Writing Advice: Don’t Fear the Outline

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http://lagemoyen.blogspot.com

We each have our own view of writing as a practice and a craft. If writing is your job, for example, you’re likely to see it in a much different way than someone who simply writes for fun. If you are a writer of any variety, and if you have experienced writer’s block, you may have some superstitions as well. You might believe that writing on the weekends messes with your mojo. Writing in the morning may feel more productive for you than writing in the evenings. Or, perhaps, you believe that creating an outline will kill your muse.

To an extent, I understand this belief. The outline is an effort to turn writing from an art into a science, something that appeals to me. Of course, writing is an artistic pursuit no matter how you prepare for it or execute it, but some may see the outline as a regimented intrusion into their muse-fueled world. But perhaps you are placing undue power and blame on the outline. Here’s a quote from Chuck Wendig, overlord of all things writing-related:

“The myth isn’t about the magic; the myth is that the magic is so fickle that something so instrumental as an outline will somehow diminish it. If after outlining a story you think the thunder has been stolen and you don’t want to write it anymore, that’s a problem with you or your story, not with the loss of its presumed magic.”

Don’t blame the outline, writer friends! The outline has your best interests at heart, the outline wants to shepherd you along the path to your story’s perfect ending, the outline only wants to help. I think Chuck makes a good point here — if you outline your story and find that something feels “off,” you should revisit your original plot ideas and re-tool.

If, after reading this post, you are still wary of outlines and believe that they will rob you of any writing magic you possess, I’m afraid I cannot help you. We’ll have to agree to disagree! I, for one, am going to continue using outlines to keep my crazy thoughts and plot ideas in check so that they make sense in the final product. Happy writing!

— Jet Fuel Blog Editor, Mary Egan

Writing Advice: Outlining Tips

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http://lagemoyen.blogspot.com

Everyone has their own way of outlining a story. Some people create a traditional type of outline with roman numerals and letters to tell you which items or plot points belong under others. Some use the infamous Snowflake Method to plan out their plot. Others go into exhaustive detail, listing the different scenes they plan to write. Personally, I like to use a bit of each of these methods. I start with some elements of the Snowflake Method, create a rough outline, and then begin describing scene and important plot points. Through all of these steps, I often use a stream of consciousness style of describing my story. My sentences aren’t always complete, they just include whatever I need to remember the elements of the story.

Whatever your style of outlining is, there is nearly always room for improvement. Perhaps you’re feeling like your outlining method is missing something, and that it’s not getting at the core of the story you’re planning to write. Recently, I read a post on Vox, the politics and pop culture news site, that offered some tips for punching up your outlines and refining your writing process. This advice applies specifically to that stream of consciousness description you might use to lay out the bones of your plot.

According to this post, you should avoid using “and then” when describing your plot. This is something so small that I had never considered it before. But now that I think about it, using “and then” is pretty much second nature when I’m writing rambling, stream of consciousness plot summaries for my personal use. As the post says, this is the way a child might describe his or her favorite book or movie to you. They string together the plot elements with “and then” because they don’t understand any of the underlying nuances. They’re just listing plot points.

So, what should we use instead? The post on Vox makes some great suggestions that include meanwhilebut, and therefore. Instead of simply linking together plot points, these words imply more meaning and make you think more deeply about what’s going on in your story. The post gives these descriptions for each word: “but…introduces the idea of opposition,” “meanwhile…introduces the idea of parallelism,” and “therefore…introduces the idea of progression.”

Through these three words, you can introduce conflict to the story you’re writing (essential for any story!), create parallel situations between characters and plot points for an interconnectedness, and progress through your story at a better pace. I think these three words would be a huge help, and I plan on using them during my next outlining session.

Happy writing!

— Jet Fuel Blog Editor, Mary Egan

Writing Advice: A New Outline

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http://lagemoyen.blogspot.com

The editing process means taking apart your story and eliminating parts that you don’t like, but it also means creating new and awesome story elements. As you read through your first draft and begin to construct your second, you may realize that you deviated from the outline you originally envisioned. Working with an outline can help you keep on track, but it’s pretty easy to shift away from that original plan and start writing in a new direction. When you pick up your story to start a second draft, you might find it helpful to outline a second time, this time including all of those awesome things you added in during the writing process.

On his blog, Terrible Minds, Chuck Wendig discussed some important points you should understand about your second draft. One of the things he talked about was re-outlining. Chuck says, “Outline each chapter, maybe — one sentence per. Or outline the arrangement of tentpole plotpoints…The reason for doing this is — your novel? It’s a big trash bag full of who-the-fuck-knows. It’s the forest and you need to see the trees. An outline lets you get your hands on it. You can break it down, break it apart, and feel more comfortable understanding how individual components contribute to the whole.”

I know that when I finish a first draft, there are plot points and development moments that I’ve forgotten. Sometimes it’s because they were written in a hurry (i.e. during NaNoWriMo), or it’s because I wrote them so long ago. Those “tentpole plotpoints,” as he calls them, have also probably changed from what you included in your first outline. Maybe some of them didn’t work, so you reworked them as you wrote. To get a better handle on what your story looks like right now, you can create a new outline to get a bird’s-eye view.

Even if you don’t look at this second outline ever again, the act of putting it together might be enough to jog your memory and put you back into the right headspace for a rewrite. This would be especially helpful if you’ve been away from your story for some time and need to understand what it’s all about again.

