Wednesday, December 2, 2009

In Which I Pretend I'm J.K. Rowling

Heya! So yesterday in the comments Vicky S. asked me how I outline.

*Cracks knuckles* Okay. Hold on tight.

First, I start with my story idea. Whether that is sparked by a character, a world, a scene, a line of dialogue or a theme, I always start with plot basics. I'll be using a well known book to demonstrate how I outline, so you can get a sense of how much detail I write in the outline, and what the outcome is once I type it up. So, for demonstration purposes, I'm going to pretend I wrote Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. *Grins*

I start with a sketchy chapter by chapter outline that might look something like this:

1. Intro Dursleys, weird occurrences, late at night, baby Harry defeated Vold., left on doorstep
2. 10 yrs. later, cousin's Bday, go to zoo, talk to snake/free snake
3. Uncle mad, letter arrives for Harry, uncle freaks! More letters, family runs from letters
4. Hagrid shows up, tells Harry about Hogwarts, Harry learns the truth about parents
5. Harry goes to Diagon Alley, bank, Hagrid gets package, meet Draco, gets Hedwig, gets a wand

So that's just the first five chapters, but I do one line summaries of each chapter for the whole story. Usually my chapters are long (+4K words) so I plan 15-20 chapters. Sometimes chapters get combined, or divided in half.

Once I have my whole story outlined, I read through it and play the whole thing out in my head, adding notes and details. Using the above example, I might brainstorm what the "weird occurrences" in chapter one are. In this case they are: owls behaving oddly, "fireworks", cat reading map, people dressed funny, etc. I would also work out how the uncle attempts to run from letters: boarding up mail slot, going to a hotel, boating to tiny shack on island.

When I feel like I have a solid basic outline I decide on character names, if I haven't already. If I have a clear image of the opening chapter, then I jump right in, without brainstorming much more. Otherwise I embellish a bit more. When I reach a chapter that hasn't been marinating in my brain very long, I do a detailed chapter outline, like so:

5. Harry wakes up in shack, thinks maybe it was a dream, Hagrid is there! Hagrid takes Harry to shore, explaining about Ministry of Magic, goblins, etc. Harry looks at list of supplies for school, lots of books, robes, wand, cauldron, and more. Go to Diagon Alley, meet Prof. Quirrell. First stop bank, Harry gets gold, Hagrid gets package for Hogwarts. Robe fitting, meet Draco, Draco is a snobby punk. Hagrid explains Quidditch, gives Harry owl. Wands next, Harry's wand and Vold's wand connected. Harry goes home back to Dursleys until school starts.

If I ever get blocked, or don't know what to do I'll write out a very detailed chapter/scene synopsis, similar to phase outlining. In phase outlining you write a sentence (less than 30 words) then expand it into about 250 words.

Here's an example using something I actually wrote, so I can put the whole text:

First, the phase:

Elle approaches window, peeks through, realizes the window has a magic barrier around it, wonders how to disarm it. (19 words)

Then, the text:

I squeeze between the house and the shop to its left. The space is barely large enough for my scrawny self to fit, but I manage. I slide along between the buildings until I come to a window I can peek through. Not a single light is on, but I can tell from the array of furniture that this window leads to the living room. When I take a moment to listen carefully I notice a slight humming noise. Instinctively, I lean back from the window. It's protected by something.

I reach into my pocket and pull out a small handful of ordinary pebbles. Then I toss them, one at a time, ever so softly, at the window. They never hit the glass; they rebound off an invisible force field with a crack and a hiss. After putting the remaining stones back into my pocket I stop to think. How do I disarm this?

I can't imagine that the charm to disable this is very complex. Theoretically speaking, this house should be one of the safest in all of Darkon's middle class district. Right in the center of the city, surrounded by merchant shops-- who would try to steal from them? I don't know as much about the city's laws as I should, but if the cost for being outside past curfew is paid in fingers, then I suppose the punishment for stealing might be paid in arms. You'd never steal again. As if you could. (250 words)

Phase outlining is my favorite form of outlining. You work out the whole story ahead of time, and when you draft instead of wondering "what happens next?" you can spend more time focusing on prose and sentence structure. Not only does it help you work out any plot problems ahead of time, but because you're not worrying about going in the wrong direction, you can focus on choosing the right words, which results in a much more polished first draft.

Read more about phase outlining here: It's Just a Phase.

