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Wednesday, August 9, 2017

WorkShop Wednesday - Outlining and Story Planning

My pre-planning notebooks for Walking Wounded and White Wolf

Outlining and Story Planning

It's been a while since I last wrote a Workshop Wednesday post, and I'm glad to be back at it! This post, like all my writing posts, is based largely on my own writing experiences and education, shared with the hope that you might find something helpful in them. These are merely my opinions and findings. I'm now moderating a small, closed FB group for writers interested in the indie writing and publishing process, and you're welcome to join here
Let's start at the beginning.

Before a book is written, there comes the thrilling and sometimes-frustrating process of planning it. 

An Idea Is Born
Every book I've ever written has started with an idea that just would not leave me alone. Those nagging thoughts that invaded all other responsibilities and refused to be ignored. Sometimes they're rough plot ideas, sometimes a very specific scene unfolding between two characters. For me this is the birth phase. I usually give myself a week or so to stew on it, to see if it's just a passing fancy, or if it's stubborn enough to stick around. If it sticks, I get out a notebook and start pre-planning. 

I always keep several small college-rule notebooks and my favorite pens on hand and this is where I do all my pre-planning. It's basically just an info dump, getting everything I can think of down on paper so I have something to look at. I'm very visual, and this helps me gather my thoughts. None of this pre-planning is organized: I jot down character names, descriptions, rough notes on their history, shorthand descriptions of scenes or plot points that I see most clearly. I take time to free write and put down every little extraneous bit of anything. A lot of this ends up being scrapped or changed, but it's important just to put it down. 

I'm a character-focused writer, so when an idea starts with a plot, I inevitably scrap the whole thing. Plots aren't what inspire or interest me, but I save everything, and sometimes those plot bits get worked into other stories if I like them well enough. 

Pre-planning is where I really mold my characters out of clay. I create lists of all their traits and flaws, hopes and dreams, phobias and secret loves. I come up with middle names, and favorite school subjects. I build them bit by bit, and though a lot of this info never makes it to the page, it helps me see them as complete people. The more you know about your characters at this stage, the easier it is to reveal them slowly and naturally throughout the course of the story. 

When I'm done, I've got the heart of the story all laid out in my characters. If I'm still excited, then it's time to put together a skeleton. Which, depending on the story, starts with...

Some stories require more research than others. If you're writing about your own home town, set in modern times, chances are you'll know exactly what you need to look up. But other stories - as has been the case with White Wolf - you're so far out of your element you don't even know what you don't know. In these cases, as time-consuming as it is, you're going to have to do a good bit of research. I started researching White Wolf back in November of last year, and really dug in deep over the winter while I was sick. I started generally, and then worked my way into ever-more specific material. This research enhanced my early story ideas in ways I couldn't have even imagined before, and I'm so glad I took the time to dig so deeply. It's a lot like preparing a research paper for school, and I've taken copious notes that I've then worked into my original pre-planning notes to help flesh out my characters with a new sense of reality. 

The Outline
Once you've got a good grip on your characters and the world they inhabit, it's time to lay out the bones of the story. Admittedly, I'm not much of an outliner, but I've put more effort into this step lately because it helps ensure productivity every time I sit down at the computer to write.

I always know the beginning and ending when I start. Not the specifics sometimes, no, but I know where the main characters are emotionally at the start, and at the end. I know where I want them to end up, and what kind of emotional growth they need to experience. I also have a few key scenes in mind already. Sometimes I even write these out ahead of time to make sure I don't lose them in the process of writing the novel as a whole. The outline starts rough: beginning, ending, and the important beats in the middle. I usually leave it there, but to start with, it might be helpful to expand on this for your first book.

Character First
It can be daunting to sit down with an outline and try to plan all the plot points of a story. I don't ask myself "what happens next?" I ask "where is my character going?" I find that if I focus on the character's emotional journey, the plot shapes up around him and becomes inevitable. 

For example: In Secondhand Smoke, it was important that Aidan grow up already. But unlike Sam, he was never going to be the sort of person who said "time to be a grownup" and then made logical, adult steps to get there. Even when he tried to - like with his disastrous attempt to have an adult romantic relationship - he always missed the mark. Aidan has a good heart, but a stupid brain, so I knew that he was the sort of person who would make adult decisions because he had to, to help the people he loved the most. That led to the rescue plotline with Tango. He couldn't grow up for himself, but he could for his best friend and old lady. 

Going into your outline, know what your character wants (because the main character of a story has to want something) and what motivates him the most. If you know those two things, it's much easier to figure out what happens next in the plot. 

Think of the plot as a mathematical formula, and the characters as the variables. If you know the variables, you can plug them into the formula and solve the equation. 

Allow For Change
My characters never do what they're supposed to, and the original outline resembles the final product only in spirit. I think it's easy to get stuck when, as you write, a new idea comes out of left field and disrupts your careful outline. I always go with the new idea, because for me at least, they tend to be better and more inspired than the original. I let myself go off in the new direction, and if it turns out to be a dead-end, I backtrack and start over. I think it's important to allow yourself that flexibility, because the story WILL change on you as you go along, it's inevitable. 

One strategy I use is starting a new doc and writing the tangent there. If I love it, then I copy/paste it in, but if I don't, I let it sit in limbo in case I decide to rework it or use it somewhere else at some point. It's very common for me to have three or four docs that I pull from to create the final draft. 

So be sure to leave some space in your outline for the unexpected. 

The Notecard Approach
For writers who really enjoy mapping things out visually, you can always take the notecard approach. Write down plot points on separate notecards and then arrange them out on the floor or table. You can rearrange, add to, take away, and physically move your story around that way. 

Other Thoughts
  • Write what you know is bad advice; fantasy wouldn't exist if that were true. Instead, write what excites you. Write about what fascinates you. 
  • Write about characters who genuinely interest you. Who you can't wait to learn more about, who you would love to interview in real life. Every character in your story should be fascinating for you in some sense. You should really love them, otherwise you'll grow bored with their stories, or they'll come across as cardboard to the audience.
  • It isn't important that a character do/say/react as you would, but their thoughts/actions/feelings should make sense in relation to their personalities and circumstances. 
  • Don't be afraid to cross out what doesn't work and go in a different direction
  • Put everything on the paper and go from there
  • Don't even think about what's trending, what agents want, what the market's saying...especially not at this stage. If you write the story you love, from the heart, there's someone out there who will appreciate and love it. Writing for the market always resorts in an uninspired, cardboard story. When you sit down to outline a book, it should be because you can't contain your excitement any more, and have to share it with someone...even if that first someone is the blank page in front of you.

Join me in the FB group to keep the conversation going, and hit me with any questions you may have, I'll be happy to elaborate. 

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