Take a Minute to Outline

By this point it should be obvious that I am a plotter not a pantser. I am also wordy. Strangely, though, I am only wordy when I’m trying to explain something or I’m talking to you. In my writing I usually need to add words in the second draft. Yeah, I know. Weird.

To deal with my inability to stop talking, I decided to break down my writing process into small steps instead of one giant post. (You can take a look at my longer pre-writing post here and imagine how much longer that would have been if I’d explained everything.) This first post deals with the basic outline.

This method is a version of the Snowflake Method, altered to work best for me. His guidelines are great, but some of the steps just didn’t work for me, and others needed to be modified. This is just another example of how to use things that work best for you.

Ingredients

A Ripe Idea (If you’re not sure if your idea is ready, take a gander at this post here.)

Depending on Your Preference:

A Computer and Word Processor (You could use your phone or tablet if you work like that.)

Or

A notebook/paper and pen

Step 1

I write down my idea in one sentence. This sentence cannot be a run-on sentence; in general, I try to keep it under 20 words. I’m being descriptive and generalizing a lot. This is the sentence I can turn to when I’m introduced to a family friend (or a friend’s friend, I suppose) as a writer and they ask what I’m working on.

This is, surprisingly, the hardest part of this method because it’s only a sentence that represents my entire plot. Yes, you read that right: my 500 page book is going to be condensed into one sentence. If you’re willing to give this a try, it might seem daunting. Now, take a breath, and read some of the examples I’ve made up. None of them took me longer than five minutes (which is about as much time as you should spend on your version).

Examples (see if you can guess them; answers at the end of the post)

  • A boy wizard goes to a magic school where he finds friends and battles an evil Dark Lord.
  • A young man learns that his favorite books and magic are real,  but not the way he remembers.
  • Although her voice is beautiful, a young maid isn’t beautiful, especially in the court of the kingdom she has to save.

Step 2

Now I take that sentence and make it a paragraph. I’m more flexible with this than I am with the sentence, but I try to keep it to the standards of paragraph writing I learned in elementary school: 1 intro sentence, 3-5 body sentences, and 1 conclusion sentence. Sometimes I also allow myself a background sentence, but not usually.

This is the paragraph I can pull out when that person my grandmother introduces me to actually seems interested in the my one-sentence pitch. Someday, I imagine I may be able to use this method with people who actually can help my writing career. The thing I need to remember, though, is that the paragraph covers the entire story; it’s not like the back cover copy.

Tip: I try not to take too much time with this. If I’m taking more than an hour, I start doing other stuff and go back to it.

Step 3

The next step is to make this paragraph into a full outline. I start as far back in the backstory as I’ve imagined, and go all the way to notes for after the denouement. This is essentially the timeline for the entire story as it lives in my head.

I really like writing this part because it’s when I see all the holes in the plot. I usually know the beginning and the end, and some vague sense of what direction everyone has to go in, but here I find what works best for the story. The first of the surprises tend to show up here, and the story starts to take form.

Another tip: Sometimes you can go straight from this to a detailed outline, but I find it easier to card than outline it. Use what works best for you, but keep in mind that this is still a vague outline. Don’t worry about putting too much detail into it.

While It Simmers

There we go. That’s how I outline. It shouldn’t take longer than a day or two to do all of this,  I have a solid foundation for my story, and it’s all in a few pages I can easily reference when I need to refocus. If I have my world solidly in mind, then I sometimes jump straight into carding or writing. Otherwise, my next step is world-building, which I’ll do after letting the story rest for a day or two.

I’m sure I seem insane, but do any of you outline? What are your methods of pre-writing?

Answers (I took these books from the stack of finished books on my desk; tell me if you guessed right)

  • Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (or Philosopher’s Stone) by J.K. Rowling
  • The Magicians by Lev Grossman
  • Fairest by Gail Carson Levine
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One comment on “Take a Minute to Outline

  1. pdb says:

    sounds like a teacher to me…

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