The Ask Correia posts are when I’ve gotten a writing related question. I haven’t done one for a while, but for any aspiring authors who’ve joined us on MHN, there are a bunch of these now under the Best Of tab. I got this on Facebook a couple of days ago.
Are you still doing any of the Ask Correia posts? If so, I’ve got to ask you about outlining a novel. I’ve been a pantser, but frankly, my 57,000 words of my novel so far completely suck. Way too much of it is a series of events rather than part of an overall plot.
How do you plot and outline a book?
And, if you don’t do the Ask Correia posts, that’s cool too
I still do these, and I try to answer the ones I can when I’m feeling inspired by my muse… Okay, not really, I answer them as I have time in between paying projects, or there is something I need to do, but I really don’t want to do it right now, but by blogging I can trick my brain into thinking that I’m actually working. 🙂
First off let’s talk about the two basic methods of novel writing. Outlining, which is what I mostly do, and discovery writing or “pantsing”, which is done by many really successful authors. Outlining is self-explanatory. You outline what is going to happen in the book before you actually write it. Pantsing means you fly by the seat of your pants and make it up as you go along.
There isn’t really a correct method. Either one method works for you, or it doesn’t, or you use a combination of the two. Whatever. The important thing is you write a good, sellable book. Here is my usual disclaimer about anything related to writing, despite what your English teacher told you, there aren’t really any rules to this stuff. The only rules are 1. If your readers like it, you can do it. 2. If your readers think it sucks, take it out. For every rule you find, there’s a bunch of writers who violate the hell out of it and sell a lot of books. So the following is just my opinion about what has worked for me.
Both methods have their pros and cons.
Discovery writing is cool because you can be super creative, and sometimes your brain will surprise you with the awesome things it can come up with on the fly. You “discover” stuff along with your characters. This is where you can have real unbridled creativity. The danger is that you run into what our original poster has, and you’ve got a series of cool events that don’t really mesh. Or worse, you write yourself into a corner. And the absolute worst of the worst, because of what you’ve already done, you can’t come up with a satisfying ending.
When Stephen King isn’t pontificating about political topics he’s fucking clueless about like gun control or government healthcare or anything vaguely related to the military, he’s one of the most successful authors ever. If I recall correctly he’s a pantser. He’s also one of the best damned wordsmiths who has ever lived. Nobody else strings evocative language together like he does, but personally I think his endings tend to fall flat. This is all a personal opinion so I’m sure I’m going to get jumped on by his fans, but when I read a King book it is like he gives us 700 pages of brilliance and then… eh… I’m bored. Guess I better wrap this thing up… Uh… Everybody dies. Aliens did it. The end.
The positive things I can say about discovery writing come from other people, because frankly my brain just isn’t wired to write that way. If I don’t at least know what I’m working toward, then I end up futzing around without a clue. I need a goal.
I know other writers who love discovery writing. They love the freedom and the creativity, and because they are having fun, that fun is contagious and comes through to their readers.
Personally, I have to outline. The nice thing about outlining is that you know where you want to end up. You know what needs to happen in order for you to get there. Now you just need to fill in all that pesky story. The story is the meat that goes on the skeletal outline. The major downside with outlining is that you can stifle your natural creativity. You can be too devoted to your outline.
This is how I do it, and it is what works for me. Aspiring authors will just have to experiment until they find what clicks for them. I’m what I consider a loose outliner. When I start a book I create an outline that is usually only a few pages long. Tops. The more complicated the book’s plot, the more outline it requires.
My outlines usually consist of a sort of timeline. I’ve already got scenes in mind. I know what needs to happen to who, when. I put these scenes in order, knowing that the order may need to change on the fly. Most of my main characters are fairly fleshed out at this point, and I know basically what their arc is supposed to be. I’ll usually mentally divide the book into sections, and I know where I want everybody to be at the end of each section. Then I know basically how I want it to end. I might not know the nature of the climax, but I usually know what I want the outcome to be.
Once I start writing the outline is just a tool. It isn’t sacred. It isn’t scripture. If I’m at twenty thousand words in and the character has developed or changed and I’ve thought of something cooler to do, I change my outline. If I’ve written something that I planned, and it turns out that it doesn’t actually work like I imagined, then I can scrap that part of the outline, tweak it accordingly, cut the bad parts, and then get back to work. This part is difficult because sometimes that means tossing days of what felt like productive work, but you’re not doing yourself any favors by keeping it.
But no matter what I tweak or change, I always have that basic outline to work toward the planned ending. It helps me stay focused. For example, say that the next scene I need to write is difficult for some reason. I’m stuck. At this point many writers declare “Writer’s Block” and expect people on Twitter to feel sorry for their muse of whatever artsy fartsy BS creative types make up to feel better about themselves, but we’ve talked about Writers Block and how it is bullshit on here before. So, if I run into one of these hard but necessary scenes, and I really don’t want to write it right now, I simply skip it, and because I’ve got an outline of future scenes I go ahead and write the next bit that I’m interested in.
