I love my notes and outlines, I really do. Right now I have a nice stack of them for my newest story sitting in my red accordion file-folder. Once I have all of my pre-writing done, I’ll probably move them into a 3-hole binder, but not yet. I’m happy where they are.
There’s something that should be said before I go into how I start outlining a story. The stories I love (and tend to write) have intricate plots with full back-stories and foreshadowing. Since my stories tend to have so much involved, I need some sort of plotting. Not everyone writes stories like mine or writes like I do, so this might not be the best for you.
One of my biggest problems is that I have a hard time pinpointing what the plot is in precise terms. Explaining a plot when it’s in the beginning stages involves a lot of hand waving and backtracking to explain myself. This meant that when I finally got around to outlining, I’d have to re-write the outline — yes, the outline — more than once before it was solid.
Eventually, I figured out that I needed to focus. I’d start by writing a sentence that summed up the entire book (or series). Then I’d expand to a paragraph, and a page, and to whatever length my last outline ends up being (usually around four pages, single-spaced). This way I end up with something tangible I can use.
Put Up the Frame
After I finish the first outline, I let it ferment a bit. If I jump straight back into working on it, I’ll get bored. It’s possible, and something will most likely get done, but it won’t be as good as when I let it sit. When I let it sit, denying myself the work, I get more excited about writing it.
Now that I have the plot down, I flesh it out more. Depending on how complex it is, the world-building might take a day or a week. The good thing about doing it early is that when I write sequels or in the same fictional world (which I often do), I don’t have to do it again. Yay! I also start my character charts.
Build on It
Now I have a base for the plot, my world, and my characters. Unlike my other steps, I need space, solitude, and time to do this step. It’s time to card the story.
This step either goes really well or it’s torture. Depending on my mood and what works for the story, I actually use notecards, Post-It Notes stuck on a wall, or a pad of paper. The main point of this step is to sketch out the chapters and scenes. I always, always plan more scenes than I write, and things are constantly changing. I’ve heard that there are programs I can use to do all of this more easily, but I have a hard time without something tangible.
Make It Look Pretty
All of this doesn’t help much if I lose my notes, which I have done many times. I learned to treat my stories like I treated my classwork, and organize it with several back-ups. There are never enough back-ups.
First thing I do is make any of my edits from carding the story into their respective documents (plot, characters, world-building, etc.). The next thing I do is write an outline out on a Word Document. I also create an excel document where I list all the scenes, and start to keep track of my daily word count and my back-ups.
The first back-up for this goes into GoogleDrive. I also have it on my e-mail, on a portable hard drive, on my computer back-up, and on two thumb drives. I have had three of my back-ups fail after my hard drive’s crashed, so I’m insane about that. A weird thing I do is send a copy of these documents to my Kindle. I’ve used it more than I thought I would.
The physical back-up is less of a back-up and more of a reference. I print off one full copy. That copy goes to a binder that I almost always have with me. I write notes on this one, and it gets updated as I write the story. I update the computer copies off of this one. A copy of the outline, character notes, and world-building goes into our family safe with one of the weekly updated thumb drives.
It’s More Work Than It Seems
This seems like a lot of work, but I’ve listed out every single step I do before I start writing. The work alone will probably take me a week, between five to seven days. If I take a proper break between plotting and outlining, then it’s about ten to fourteen days worth of work.
The type of stories I write make this essential. I need to remember the backstories I’ve created even though a good chunk of it doesn’t make it into the story. But if I’m dawdling too long (usually longer than two weeks) I just start writing because I have been dawdling.
…which reminds me. I should probably start on that.