So much has been written and said about novel outlined over the years that I had, until recently, never considered it worthwhile to do so myself, beyond occasionally mentioning that I did outline my books–with fairly lengthy outlines.
To start off, I’m sure most of you have heard of the gardener vs architect (or pantser vs outliner) dichotomy when it comes to how one writes. Gardeners, or pantsers, usually did minimal pre-writing, letting the story and characters guide things along, without a pre-plotted path. It allows for unlimited creativity, and works well for some, but problems that often arise include getting stuck in the middle of a story, or having things just go off the rails, so to speak, due to the lack of a plan. Architects, or outliners, avoid this problem by preparing the story in advance, in varying levels of detail.
Now, I’ve always considered myself an architect/outliner, though I’d occasionally joke that I was an architect whose buildings had gardens in them too. Then, after reading author Adam Smith’s blog post on his outlining process, I started thinking, “wow, this is far more technical an approach that mine.” So, I started to think a bit more about my process, and how it really doesn’t quite fit in with the general perceptions of an outliner or pantser.
So, I’ve come up with a new term for my outline style: Shaper. Let’s talk a bit about my process, and why it works for me. (Also, lately, with a fair amount (but not a huge amount) of time to write, my writing speed has markedly improved, in part due to my outlines. I don’t generally track word counts too closely, but I wrote Galaxy Ascendant 3, which clocked in at over 110,000 words, in about 3 months, and have written over 55,000 words toward Galaxy Ascendant 4 in just over a month.
With all my stories, whether a standalone, the first in a series, or subsequent books, start with a broad idea. Obviously, when I’m writing within a continuous series, this is different from a standalone or starting a series, as the setting, and at least many of the characters, are already defined, and the story already has a direction. With a new story or series, it can be a character that comes first, or a story concept.
Once it starts to coalesce a bit more, and I decide to go ahead with the project, I move to steadily more detailed synopses. The Dragon Hand, for instance, stemmed from me wanting to write a book with a dragon protagonist. From there, the idea of the dragon being engaged in political machinations followed–something interesting an unexpected. After that point, things gradually settled into place, as I put together a longer plot synopsis, so I knew what, in a broad sense, needed to happen, where it began, and where it ended.
By the time I start the outline, there are more things pre-prepared as well. I’ll have a general sense of the setting (though I don’t obsess over worldbuilding too much before I write. I only need enough to get things moving, and as I move the story along, I can build up the world as needed, based on what the story requires–though there is always more worldbuilding that doesn’t make it into the story, and will either just be background for me the next time I work in that world, and can provide points to jump off of in the future. I also, by this time, have a good sense of the main characters, and what their journeys in the story will be.
Then, and only then, I start with the actual outline. Now, the way I do it just made logical sense to me when I started, and at least part of me thought this was how lots of people do it–apparently, they don’t.
See, my outline is a chapter outline, meaning I start with chapter 1, write a couple hundred words detailing from whose point of view the chapter will be told (assuming that there are multiple viewpoints), and more or less what’ll happen in it, as well as where it takes place. Then I go to chapter 2, and so on. That’s it, really, and it seems stupidly simple when I write it out. I don’t plot things out by acts, or anything like that, nor do I do any complex layouts. Just a word document, with numbered chapters and their corresponding summaries. More recent innovations I’ve made, as my stories have grown a bit more complex, in a sense, and I’ve gotten more adept at this, include keeping a tally of how many chapters each viewpoint character has gotten so far, so that I ensure no one gets neglected, and this tally also allows me to better estimate how many chapters each will need to see their role in the story through to the end.
This is where I’ve realized that the strict outline definition doesn’t work to describe my process, given that I literally go from the synopsis & general idea of the character journeys to outlining by chapter, and once I complete a chapter, I just have an instinctual idea of what character/chapter needs to follow; it’s really hard to explain, now that I’m trying to do so.
This is why I’ve come to realize that I can’t describe myself as a straight-up outliner. That would require a more structured approach to my story outlines. However, I also would not call myself a pantser, as I do a great deal of pre-writing prep, and I do write long outlines for my books. So what am I, then?
A Shaper. I visualize this in one of two ways. To use a real-world example, someone shaping clay into a precise shape. To use a more fantastic example, someone using some form of magic to shape matter into a desired form.
As I’ve already said, I most certainly have a desired, planned outcome with my stories, and I have a plan of how to get from the start to the finish. However, the process itself tends to be more organic, as detailed above. I go chapter by chapter, with a brief synopsis of what needs to happen, and then, once done, I look at where I am in the story, how far the various characters’ plots have progressed, and decide where to go next. It really is tough to describe, as there is a degree of “feeling” going on. Which character I go to next, what the connections should be, etc. Unlike a pantser, the plan, and the path is clearly there for me, but unlike most outliners, I don’t have a precise, technical blueprint per say. I realize that saying “I just know where the story needs to go” sounds pretentious, I know, but that’s the best way to put it. There have been times where I’m outlining or writing, and I suddenly realize that everything has fallen into place almost on its own. I take what works from both primary styles, and go with it. And so far, it really seems to work, while making both the outlining and writing processes enjoyable. It’s organized enough, while also allowing plenty of creative freedom.
So far, I have not need to make huge revisions at any stage (and readers seem to be quite enjoying the books, so it seems like it’s working.)
I hope you found this interesting, and helpful, (and I also hope that I didn’t repeat myself too much.) Let me know what you think, if you have any questions, and also what your own writing prep/outlining processes are!
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