Doing that, there have been several times where I’ve skipped a scene earlier in the book, then gone back once I’ve written the finale, and then wrote that hard scene, and the hard scene turned out better for it because now I know exactly what needs to transpire. That’s the beauty of word processors. I can’t imagine what it was like back in the typewriter or pen and paper days, except that I probably wouldn’t have made a very good living at this stuff.
Outlines are awesome, as long as you keep in mind they are just another tool in the tool box. The goal is to make an awesome book that people will purchase because it makes them happy, so whatever you need to do to make that happen is what needs to happen. If the outline gets in the way, break it, change it, do whatever you need to do.
No seriously, if you haven’t read Spellbound, skip this paragraph. SPOILERS. For example, when I was writing Spellbound my original outline had the finale be the fight on Mason Island, culminating in Crow getting tossed in the black hole and everybody thinking Faye was dead. . Then I wrote it and eh… It wasn’t BIG enough. Especially after the way Hard Magic ended with the biggest action scene ever. A friend read that super early draft also and felt the same way. (actually it was Steve Diamond from Elitist Book Reviews and the reason he got to read it that early was because he was a character who originally died in that scene) 🙂 So the Mason Island sequence was shrunk a bit and that whole giant kaiju fight across Washington DC was added afterwards. Way better.
So in that particular case my outline, which had seemed fine in my imagination before, wasn’t correct for the book. So I tossed the outline and came up with a new climax. I really thought that would have worked, but I was wrong. Remember, the important thing is to make your readers happy, not to prove how clever you are as an author.
So how much outlining should you do? As much as you personally need. I know some epic fantasy authors that write a whole extra book worth of stuff to go along with the book you actually see. Other author’s outlines would fit on a napkin.
I only outline for longer projects. Short stories usually aren’t worth it. Normally for a short I’ll have a basic idea of what is going to happen and I just write it. It is a lot easier to write yourself into a corner over the long course of a book than in a few thousand words. The longer the project, the more outline. I’m currently working on something that would be considered novella size. It has half a page of notes and I’m not really sure how it ends. But since I can write it in less than a week, I’m not going to stress out about it.
How much outlining is too much? This gets the same answer as how much research is too much. If you’ve gotten to the point where it is keeping you from writing the actual book, it is too much. If you’re putting off the business of writing so that you can futz around on the internet looking stuff up for more than a few days, you’re screwing around. Quit screwing around and start writing. There’s no reason you can’t write the parts you know and then fill in the rest of the outline later. The important thing is to get words on the screen.
The most outlining I’ve ever done has been for my upcoming epic fantasy project. I’m at like 40 pages, an Excel timeline for 1200 years, and a bunch of hand drawn maps, but I’d say most of that is world building rather than a pure outline of the plot. Because I’ve fabricated the whole world, that has required more forethought than my other worlds, because at least those worlds were starting from a real world baseline. Even when I tweaked those worlds to make them different, there was at least a starting point.
Outlining has one other business perk. If you ever do any writing for somebody else’s IP, then they are going to want an outline first. For example, the stuff that I’ve written for Privateer Press for the Warmachine universe they wanted very detailed outlines before I started. The outline for Into the Storm—the final novel is less than 100k words—was more detailed than my outlines for the first three MHI books put together, and those clock in at over half a million words. I’ve got another project that I pitched to them, which is bigger and more complex, and it has the most detailed scene by scene outline of anything I’ve ever created in my life. If you are writing for somebody else’s established world, they are going to want to make darned sure that you aren’t going to screw up their existing continuum before you both waste time and money creating something that doesn’t fit.
I heard super author Chuck Dixon say that once he was experienced enough, he could write the beginning and the end of a story, and then go back later and fill in the entire middle. This was for comic books, but the principle remains the same. If you know what has to happen, writing it becomes easier.
A lot of that whining you get from inexperienced authors being frustrated while staring at a blinking cursor is usually because they don’t know what is going to happen, so they’re stuck. If that is happening to you, then I hate to break it to you, you’re probably not a discovery writer. Step away from the computer, take a walk, and plan your story first.
If you try to outline a story and you just can’t, fine, but if you can sit in front of the keyboard and your brain vomits out brilliance, awesome. You are a discovery writer. Have fun. Now go be brilliant.
Do whatever you need to do to create the story. Just because there are stupid memes and cartoons about how hard it is to be an author on Facebook doesn’t make it true. There is no pride in being a “struggling artist” or any of that angsty crap. This is your job. Treat it like one. If your methods aren’t working, change your methods until they do.