For those of you out there who wouldn’t call yourself outliners, what’s the harm in giving this one a try? If you’re preparing to do a second draft, try dashing together a quick outline and see if it helps you. And to everyone — happy writing!

— Jet Fuel Blog Editor, Mary Egan

Writing Advice: Outlining

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http://lagemoyen.blogspot.com

In the past, I have discussed the process of outlining. I don’t think it’s any secret, then, that I enjoy outlining. Having an outline gives me a framework to work off as I write. It reminds me what needs to come next, where I’m headed in general, and the major plot points that I need to hit. In general, when I’m starting a writing project, I begin with an outline. Once I have a vague idea of what I want the story to be about, my first step is to write the outline so that I have that as I begin to actually write. But a different process has been brought to my attention recently, and it’s rather intriguing.

In the Writer Unboxed blog post entitled 10 Tips About Process, the author mentioned outlining in #8 on her list. She says, “Outline, but not too early. Then follow the outline: I don’t outline until I’m well into the first draft and certain I know my characters well enough to understand their motivations. If I outline too early, I become blocked.”

My first reaction to this was that I probably wouldn’t try this. To me, an outline is one of the first things that needs to be done in a writing project, so why put it off? But the more I thought about it, the more I thought that it might be a good idea. There have been a few writing projects with which I’ve struggled, even with an outline in place. During these projects, I’ve written aimlessly — sometimes for about 10,000 words — just discovering who the characters were. Most of that early work can’t be used in the final draft because it’s aimless and was only for myself. Perhaps if I did this discovery writing first, then began an outline, that would be beneficial.

If you’re having trouble with something you’re working on at the moment, perhaps you should take a step back and do some discovery writing before outlining to see where your story stands. If you already have an outline that you’re working with, consider scrapping it and starting from scratch to get a new view of the project.

Where do you stand on outlining? When in the process of a writing project do you typically write your outline? Share in the comments!

— Jet Fuel Blog Editor, Mary Egan

Writing Advice: In the Headlights

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http://habithacker.com

Last week I posted about outlining and the many different ways to execute that planning mechanism. As I concluded in the post, the way you outline really depends on you, your personal preferences, and what will work best for the story you’re writing. Whatever you’re most comfortable with is what you should go with. And so, this week I thought I would talk about what kind of outlining works best for me.

You may have heard that quote from E.L. Doctorow that says writing is “like driving a car at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” Essentially, this quote says to me that you can only plan so much. You can only see so far ahead, even in your own story. Outlining can be helpful, but unless you’re going to stick to that outline no matter what, the document you create may become obsolete as you continue to write. After all, aliens may decide to invade, psychotic family members may decide to drop by, or your main character may decide she’s had enough of this nonsense you’ve been writing. Writing can be volatile and there are times when your best-laid plans will fall apart.

I recently saw Doctorow’s sentiments reiterated in a post on Chuck Wendig’s blog entitled 25 Ways to Plot, Plan and Prep Your Story. One of his twenty-five items sounds a lot like the quote mentioned above, although he uses a flashlight rather than headlights. Wendig’s tip reads, “You outline only as you go. Write a scene or chapter. Roughly sketch the next. Then write it. Onward and upward until you’ve got a proper story.”

Until I read this quote, I didn’t realize it, but this is the kind of outlining that I do most often. Especially during National Novel Writing Month, when write-ins are happening every weekend and those 30 days are just flying by. Even when I’m not under a crazy time constraint, though, I tend to write for a certain period of time and when I’m ready to stop, I write up a mini-outline of what should happen next. That way, I’ll have a marker for where to begin when I sit down to write again.

Check out Chuck Wendig’s blog post and see what kind of plotting and prepping is best for you.

— Jet Fuel Blog Editor, Mary Egan

Writing Advice: Outlines

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http://writingforward.com

Last week we talked about story structure and how it plays into the writing process. Once you have decided on a story structure to use, the next logical step is to work on an outline for your story. Of course, outlining isn’t for everyone. I know some folks like to write by the seat of their pants. They sit down in front of their computer and just start writing, letting the words lead them in the direction of their plot. But some of us are control freaks and need a bit more organization and planning before the writing begins.

But where do you begin? Outlining is a quite large, blanket term that can sound daunting if you’re just getting started. How do you format this outline? What should be included in it? What points do you need to hit in your outline? These are all excellent questions and I think they could all be answered in this spectacular post by Chuck Wendig on his blog, terrible minds, entitled 25 Things You Should Know About Outlining. Yes, this post contains a lot of helpful information, but it turns out that most of these questions can be answered thusly: it all depends on you. Your outline should reflect what will help you out the most when writing.

One bit of Wendig’s blog post that stood out to me was item #12, which discusses whether you should include small details or larger details in your outlining.

12. MACRO TO MICRO — You can go as big and broad or as tiny and micromanagey as you want when it comes to outlining. Some folks outline just the tentpoles of their fiction—“These five things need to happen for the story to make sense” Others detail every beat of the story—“And then Martha makes a broccoli frittata, summoning the Doom Angels.” Do as you and the story demands.

Once again, it all depends on you. If you want to just hit the major points that will take place in your plot, that’s fine. But if you want to outline every detail of your story, that’s fine too. Just go with what feels right and with what you think will help you as you progress through the writing process. Give outlining a try if you haven’t yet!

— Jet Fuel Blog Editor, Mary Egan