(This column is posted at www.StevenSavage.com, www.SeventhSanctum.com, and Steve’s Tumblr)
Last time we met, I discussed that a major part of my writing is actually deciding what to do write in the first place. I don’t just go “oh, I have to write this,” I ask where it fits in my larger writing career (and, occasionally, vice versa). Part of being a writer, to me, is filtering.
But at some point the time comes to Write That Book. So I write that book – by writing something else. The Outline.
The Framework Of The Future
Almost every large work I write I write is Outlined, often in fine detail – fiction and non-fiction. I have it broken down into major sections (often chapters) and what they’re about, and often down to individual paragraphs.
The reason for this is multifold:
- An Outline is a away to test-drive your idea. There’s a chance you don’t have a good grasp of it or that it’s in an immature state. In fact, when I schedule a book I usually produce a rough outline then – sometimes the complete outline.
- An Outline creates the basic structure of your book – and tests that structure As you come up with an Outline you often find better ways to do the book – and in the end the outline means a stronger piece of writing.
- An Outline is a way to pace yourself. When your book is broken down into sections and components, you can easily measure work done, work needed, and progress.
- An Outline, because of the above, becomes a time-saving device.
As important as this is in non-fiction, a good outline is even more important in non-fiction. A large cast and large series of plot elements can easily go “off the rails” if you don’t keep track of things. Writing a book, on say, Ball-Jointed Doll clothes may require certain cases of following instructions, but tracking three battles and twelve characters across 300 pages is going to be even crazier.
I have one friend working on an utterly brilliant story involving precognition. Imagine where they’d be without an outline . . .
So, me, I outline. And what’s a good Outline? Well, my outline tells me it’s time to discuss that . . .
A Good Outline Is . . .
So what does my outline contain? Let’s look into that before I get into how I make it. It sort of makes my goals clear.
First, a good outline contains a breakdown of the various Sections of a book – often this is chapters, but in the case of fiction it may be major events or milestones. These are the “big pieces” of the book that get you from A to B, be it learning a skill or telling a tale. The various sections are
Secondly, the Major Sections are also broken down into individual pieces, the elements that make up these Really Big Things. A Chapter on, say, writing skills may cover the major skills and their role in your career. A big event in a book, say a war, may start with how characters get involved in said war, what happens at various times, and the fallout.
Each Section has a specific goal, getting from A to B. If its complex, not always clear, or needs precise pacing, I break it down further into subsections – major events, major points, etc. For my nonfiction I may go as far as to break down what each paragraph is about.
You probably realize now that my Outline is, essentially, a fractal. A Section has a start and a finish – and a goal. So does each part of it. So may each paragraph if I outline that far.
Sure this sounds like it may take time – it may or it may not (sometimes this stuff nearly writes itself). I stop when I have enough information to know I can start. You can overdo it.
When you really get “in the zone” of building the Outline, it can happen fast, it can be instinctive, and it can be powerful. You truly know your subject after awhile, and it just flows.
Let’s talk about creating it in detail.
Creating That Outline
So how do I create that outline? That . . . is both organized and not, depending on what I’m writing. There’s a few methods I use to get started, depending on what works and what my mood is. Then it’s mostly the same.
Methods to get started:
- Brain dump method. I write down everything associated with the book, everything I want to cover. Then when I’m sure I have everything out, I sort it into an outline. THis usually gives me a mix of Sections and fine detail to put in the sections. The order usually becomes pretty apparent.
- A to B method. If a book has a very specific goal, I create my initial outline on how you get from A to B, each section or chapter being about one major milestone.
- The Probe. This is what I use if I don’t quite have a clear A to B method, but some path is apparent. I write a sample outline, review it, then if not sure, write up a slightly different one. Eventually the best A to B method emerges.
Which method works best? That’s really something you have to try for yourself – and it depends on the subject. Stories usually work with a mix of A to B or The Probe. Nonfiction works can fit any in my experience – and you may not know which is best for a subject until you fail at it once.
So once I get started, and have a basic Outline, I then review sections, figuring out what has to go in them. At this point since I know the goals of the book, I can pretty much write from A to B each section. I cover each major issue that has to be covered at the very least.
If a book is larger, I often do several “Sweeps” fro start to finish, getting the Outline straight, reviewing it, and often adding more and more detail to the book – breaking each major Section or Chapter down further and further. Sometimes, as noted I literally get to the level of figuring out what each paragraph covers.
How far do I take this? Usually “until I have enough to start writing” or “I’ll know it when I see it.” One can usually tell, instinctively, if a book is ready to go.
While doing the Outline, a few things to try out . . .
Insights While Outlining
So as I work on my Outline there’s a few things I do or try out:
- Look for patterns. Sometimes a book, no matter it’s form, has patterns in it. You may find that each character’s story parallels the other, or you may find that your insights about specialty popcorn fit into four patterns. Finding these patterns is important as they can guide, improve, o even replace the original outline. If you find that each character’s story parallels that of the others, you may try to tell each character’s tale at once as opposed to people catching up in flashback.
- Look for warnings. Sometimes, despite your best efforts, while working on an Outline you may find you’re totally off base and need to change all or part of it. Heed the warnings – because once you’re down in the weeds outlining your next book, thats when you truly find your mistakes.
- Take notes. Sometimes you’ll find interesting insights you might not use, or questions to ask yourself. Write them down and review later.
- Other inspirations. This often happens while writing, so keep that Brainstorm Book handy!
So When It’s Done
So once my Outline is done, I make sure to store a copy of it. Because now it’s time to start writing . . .