Seed To Flower: Bringing Ideas Along

2012-06-08 13.30.17In the last two weeks I have taken a novel from the barest seed of an idea to full outline. That probably seems fast to some of you, and slow to others. For me, it’s on the fast side. Especially since this was a cold idea, one that I just selected from the brain queue at random and said yes, you, you’ll do and not one that I’ve been rolling around in my subconscious for a few years. Every writer has a few of those.

I needed a new story. The just finished manuscript is out with betas and awaiting feedback, and there’s not point in starting the sequel yet. But writers write, and I didn’t have anything immediately on deck.

So I made something.

I picked the first idea that came to me, and started in. I wanted to test some new planning methods, and so far they’ve worked.

The first came from Delilah S. Dawson, aka Lila Bowen, who wrote Servants of the Storm and Wake of Vultures respectively, both of which are awesome. She wrote a post on using music playlists for inspiration. You all know I love music, but while I often create playlists, they’re usually done after, not before.

But I had a go. I used Spotify, gathered 32 songs that sounded about right*. It took me about a day. Then I listened to it on repeat in my big ol’ over-the-ear headphones while I knocked out fast notes on the other stuff: main character, setting, inciting incident, etc. After two days, that gave me the bare bones of what was, by this point, starting to turn into something interesting.

But it lacked structure, and I know I need structure, so I trawled through my document files until I found this: a novel outliner template by Caroline Norrington for Scrivener that I downloaded back in the long ago and never tried. No time like the present.

If you’re already had a look at that template, be warned: it’s a monster. There’s shit in there that I don’t even know what to do with. But, importantly, it had big-ass lists of questions that needed to be asked and answered before this story moves on. I can’t always think of those questions on my own. And, thanks to this, I didn’t have to.

I filled in as much of this template as I wanted, which took about a week. And now I have a scene-by-scene outline, ready to go.

Will it go anywhere? Only time will tell. And, to be honestly, it’ll tell pretty quickly; I’m planning to start writing this soon. But I have never gotten from nothing to a solid outline this quickly.

Now I’m off to make a batch of brownies.

**flies away in a puff of coffee grounds**

*About write. Eh? Eh?

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Why Outlining Won’t Murder Your Story

That smile? That’s because he has a map. And a fabulous moustache.

After several years away, I am returning to hardcore outlining.

I got away from it for a while. Mostly just to try something new. I hadn’t tried to seriously write something long without one since my first writing days, and while those stories turned out to be little more than half-intelligible brain droppings smeared across a page, that might have been due more to my inexperience than the method itself.

It wasn’t.

When I write without a meaningful outline, yes, I get ideas. But there’s no framework for them to hang on, and too often they’re like fireworks: burning bright and pretty to look at, but not much damn use. And there’s a lot of them, so it takes time to sort through the mess.

So I went back to outlining and, man, what a fucking difference.

I finished the final outline for my novel the other day. It’s not a scene-for-scene layout, but it’s pretty close. It’s got every meaningful moment and every decision made by every character that influences the ending laid out.

I hear a lot from the anti-outline brigade about how outlining kills the story. They feel that outlining too tightly, as I have done, kills any sense of creativity and spontaneity. Besides, if the outline is done, why bother writing it? You already know what happens.

First of all, it’s a disservice to your creative mind to assume it’s as fragile as an anaemic butterfly. Creativity is tough, and good ideas always survive. If you story dies at the first sneeze of questioning, maybe it wasn’t strong enough to carry a whole book on its own in the first place.

Secondly, outlining is not writing. It’s not even pretending to write. It’s preparation.

Or, to look at it another way: an outline is to writing what a recipe is to cooking. A recipe is a damn useful thing, especially when you’re making something complicated. Having a good one can keep you from making huge, time-wasting mistakes. But no one would ever suggest that you could satisfy your hunger by writing a recipe for blitzes.

Now, sometimes you just want to jump in without an outline and write for the hell of it. And I still do that. But now that’s part of the prep work, too. I stack all that shit with the outline as I write it, or use them as test-drives for characters or locations or ideas. But when I sit down to do the heavy writing, I’ll have my trusty outline by my side. And the writing will go much smoother and more quickly for it.

As always, your mileage may vary. But if you’ve never tried outlining for fear of crippling some creative organ, put that fear aside as the bullshit it is and give it a go. You might just find the new thing you love.