on specific areas once I’m editing.

The best example of outlining as you write came from Dean Wesley Smith. (Note – he prefers writing with NO outline, and writing by the seat of his pants.) I can’t find the specific post where he mentions the method, but what he’d talked about was outlining the story as he wrote it. At the end of each chapter, he’d have a sheet of paper (just one for the whole story) and jot down a quick sentence to describe the scene, who was in it, what was important about it. Sort of the above method. Say: Character name bitches out character name, and she hits him, injuring her ring finger, getting blood on her white shirt.

That gives the most important details to the scene so that when he comes back to the story the next day (he did that at the end of his writing day) he remembered important notes. As he wrote the story, he could easily look back and remember that the character’s ring finger was hurt so in the next few scenes, she’s not walking around happy as can be and acting as if her ring finger is fine.

This method gives you an outline to work with, but at the same time it is very loose. You have a lot of play room with. As with most outlines.

Now let’s discuss outlining after writing

I truly can’t remember where I heard this one. Or learned about it. I believe I took Holly Lisle’s scene idea above and simply changed it around to use after I was done with the book, rather than before. It’s also fairly easy to figure out what I’m talking about. I did this with a story I pulled a loooonnnggg time ago to rework and rewrite.

Anyhoo, what I did with this was to take a story I finished, then read through each chapter. I used a lot of the methods I spoke about previously to make the outline. I came up with the POV for each scene (whose scene it was), then a quick and simple description for each one. The reasons I did this was because I wanted to make sure that in my editing, I had the story figured out as a whole. I could see at a glance where I needed work, I could see where I had too many chapters with one POV.

That’s something to consider doing if you think it may help. It may not help write the book, but it can be beneficial while you’re editing.

Pantsing it.

Also known as writing by the seat of your pants, not outlining before you right, writing into the dark (Dean Wesley Smith’s term).

This means that you sit down to write with no idea (or very little) of where that story is going. On Dean Wesley Smith’s site, he actually chronicled this during his series on writing a short story every day for the entire month of July. You can find it on his site, or buy the entire book on Amazon. Titled: Stories from July. Here is a handy link for you to click on to find all those posts. (They are listed in reverse.) http://www.deanwesleysmith.com/2015/07/

What Dean did during that time was to find a title, then write. Period. There was no preplanning of the stories, nothing. Just sit down, grab title, write. That’s what pantsing it typically refers to.

BUT, there is still a method to that where maybe you have a tiny idea of the story and where it will head. Maybe you’ve got an idea in mind. Like your one sentence to describe the story. Or a character. That is still pantsing it. Since you don’t have the entirety of the idea down, you’re just sitting down and writing.

I generally do it with my short stories. There is no thought at all for me when I sit down, on the story I’m going to tell. None. I don’t even know my titles until after I’ve written the story. Granted, they usually end up being horror. So there’s that, haha.

My hybrid method, which includes both processes. Depending.

I call my method a hybrid because I tend to mix and match a thousand different processes. On one story it can be called outlining, but another it can be called not outlining. I prefer calling it the hybrid method.

It all depends on the story and what I feel it needs. At times I’ll start to outline the story and get no farther than the character names and a scene in my head. In which case I throw it completely out and just write the dang thing. Because I work on many projects at once, I’ll typically jot notes down as I write so that I can keep track of who is who. Things of that nature prevent me from having to circulate back in the story and then remind myself what a minor character was named, or what they looked like. If I did something like that, I’d be spending more time researching my own work, versus writing.

That isn’t to say that I won’t outline a story either.

But my hybrid method that I started with, and tend to default back to, is sort of what I mentioned above.

I’ll start out with a basic scene or idea that starts the story. Then I sit down to write the story based off that opening. And yes, it does usually start with an opening idea. I’ll think about the character and where they are, which gives me the opening scene. Which is where you find Kat in Dark Illusions. I had this image of a dark city street and Kat running past a dumpster as men taunted her. That was all I had going into the story until I sat down and began to write.

This is what my opening scene ended up like – https://kimberlysueiverson.com/2015/09/21/dark-illusions-the-beginning-chapter-one/

I knew that the entire story was based on a woman stuck between a vampire war, and the classic problem where the one she was most drawn to (as she was him) was the one staying away from her. He was attempting to protect her and keep her from entering their world because she was human. Which then led me to wonder what it would be like for vampires to have “packs” in some ways like wolves, and that spurred each clan. Which then led me to think about personality traits and making those the clans. Like in human nature, we tend to “pack up” in ways with personality traits like ours. Or school. We have the jocks, the nerds, the most likely to be teachers, artists, politicians, and on.

That stuff happened after I wrote, but when things started to tumble into place, how do you keep it all straight or remember what on earth you’re gonna do with each thought?

Enter the hybrid outline, which isn’t an outline because I don’t know where each part will get used, or if I’ll use the thought. It’s never in chronological order. But it can also be considered an outline because I have the ideas there at my fingertips.

Now I should explain that when I describe what I typically do now, that’s from refining it and figuring out what is working well right at this moment. A year from now it may change. Two years. It’s important to change up your routine so that just like exercising, you don’t get bored. And as you learn new techniques, you try them out to find what best fit. Every single story can need something different.

Keep this business playful and new, and you’ll keep feeling excited to do it every day.

When I first began this method I only used a bullet list. It was a mess. I also ended up using a separate file which was also a mess. I would literally just jot down a list of items and people and everything else. It would look like this:

– Kat has red hair
Julian doesn’t know where to take things
– Kat prefers to hang out at home, not with others.
– Bar name needed
– Where would a man who wanted to hide, live?
– She likes the club though?

