Signs of the Apocalypse: Outlining

I tried to outline a novel precisely once. It was the fourth novel I wrote, and I’m not sure why I tried to outline it. I think it was because the writing community I was involved with at the time had convinced me that this would somehow be a step forward in my craft. The outline bore little resemblance to the novel I wrote, and the novel I wrote bore little resemblance to quality. Whether the outline had anything to do with that, I couldn’t say. I just know that I had to rewrite the novel practically from scratch; to give you an idea of scale, it got thirty thousand words longer, and I know I wrote more new material than that. It was the Amazing Accordioning Rewrite — like a hamster on a wheel, I ran and ran and ran and never got anywhere — and I hope I never have to do its like again.

I am not a writer who outlines.

Except, perhaps, right now.

It’s a very different type of outline. As in, I’m not sitting down to outline because I think I should, attempting to make up the events before I even know what they should be. This is a story where I had some bits that I knew I wanted in it, and those bits spawned other bits, and so on and so forth until I find myself with an assortment of intertwined narrative threads that impinge on one another here and over there and that will affect that other thing. Not only that, but I know where the story’s going. I know the major plot resolution all those threads will lead towards.

What I don’t know is timing. I know the novel will start with a conversation between certain characters, but I’m not sure what stage of the relevant plot thread they should be discussing. Do I need to start at the very beginning of that plot, or would I be better served to leap into the middle of it? I know steps A, B, and E of Plot 4, and that E needs to happen after step M of Plot 2, but what about B? Etc.

So I have again Committed Notecard. I sat down and wrote every plot bitlet I had onto an index card, one bitlet per card. If it involved more than one scene, it went onto multiple cards. (There were fewer cards than I expected, though; it may be there are bitlets I’ve temporarily forgotten, which will return to me later.) Then I went through and put colored dots in the corner, marking which plot thread each card had to do with. Then I sorted them into sequences where I knew their order. The stage I’m at now is integrating the sequences — figuring out whether that development should happen before or after that kablooey, etc. The idea behind the colored dots is that it will allow me to see more easily the frequency of particular plots, and whether I’m having big blocks of one thing or another, so I can decide if I want to interleave them a little bit more.

Is it working? Hard to say. At the very least, I have a record of my bitlets, which is good. It hasn’t told me what to do with the conversation in that first scene, but if need be I’ll go back and change it. I’m just hoping that the exercise will help me time the various threads better. This novel doesn’t have full-blown subplots, precisely, but it does have threads, and (since Karina recently woke me up to my tendency to use weaving metaphors about my writing) I want to make sure they’re all spaced and tensioned correctly. It’ll save me some nightmares in the revision.

0 Responses to “Signs of the Apocalypse: Outlining”

  1. mrissa

    I have been committing notecard lately as well. It feels odd, but not bad.

  2. ninja_turbo

    I can imagine your pain/pleasure. It sounds like you’ve got yourself set up for a very well-thought-out structure that might get thrown out the window or might help you get a very tightly woven tale.

    I’m starting to nibble at planning for this summer’s novel, and I’m wondering what kinds of organizational tools will be most useful for me. Last one, I had the plot in my head fo 6 months before I started writing, then had the first 5K done another 6 months before I sat down to finish it.

    Novels are funny. But ‘funny’ includes the all-important ‘fun.’

    Gambatte ne.

  3. gollumgollum


  4. unforth

    That’s a spiffy system! hope it helps. 😉

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