How I’m re-learning outlining

I’m, by my very sporadic and impulsive nature, a pantser.

It started back, probably, when I was playing RPGs with my family as a tabletop gamer. See, you’d come into a game and stuff would happen and story would be instantly created from those reactions. Role playing games like Dungeons and Dragons were my first foray into making my own stories and so from there I began to write stories from an instinctive place.

This worked fine for the little fanfictions that I would create in middle school and high school but when it came to actually trying to get through a big project, this method has, sadly, failed me.

Yet, I’m not ready to say that I’m an outliner yet…more like, I’ve figured out how to be a Tailored Pantser. I still get a thrill from creating a story out of instinct and don’t really find outlines to be more than just the barest of lines in the shifting sands of my imaginary beach, the waves of my impulses and story sense rewriting whatever I have plotted for the future of my protagonist.

With that said, I have discovered that Deborah Chester’s book on the Fantasy Fiction Formula has completely changed the way I look at stories and outlining. (You can check out her book HERE on amazon.)┬áSpecifically, her SPOOC method of story mapping has been insanely helpful and it’s what I’m going to talk about here today. If you want more than the brief summary that I’m going through, I highly recommend buying her book as it’s been a god sent to fixing my tension and conflicts.

So, let’s take a quick walk through her suggestions so that you can see what I’ve been doing to prepare for my 52 Week Short Story Challenge for 2017.

This is specifically for short stories mind you, but it can be expanded for novels.

First, I decide what my basic idea or story question is for the project.

I’ll take a prompt from the /r/WritingPrompts to begin our question:

“You join a pantheon of the Gods, only it’s just like being at entry level in a corporation.”

Cool. We have our ‘idea’. Now we need to know the following things so that we can begin to map a story. Specifically, we need Situation, our Protagonist, our Objective, aka what we’re trying to achieve, our Opponent and finally our Crisis.

For this story I’d probably map it out as the following:

S: When she was added into the Greek Pantheon

P: Agave

O: Knew she wanted to become a goddess of farming so she can restore her war torn home

But

O: When her supervisor Demeter finds out that she is in love with one of her favorite nymphs

C: can she keep her own life from turning into another tragedy.

Now, this isn’t specifically an outline per say, but it’s a start of what you’re going to going for in terms of a map. You still need to figure out your story beats, aka, the scenes where Agave tries and fails. You’ll need to flesh out characters and make sense of exactly what level of power all the gods and goddesses have. BUT at least now you have determined your opponent and have someone for your protagonist to struggle against.

I find that if I at least know what the struggle is, I can get at least build from there.

I am currently creating a ‘SPOOC’ outline for all 52 of my short stories I’m planning for next year so I can at least have something to follow when it comes to my insane 1 story a week challenge. I get the creativity of running through conflicts and major events with the help of the ‘SPOOC’ to remind me of what my stakes are and remind me of the goal I’m trying to achieve.

Let me know if this is helpful to anyone. And good luck with mapping out your stories.

Your Manuscript is a Hawt Mess

Yesterday was a fantastic day for me.

I got up, wrote my way through my current action scene and started the end of Act I of my current manuscript. It felt glorious. I’ve been in the middle of this particular action scene for, oh, weeks. I might have gotten through it sooner but as I generally only have 1 hour a day set aside for writing and working on this book most of the time, I just had to keep pecking at it until I’d failed in enough ways to find the best way to approach it.

This method is very effective for me. However, it leaves a trail of broken paragraphs, half-finished and discarded scenes and general mayhem behind me.

So today, I’m combing through the manuscript that I have and storing all my non-connecting scenes in my ‘scraps’ bin that I keep with all my projects and just focusing on the manuscript flowing smoothly from point A to point B behind me. This is not an edit people. This is still drafting for me. However, if I get tied up later when I’m down by point J, I can go back and skim through what I’m keeping of point H,G, and I to identify where I went off track.

It’s a messy method of novel writing. I have started outlining….sort of.

I am calling it a Tailored Pantsing approach.

In normal pantsing I’d write several hundred unconnected pages without any care for how they all stitch together, then go through in my Editing phase with scissors and a red marker, linking and stitching my novel back together. Then I’d do about a dozen more edits to complete the book.

