Writing used to be a feel good, hobby-ish thing for me. I would sit down and stare at my computer and brainstorm about what would happen next. And more often than not, an answer would not come. But that was always okay–cause it would come in time! As long as I was getting something done at all–as long as I was at least sitting at the computer with the intent–I was doing alright for myself. And to an extent, that’s true; just sitting down and clocking in is the first test of all writers.
But, that approach wound up leading to some major issues. First and foremost, I was way too laid back about what was happening in my story; things would feel right and I would throw them on the page, always going with my gut, never wondering how often my instinct matched what was happening or the tone I’d already set. More crucial than that though, plot lines got completely out of control; my first edit took months because I was just trying to close loopholes. I remember thinking, say, in the middle of my first draft, “Hey! This should happen! I’m going to write it in even though it hasn’t been mentioned anywhere else in the book yet! I’ll just catch it later and smooth it all out!” When I reached one of those moments during my first edit, I remember stopping, sighing, and (probably) saying aloud, “You bastard.” Tack on the countless switch-ups of characters’ moods and logic and the zig zagging plot (products of my returning to the computer completely clueless after weeks of not reading a word of my book), and the first draft of my manuscript was kind of a nightmare. And yeah, maybe it was a nightmare that would’ve sold–cause, sadly, I’ve seen worse in published Fantasy–but not something I’d want to produce.
So, really, the only option was to rewrite the whole thing, but the question became, “What can I do to keep everything from falling apart again?” The answer is probably too bureaucratic and neurotic for everyone’s taste, but, hey, I’m just explaining how I do things.
An Outline, for lack of a better word. A single master file that compiles all of the post-it notes, standalone files, and thoughts I ever had about any snippet of my book, including the full outline of the plot. I’m not going to post a sample of the Outline here, but I will give a vague example of its set-up.
Chapter Number / Chapter Title
Main Characters: A list of all of the characters who are present in the chapter. But not just Name, Age, and Place of Origin; we’re talking everything about them, from what they’re wearing and thinking in this chapter, to whether or not the wound they took two chapters ago is still sore.
Side Characters: The same, only I add side characters’ back stories (I have a Foreword detailing all of my main characters’ stories).
Locations: A full description of all the major areas featured in the chapter.
Plot Lines: A list of plot lines, keeping close track of what I’m revealing, what I’m hinting at, and what I’m saving for later.
Bullets: The full outline for the chapter in bullet portions that are as simple or complex as I want.
This is a very streamlined, boring summary, but I have to add, before you bail on me, that it has a lot of great advantages if you use it correctly:
- First off, approach the Outline chapter by chapter in solid, helpful steps. This is your chance to experiment and work out all the details of your story. To make sure I’ve worked out the initial kinks, I start with the Bullets written by hand in a notebook. Writing by hand keeps me from correcting or even caring about corrections because I can’t free-hand half as quickly as I can correct in my mind; I give up and just get the plot down, bullet by bullet. Here I take my time, deciding what happens on a ton of different criteria (“Is this too boring?” “Does this make sense?” “Would my character actually do this, or is it just from that one movie?” “Is this to simple / predictable / cliche?”) After I finish the Bullets by hand, I look them over and find every character, location, or thing I’m going to talk about in the chapter. With these points of interest, I return to the Outline and that’s where my supplemental info (Main Characters, Side Characters, etc.) comes from. After I have all of the supplemental info down, I copy my handwritten bullets onto the Outline, using the info to improve what I already have and, thus, making sure what remains is as solid of a first draft as it can be.
- Actually write the supplemental info. All of it. When I was rewriting the first chapter, I decided I’d use a town called Mycelston. But it wasn’t until writing supplemental info that I realized Mycelston had a mine. And, hey, wait, if it has a mine, I could use that at the end of the first chapter… and it’d be awesome. Since doing this, I’ve found a healthy terror in the amount of things I know about my world that I’ve never, ever realized. But also, right there with it was some frustration; that first draft would’ve been a lot better if I’d known Mycelston had a mine. Or that Dawnspear has outlying farms up and down the Dawn Coast. But, hey, how was I supposed to know these things about my fantasy world if I didn’t write or even think about them? More importantly for you, what do you know about your fantasy world that you haven’t realized? You’d be surprised, I bet. Take the info dumps as opportunities to explore your world; don’t sell your it short by rushing through this step.
- Treat the Outline as a very rough first draft. The bullets are there for you to explore and express your story without you getting bogged down by things like writing style and narration. You’ll have all the time in the world to work with those–give your plot its own attention and see where it takes you.
- And stay on point with your plot. I know tracking all of your plot points for each chapter sounds tedious, and, yeah, it totally is. But the only thing that’s worse is losing hold of something or forgetting a very important but very minor detail 230 pages into a 461 page book.
Overall, is an outline like mine insanely time consuming? Yes. Will it require you to create a ton of content that (and this is necessary) isn’t even mentioned in your book? Yes. But will your world feel that much more complete? Will you have (as Ron Carlson calls it) more fuel for your story when you create that content? Of course. And when you’re done, will you have enough fuel left over for a collection of short stories set in the same world? Ohhhh, you betcha. Try it out is all I’m saying. I haven’t gotten anything published yet so I’m no guru and there’s a great chance this approach is just a crazy, Louis thing, but if you’re struggling, I hope this helps.
At any rate, I’m going to keep working it. Right now, I’m almost on chapter three. It is, in fact, taking forever. But really, all I ever have to do is compare the old draft to what I already have now and the time and effort are immediately so, so worth it.