New? Begin with lesson one.
Outlining isn't necessary for creative writing in the strictest sense, but many writers find it a useful tool. Not only can it help you flesh out the world building, characterization, and plotting you've already done, but it can act as a kind of vaccine against writer's block.
I used to never outline anything unless it was part of the assignment to be turned in back in elementary or high school. When I first started writing, I was more of what's called a "pantser." I'd just dive in and start writing with no real idea where the story would go. It can be a fun way to write, but as I discovered the hard way, it can also leave you with a twisted mess of a rough draft that's difficult to clean up. Plus I've found it helps prevent those episodes of writer's block caused by knowing where you want to end up but having no idea how to get there. Outlining can help you bridge the gap without investing possibly days or weeks working on material just to scrap it all and start over.
Why outline though? Won't notes work just as well?
Outlining isn't the only method of organizing your material, but it tends to be one of the most familiar thanks to being taught in school. If keeping notes or index cards works for you, by all means go ahead with that. I encourage you to try a variety of methods and genres when you're starting out. Find what works best for you.
There's some truth to the old writer's adage, "You have to write a million words of garbage before you write something publishable." Writing is a craft. It takes time to learn. Use it to your advantage by using that practice and time not only to learn about the craft itself but about yourself. What are your strengths and weaknesses? What genres and forms allow you to express what you want to say in the best way?
I'm including outlining in this lesson series because it is one of the most common methods. However, there's an old series of varying writing methods I will be reposting over the next couple of weeks. If you find outlining doesn't work for you, please come back and take a look over some of the other methods as they're posted.
Personally, I've grown to favor an outline because it's neat, orderly, and I can keep it on one document file for handy reference. I have a "dyslexic's memory," meaning it can be difficult for me to distinguish between what I've thought about doing, what I've actually done, and what order something happened in. The times I've tried just keeping notes or index cards, I end up forgetting where I've placed them.
How do I get started?
Go back to all your notes, especially the ones you made in the last lesson regarding structure. Try to figure out what order you want all the events you have laid out to occur, and arrange your notes in that order. Keep any other notes you have within reach as you may need to go to them at any given time during the outlining process.
I do each chapter as a separate small outline because I'm just type A like that. You may find it more useful to simply make the big events in your book the main bullet points and work from there to add in details as you go. Once again, do what feels natural for you.
Here's what I do, just as an example to get you started.
Start with the big events.
I start each chapter detailed outline with the chapter number and the point-of-view I plan to write it in. I switch off between the points-of-view of a few select characters, so this is helpful. If you intend to stick with one character's point-of-view throughout the story or book, it'd be superfluous.
Next I type out a Roman numeral one followed by a period to trigger Word's automatic outline formatting and type the chapter's opening event. I hit enter and type out the next big event, and the auto formatting will place it behind a Roman numeral two. Do the same for each big event in the chapter, and then go back and begin filling in what happens between each one.
Most chapters will have anywhere from two to five major events, depending on the pacing. We'll get more into that later, but basically, the more events packed into a chapter, or verbs in a paragraph, the faster the pace.
Make it detailed, but don't bog yourself down.
The trick to outlining is figuring out the balance between too little and too much detail. If you don't include enough, you can end up leaving yourself hanging on into the story. If you include too much, you're just writing the book before you write it. You'll bog yourself down.
Think of an outline as the combination of directions with a road map. You can trace the entire journey. You can see every twist and turn. You can read the names of the streets, see the intersections, and maybe you even have a few details about landmarks along the way. But you can't tell every detail. Those won't become plain until you leave and start the journey yourself.
Here's an example.
So just for an example, here's how the first chapter of Right of Succession was outlined.
Chapter 1 (Maya's POV)
I. Maya arrives at Tembar Castle.
A. She's stopped by an arachnid chimera.
1. She remembers hearing legends of strange creatures in Tembar.
2. She demands to speak to Ralic, and she's led into the castle courtyard.
B. Maya hears a familiar but strange noise.
1. Sounds like it's coming from the Yekaran apartments.
2. There are no Yekaran's living in Tembar Flats any more.
C. The arachnid leaves her with Ralic's steward.
II. Maya meets Count Ralic.
A. The steward leds Maya to Ralic's office.
1. Maya observes the castle and its people while waiting to be announced.
2. Signs of abuse and the casual way it is handled leave Maya rattled.
B. Greetings are exchanged.
1. Maya compares and contrasts Ralic against Aligh and Lanre.
2. Political wordplay and posturing about the creature.
3. Talk of Kalie's disappearance and succession changes.
III. Maya realizes her mistake.
A. She senses Ralic is lying about his knowledge of Kalie's disappearance.
1. Her empathy only clues her in to the fact he's hiding something.
2. She's frustrated she can't read his mind like a telepath could.
B. Maya realizes she picked up on Lanre's desire to speak with his uncle.
1. She starts mentally panicking and kicking herself.
2. More political wordplay and posturing as she tries hurry up and leave.
That first chapter is fifteen pages in its final draft. All the main points of the chapter and landmarks along the way from one point to another are there, but that's it. There are a few key words to jog my memory about bits of characterization, setting, and background information without having to get into lengthy detail.
I won't lie. Writing out an outline like this for each chapter of your book can be time consuming. It tends to take me right around one to two weeks to outline an entire novel, but it can save months or even years when it comes to the drafting, rewriting, and editing phases. When writer's block strikes, the outline can be used like a rope to pull yourself along until the words are flowing again. It can help you find sequencing and pacing problems when it's just a matter of cutting and pasting your outline in a different order versus completely rewriting whole chapters.
I apologize again for the delay in posting this lesson. Between overdoing it during spring break with the kids, a family funeral, the on-site day for the day job yesterday, and today's transition back into normal school days from spring break, this took a lot longer than I would have liked to post.
As always, if you have any comments or questions regarding this week's lesson, please join the conversation below. I try to answer within twenty-four hours if not sooner.
Continue on to starting your rough draft.
A. B. England is a small business owner, home-schooling mom, novelist, all around geek, and avid crafter. She loves fantasy, mythology, and all flavors of science fiction.
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