These aren’t my actual notes, I’m just showing you how funky my work would look. That list right there? It could go on pages at the end of my actual manuscript. Then when I printed the manuscript for editing, I’d have that mess with the work. It was disorganized chaos.

What I do now is have a small list like the above at the bottom of my manuscript. This doesn’t remain. It’s sort of like a bookmark. When I quit for the day I might jot something down so that I know where my thoughts were going, then when I use it up, I erase. (Thank you delete button!)

I’ma embarrass myself and show you an exact note I wrote yesterday. This is total nonsense but I have an entire chapter or two all figured out from this one kerplunky sentence. And yes, this is copied and pasted as is.

(Inferno answers, then leads to Cara, which leads to leaving a note. Cara regards her interesting because she can tell a hint of Julian and Kat in Ky’s tone of voice)

Garbeldogook yeah? But, it makes sense to me. And most important is what I mentioned. I have a few scenes all laid out in perfect detail in ze ol’ brain thanks to it. That is an outline, but it’s not. It’s a note I’ll erase. The scene can switch around and happen differently too so I’m still writing without a plan, it was just so important where I left the story today that I needed it.

That’s not all.

In another document (just because it’s a few pages) on the computer, I have my hybrid outline. The only thing that it provides are ideas and reminders. I forget things very easy while writing. Couldn’t tell you what all happened at the beginning of this book (Law of the Beast) right now. I’m 25K into it. Memory loss, lol.

I won’t copy and past the other file, but I’ll write it up like this (sample info, nothing real):

CHARACTERS

Jane Doe – Average height, brown hair, dull boring green eyes.

John Smartiepants – Dresses like typical professor, has gentlest brown eyes, likes talking down to people.

PLACES

Boring town USA – talk about what’s interesting and different about the town

Cafeteria – broken pop machine and more interesting details I need here

NOTES

– John helps Jane with the broken pop machine
– Jane noticed John blood with blood under nails
– Jane introduces herself

That’s already giving me ridiculous thoughts so I’m going to stop before I start up another horror story. The thing with that too? All of that information can change, be rearranged, give a little more detail or not. I don’t do that before I write the story. Not always. When I wrote Under Empty StarsI couldn’t help it. While I worked on other projects it came to life and I had to jot all the ideas coming out. I was editing Ancient Scars and I knew I’d forget some of those amazing minor thoughts. I didn’t want to. But generally I won’t do anything until I write the book so that outline happens while I’m already writing the book.

If I want to have more of an idea of the story before or during writing, I will pop up there to Susan Dennard’s notebook ideas (free write thoughts I’m having about the characters) and then start interviewing the characters (derived from Holly Lisle’s How to Think Sideways class). I’ll pretty much just read all the notes I’ve written, then write more, and continue journaling my thoughts. It’s still not outlining the story as much as simply writing my thoughts. But it can also be an outline because I’m writing down what will become future scenes. It’s not the scene that’s important when I’m journaling. The journal can be filled with the character’s likes, the past, what happened when a bully taunted them in school. It doesn’t provide me with a scene idea. It does give me a personality trait, or an emotional response to a situation they may encounter later on.

I find myself journaling more often right now. Since I write the stories fairly quickly, I tend to do it more with ideas that I get for new stories. I grab myself a notebook and then write down the plot idea, the genre, any names that occur to me right then. And then I slowly expand my thoughts. Then I set the notebook aside after I’ve journaled myself out.

What happens when I finish a current writing project? I’ll end up having a story idea all dealt with in a notebook. I can grab one of those and then go through my notes and thoughts, then start anew. I have not done that before. I have used a story idea and pieced together other story ideas.

I have a notebook where I jot down a short summary of a story idea (they typically all come from dreams, I ain’t even gonna lie) and then on the next page another, and another. Those ideas I can’t really expand much more than an “idea” so I don’t try. Like Don’t Go FarI had a dream (shocking!) that spurred that idea, but the story turned out completely different. I combined that with my thought of wanting to read a book about a witch and a Lycaen and forbidden love. Again, she became an enchantress, and he became a part of a series I’d already had planned out so that too changed.

And at the end of the day, the story is yours. Start with one process, then abandon it, and just start to write the book without the outline. Start with just an idea, and then outline it when you get stuck. There is no right or wrong to creating a story, as long as you get it out.

Anyway, we’ll go into more detail later on for generating ideas, playing with them, and even interviewing your characters for help, or other characters if your immediate character isn’t talking to you. For now, I think I’ve covered all the outline and pantsing methods I’ve come across (that have stuck with me) so far. Plenty of information for you to peruse and think on until next week.


Next Week’s topic:
We’ll discuss the daily writing habit
How to develop yours, and I’ll share my thoughts on mine.

You can subscribe to this by subscribing to my blog on the sidebar, or you can subscribe to my newsletter if you’re not on it. In any newsletter, scroll to the bottom and you’ll have all recent blog posts listed there.

In the comments below, let’s determine which process works best for you. Or tell me if you’re considering one of the other methods I’ve mentioned. If you have a method I didn’t discuss, tell us about it.

YOUR PARTICIPATION MAKES THIS SERIES WORK!

Find the index with all the posts here – Story Creation Magic. The link is also up there in my navigation bar so it’s always easy to find.🙂

continue to the next post in this series

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One Reply to “Let’s talk outlines, writing without one, and my own hybrid method.”

  1. Wow Kim, great information! I am definitely a hybrid method writer as well. I tend to avoid outlines at the beginning because I find that limits my creativity trying to keep to the outline. I studied for awhile with James Patterson and he outlines extensively…in fact at this point in his career he outlines the story and someone else writes it. Hey, he’s the top-selling writer in the world these days but to me the writing is the best part!

    Liked by 1 person

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