Saturday, June 8, 2013

The Outlining Process

I've heard it said that writers fall into two categories: pantsers and outliners. Gardeners and architects. Those who write by the seat of their pants and those that bullet-point the crap out of their works. What it boils down to is how much planning you do before you write. I'm both at different times. But primarily, I'd say I am an outliner.

I wasn't always an outliner. Up until 2009 I was definitely a pantser. Sure, I'd have a basic idea of the story in my head, but I let the words take me where they would. And if you'll see my post about the I Can't Finish Trap (, you'll see where that left me: with a lot of starts and few finishes to my name.

I still tend more towards pantsing when I write short fiction. Okay, when it comes to short fiction, I AM a pantser. Until I get stuck and then I might figure out the outline through to the end, but it's bare-bones bullet points, and then I pants it again. But this post isn't about that. It's about my outlining process.

My first outlined work was the project that eventually became my first novel(la) Empeddigo. I'd never outlined before, but if I was going to win my first NaNoWriMo, I was going to need the guidelines. So I basically did a first draft in outline form in the 6 weeks leading up to November 1. And I finished NaNo that year, passing the 50,000 word mark on November 15th. Since then, I've outlined and completed my epic poem, The Trials of Hallac, my blogject/novella Mere Acquaintances, and a few other projects I'm working on. The Blood of Princes trilogy with my best friend and co-author Erin Pruett is underway being outlined. I also have novel Criminal from Birth and its unnamed sequel, novel Guaine's Gift, and novel The Extra Son. I don't italicize because they aren't finished.

Anyway, here's the process I use. Take it or leave it, but I'm still polishing my way of doing things. Also, I call these outlines, but in truth, they're more like a first draft. They may not be fully prose, but my outlines are detailed enough that I personally can justify calling them my first draft. For the purposes of this blog post, I'm going to use my outline for Guaine's Gift, a novel I've been plotting for awhile and that I hope will be on my writing block late this year or early next year.

Step One: Develop the Idea.

This one's easy. I have tons of ideas. What's hard is figuring out what to do with them. Guaine's Gift came about from two ideas: the setting of a matriarchal society that hails its ruler as a goddess and a what-if. What if a Christopher Columbus-like figure discovered a new world inhabited by people with magical powers? Now what do I do to build this story?

Step Two: Build.

For me, this is a lot of fun. This is my world-building step. The key here is to ask questions. I quickly decided that since the society is matriarchal, men are considered property. From my idea, here are some questions that spawned:

Do they really think all men should be property?
Where do they get their slaves from? Colonies elsewhere? Are they bred? Or are they captives from conquered lands?

Are there women slaves?
If so, what could put a woman in the position of a slave? If not, does it cause contention with their buyers that only men are sold as slaves

Are their soldiers men or women?
Are slave men "trusted" enough to follow orders, or are women considered the superior sex?
Or are women too valuable to be expended in military matters?

Why are men so looked down on?
Is it a religious outlook?
Are they merely a more advanced stage of civilization than the other continent, who stamped out the god-given Guaine's Gift form their men, and that disdain is all that is now remembered?

Females cannot be born into servitude in the empire. Since only women are natrually free, children are born to free women impregnated by men who are property. So obviously, they hope for girls. Are the boys immediately given up, or do they remain with their mothers?

If they're taken away, how are they cared for? Cow's milk? Goat?

Or are there women slaves who deal with this kind of thing?

Are female slaves forced into celibacy or made sterile?

These are very basic questions. I didn't bother trying to answer any of them yet. Just asking them. Eventually, I have a nice little list. Once I get bored asking questions and start getting antsy to answer them, this happens:

Do they really think all men should be property? Yes, they do, but they also know that their power doesn't hold outside their own borders, so they don't immediately clap a collar on every wandering man they see. They do look down their noses at them, though.

Is there any respect to be had for foreign men, especially kings? Only by proxy, because respect for titles is something they understand.

Or does the Empress only treat with women? The Empress does treat with men, but it's very condescendingly. She really doesn't believe they can hold a candle to her power- or intelligence-wise. As a result, foreign kings tend to bring a female representative or a wife with him... or simply don't go at all in favor of sending one.

What kind of relationships would they have with neighboring kingdoms where men aren't mere property? Tenuous. They are very arrogant (think the Red Ajah's attitude) but they see the necessity of having men around. In most cases, merchants will address the woman if they have the choice in their dealings. Some men like to simply stick it to the women and force them to deal with men out of pride, but some also know that women will receive more respect and will be able to haggle for better prices. In some cases, men will bring their wives to do their talking but expect their wives to be submissive. Gender relationships in other kingdoms can be pretty strained because of this kind of dealing.

Where do they get their slaves from? Colonies elsewhere? Are they bred? Or are they captives from conquered lands? Slaves are bred in W'Ltair and can also be any man who has proven himself unwanted, or a woman whose credibility and honor have been completely destroyed.

Are there women slaves? Yes, there are women slaves.
If so, what could put a woman in the position of a slave? If not, does it cause contention with their buyers that only men are sold as slaves? It takes great dishonor to have a woman fall so far, but it does happen. Crimes that can cause a fall include (but are not limited to): Stealing a male; sleeping with another woman's male; murdering a male, a free woman, or a child.