However I still can’t hold too closely to a tight outline. I feel strangled if all my steps are laid out so cleanly. Instead, I’ve drawn a sort of map that the story is going to follow.

So I have a chart: Opening/Hook -> Inciting Incident -> Act Two with x event and so on until I’ve reached the end.

Now instead of just writing twelve random scenes, I’m writing twelve versions of the scene that I need and then tossing the other 11 into the scrap pile a lot sooner and moving on.

The feeling of trailblazing that I love in writing is still there, but I’m not dangling from cliffs anymore.

All first drafts are gross messes though. We make typos and we accidentally forget that we gave our main protagonist a gun the scene before and heck, novels are long and holding such a detailed story in your head for an hour a day over the course of months is tricky. But here we are, machetes in hand, ready to take it on anyway.

 

The rollercoaster

Every morning when I sit down to pound out on my current Work In Progress, I’ve been checking in with where I am in this story.

I am historically terrible when it comes to outlining. As in, I never did it.

Previously, this was how I planned a story:

-Idea, then at some point, This will happen…then thing 2….then thing 3 and…I’ll figure it out from there!

Welcome to the chaos that has been my writing process since, I dunno, forever.

It used to work. I could write 50 or 60 pages on an idea unbroken for days, just me and a piece of paper that I would add to until I was done.

It was always a matter of, “Well, that was fun, what else?” with no real focus on structure or story. The result was that I’d have these long and boring stretches of my characters talking to themselves until I’d come up with an interesting bit of dramatic imagery or action. Then…it would meander until I got frustrated and ran off with a new idea to repeat the same cycle.

My other major barrier has been that after I work on an idea for a few weeks, I’d get frustrated or distracted and quit trying. Then, it would be months before I picked it back up, and what do you know, the cycle continued.

Until this year. Here I sit, over three months of solid work in on the same manuscript. I’m pleased.

So, this month, it seems like I’ve been focusing on learning Structure and How To Outline.

In 2014 at a DragonCon Panel, I asked Jim Butcher, one of my all time favorite writers for pacing, how the heck he did it. How, Mr. Butcher, do you get your scene and sequel to remain to tight in your novels?

He told me that he imagined his story as a rollercoaster, building up on itself, each scene moving the car a little farther up towards the top of the ride, and then just let the momentum and tension push it towards the end, an end that he always has firmly in mind.

So I ask myself when I sit down to do the words, “Where am I on the rollercoaster?”

Click.

Click.

Click.

Getting UnBlocked

So, I don’t want to say that I have ‘Writers Block’ right now, rather I think it’s more accurate to say that I have an annoyance for the way my current story is going and I need to haul it all in and go through what I’ve got to figure out where I’m going from here.

If you’re an outliner or planning type writer, this is probably not applicable, but if you’re like me and a pantser, you can probably relate.

When I am writing, I start out with an idea, in the case of my current story, “What would happen if a country girl is in love with a mysterious neighbor who always wears long sleeves? What is he hiding underneath there?”

Then after I get my mental image prompt, I go into a sort of stretching of the idea. I answer my own questions through scenes that bubble from that original idea. If you want to see another author struggle with this like I do, may I suggest Libba Bray (https://libbabray.wordpress.com/)?

Anyway.
So here I am, staring at day 40 of this choice I’ve made to DO The Thing and in this case, it’s to get up every morning and write and take what comes out and make it into a book of some type, length and style. And yet here I am with this idea that I’m still convinced is fucking kickass and I have ALL THESE PIECES and I’ve forgotten what it’s supposed to look like. Or, worse, I know what I’m pretty sure I want it to look like, but I’m not sure I’ve got the right materials to build it.

So I go back to try and make a list of things and figure out if I can build what I need but I’m stuck on splinters and fragments of ideas.

Today’s (and yesterday’s if I’m honest) challenge is going to be to get down everything that I have so far and pin down where this story is going and put it in some sort of order to follow through.

The Now Habit, a book I’ve been reading to fight my natural procrastination inclinations, states that every project is just a series of starts. That we can’t think of our work as just ‘finishing’ but instead must think of it as small starts.

Today I start tugging at an outline and going from there.