My advice? Research different methods of outlining. Try different methods of outlining. Try writing without an outline. Play around with different techniques until you find the right one for you.

Also, I know many of you are in the revision process right now (what with NaNo being over and all that) so here's another link I found very helpful: One-Pass Manuscript Revision. I like this technique because I feel that it goes well with phase outlining. A one-pass revision isn't going to work if you need to restructure the whole story and change several major elements, but if the plot is pretty solid from start to finish, and you can be brutal with the chopping of words, then give it a try.

If you want to kind of outline, but also want to write on the fly, try writing down the following before you begin (From One-Pass Revision by Holly Lisle):

*Write down your theme in fifteen words or less. Some of my regular themes are Love Conquers Evil, God Is A Good Guy with Bad PR, Self-Sacrifice Is the Highest Form of Love, and The Individual Can Change the World.

*If you have sub-themes and know what they are, write them down too. I usually have one theme and from three to six sub-themes, depending on the length and complexity of the project. You may have more or less.

*Write down what the book is about in twenty-five words or less. This is not as impossible as it sounds – the micro-summary for the 375,000 word Secret Text Trilogy was “Werewolf Romeo and Juliet versus Renaissance Godfather in the jungle, with magic.” Twelve words.

*Write down a one-line story arc for the book’s main character. The story arc for Kait Galweigh in the Secret Text Trilogy is “Kait battles her own nature, magic, her family’s enemies, and resurrected wizards from her world’s past, finds unlikely love, and at terrible cost, saves her world.”

*Write down the main characters, and a paragraph of no more than about 250 words describing the story, sort of like the blurb on the back of a paperback.

If you keep these in mind while you write, your ms will be more unified, and it will be easier to determine if each scene adds to story/setting/character/theme.

* * * * * * * * * *

Woo! So there you have it! This is a very long post on how I outline. Be sure to check out the links, and if you're interested, check out some writing forums. No doubt you'll find plenty of advice on outlining (some bad, some good, some crazy, I'm sure).


Do you outline? How?

If you're an "on the fly" writer, what is your writing process like? (I just can't wrap my head around it! I'm an obsessive note-taker!)

Would you ever try Phase Outlining? What about a One-Pass Revision?

Also, if you have any questions for me, feel free to ask! :)


  1. That was fascinating! Seriously. I don't outline so it was like watching someone do everything in reverse.

    So, I've tried to outline. I lose interest and abandon work.

    I just start with a basic idea for a beginning and go from there. Usually I have no idea where it's going or maybe just a general idea. I work the rest of it out on the way. That's the fun!

  2. That is really cool. Thanks for sharing your process! I outline similarly in that I write a less detailed chapter synopsis and then expand on it, and use those tidbits to write the actual chapter. I outline the story chapter by chapter before I start, which is why I was able to stay on task for NaNoWriMo. I like knowing where I'm going! Your method sounds like it works really well for you! And you have no idea how many times I've pretended to be or wished I were J.K. Rowling... sigh. LOL

  3. Thank you for doing a whole post on my question! This helped a lot! At least now I'm not completely lost.

    Thanks a gain : )

  4. I am an on the fly writer. I just come up with an idea, write it down and then write from there. I write whenever a scene pops into my head. Then I sit down, eventually, and try to string it all together.

  5. P.S- I posted about your great outline post! Go check it out if ya like.

  6. Thanks for sharing the very detailed look into your process. It is interesting, and also helpful to know how someone who writes so many more words than I do, does it.

    I hope you had a spectacular Thanksgiving!

  7. I write on the fly and could never outline, it takes the fun out of writing. The best part of writing is seeing what your creations do. They manage things you couldn't have planned for them. So for that reason i'd never try such detailed. I often give my charachters a place to start and somewhere to end up in. But their actions and partly my mind decides the whole 70K words in the middle and writing is a damn site more fun that way. Sometimes the middle means scrapping where i was going to end.

  8. Love how you illustrated with your own scene! Good job

  9. I can't plan my week, let alone a book! I suck with outlines! I have a general idea of what's going to happen throughout the story and I know how it ends, but that's about it!

    Anyway, I don't think I'd be able to stay on track of an outline either!

    Glad it works for you, though!


  10. So I'm reading some of your old blog entries, and I thought this was interesting, as when I was outlining a novel for the first time ever, this is the way I naturally went about it. huh.