Aww, answers! It goes on and on. But these answers led to more questions. The best one is "Why?" Answers lead to questions, to more questions, to more answers, and so on. Eventually, I had a huge list of questions and answers that expanded into the world and the society of its people. And yes, sometimes I use references to other works, other things I've read that can help me develop an idea in a few words rather than a lengthy paragraph.

It is very easy to get caught here, so you have to learn when to stop. For me, that's all based on feeling. Eventually, I just feel like I haev enough ideas swirling around in my head and on paper that it can't wait any longer for fleshing. I go with my gut. I wish I had a more concrete way to tell when you're ready to move on from this step, but I don't right now. Sorry.

Also, no, I didn't answer every single question I asked myself. Tons went unanswered in this planning stage. Some answers changed later on when I realized the story I'd created had no place for that answer. Sometimes new questions popped up, or answers to questions I'd never asked. To quote a repeated line in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, "They're more like guidelines than actual rules." Remember, you're the writer. For all purposes, you are a god.

Step Two-point-Five: Who's There?

Somewhere in all those questions, I started to figure out WHO my characters were. As society emerged, I realized that my Christopher Columbus character was just one drop in an ocean of life here. This would be more of an ensemble piece than a single-protagonist work. I could have characters be men who were property, their owners, trainers, even characters that weren't from that particular belief system. There were so many different viewpoints I could explore and exploit, and they would help mold the plot.

Step Three: Bullets.

This is the beginning of my first draft. I seriously sit and figure out what happens. For this step, I'm actually going to move away from Guaine's Gift and look at my first finished novella, Empeddigo. At the time I was working on Empeddigo, I wrote it through, start to finish. I suppose this could be considered pantsing, after a fashion. I didn't know what was going to happen until I got there. I honestly, figured out what was going to happen in the first chapter, did bullet points, and then moved onto chapter two. Eventually, I reached the end. Sometimes, I'd have an idea for some dialogue, and I'd include what was said and who said it.

I won't lie. This step is NOT pretty. My outlines are ugly, and just to prove it, have fun making sense out of this example:

Chapter Fifteen Nien
  • They follow Trem up the side of the mountain. It's rocky but there is lots of growth that keeps it from being a slick climb. Nien starts to get a weird feeling. Trem: "Kind of lightheaded? I felt that way too. But come look at this. Just a little farther."
  • They come to a level area. trem hushes them. "Up a tree."
  • "I caught eye of the monster when I climbed up here earlier and followed it here. But when I got here, I saw a person heading for that same crevice opening the monster did. I think someone's controlling it. I think it's been set on the village."
  • Nien sees the monster resting near the opening of the cave. He points it out to Gaella, who shoots an arrow at it. It goes straight through and chinks off the rock behind it. Confused, or thinking she simply missed, she tries again. Same result. They climb down and when their vision is clear of the tree limbs, it's gone. They peer into the cave.
  • People inside are wearing facemasks to cover their mouths and noses. They're crushing the leaves of the plant that's so common around here and in some of the fields. And they're not dressed like anyone any of them have ever seen. No sign of the monster. Gaella: "What are they doing?"
  • Trem: "I don't know... but I'm coming back tonight and finding out."

See? Not pretty. And as I've outlined more, they get uglier. But I can make sense of them, and that's what matters, because I'm the one that it's intended for anyway. But I think you get the idea how it really functions as a draft rather than an outline.

These days, I'm not outlining quite the same way as I did in 2009 with Empeddigo. In light of my new methods of finishing things, I'm actually not pantsing quite as much as I used to. I need that ending to be figured out earlier in order to make getting there easier. Now I tend to do a "Big Three" outline. Three bullet points: Beginning, climax, ending. Since the beginning and climax are pretty easy for me, this helps point me toward the end rather than have me floating above the world wondering which way I'm supposed to come in for the landing. Then I start spreading things out into the gloriously scary outline like you see above.

Step Four: Write!

Outline finished. It's time to do my first real draft of prose. Technically, this isn't part of the outlining process, but it's still important. My own experience has taught me that this is about sixty-three times easier than outlining. Okay, I'm kidding about the number, but when compared with my outlining process, writing is a piece of cake. The hard work is done. I'm not kidding. It took me 6 weeks to outline Empeddigo. I wrote it in 15 days and didn't even put down any words for 6 of those 15 days. So in reality, I wrote my second draft (my first prose draft) in 9 days.

My novella Criminal from Birth took about 5 weeks to outline and about 3 weeks to write my first prose draft. The Trials of Hallac is a different story, a little bit. It's an epic poem, but I still used the same process. I spent about 5 weeks outlining and about 4 weeks writing.

Granted, the writing I'm talking about is usually pretty intense writing sessions. A lot of my work gets put out in NaNoWriMo-like spurts, but those are productive times. I'm getting more consistent in writing outside spurt sessions now, but the point is that this intense outlining process makes the prose writing a more enjoyable experience for me. I still get to enjoy pantsing when I do shorter fiction, but outlining has made it much more likely that I scrap less. it helps me figure out foreshadowing a little more easily, helps me keep things consistent. Something about bullet points makes it easier for me to make changes than trying to do that in editing prose.

I have great respect for those that pants it all the time. I couldn't do it. I tried. So call me an outliner for life.

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