Outlining: Not So Bad After All

I’d tried outlining a bit while writing my first novel, but it didn’t work well for me. The biggest problem, I think, was that I outlined in a text document, and it was too easy not stick to short plot descriptions. I’d start with a nice brief point, then add more details, and more, and more, and soon, I was writing the whole scene. Another big problem was sequencing. It is cumbersome to rearrange plot points in a text document. If I decided I wanted a plot point to occur earlier or later in the novel, it was a pain to cut the plot point(s)and search for the new place and then paste everything back in. Eventually, I just gave up. I saved the ‘outline’ document with a manuscript file name and just wrote.

The sequel, which I am currently working on, started the same way. I tried doing an outline and failed. After I started learning more about the ins and outs of writing and started attending the Saturday critique sessions, I decided to put aside the book and practice what I was learning. I practiced on short stories. When I finished Moonflower and Brilliant Points of Light, I decided to return to the novel, and I also decided that I really needed to outline. Being able to work out kinks in the plot would be easier beforehand in an outline instead of while I was writing. So, I searched the internet and read a little about various outlining tools and methods and decided to try outlining in a spreadsheet.

I discovered that my two biggest problems were immediately addressed. The small cells in a spreadsheet act as a kind of psychological limiter. They help me not go crazy with detail. I type in the plot point description and maybe add a little about who is there and the mental state of important characters in the scene. That’s it. Move on to the next plot point (Full disclosure: Sometimes I will put a lot of detail in, but only for scenes where I don’t want to forget the great idea I had about how the scene should work). Also, since it is a spreadsheet, rearranging the order of the points is a snap. I use the built-in sort function.

My outline consists of three columns. The third column contains the plot points themselves. In the first column, I have the novel sequence numbers. They determine the overall order in which the plot points will appear in the novel. The second column has the subplot sequence numbers. Each separate plot line, including the ‘main’ plot, has its own sequence numbers. The first subplot started at 0, the next subplot started at 300, the next at 600, etc. Each new point in a subplot increments its sequence by 5, and the overall novel sequence numbers I increment by 10. When I use the sort function I tell it to sort by col1, then by col2. Poof. Points are in chronological order as they happen in the book. If I want to rearrange plot points I just change their sequence numbers and sort. That’s one reason I leave gaps in sequence numbers. If I want to move up a plot point to between points 175 and 180, I just change the plot point’s number to 176 and resort. Pow! It’s moved. You do need to renumber its other sequence number as well to keep it in proper place overall. And I do go in every now and then and redo all the sequence numbers from top to bottom so that they are back to increments of 5 (or increments of 10 for the overall sequence) to clean up all the reordered and added points.

That’s right, adding a new plot point is just as easy. Want a new plot point between points 455 and 460? Insert it at the bottom of all the points and number it 457, then sort. Done. Again, renumbering every now and then keeps things orderly.

Another big problem with outlining for me was also addressed by the ability to move things around. When I started trying to outline the sequel I found that at times in the book there were four subplots going. I wrote some of the points down, but I had too many ideas in my head, too many plot points from the various subplots. I started panicking: How am I going to organize all of this?!? The answer was to focus on one thing at a time. I used the sort function to re-arrange all the plot points. Instead of the order they will appear in the novel, I ordered them together by subplot. I sorted col2, col1. This put all of the first subplot together, followed by the second subplot, followed by the third, etc. 0, 5, 10, 15, 20… then 100, 105, 110, 115, and so on. This let me focus on one subplot at a time. What would happen next in this subplot. Ignore the rest until this one intersects with another. That made things so much easier. I could get in the groove with one subplot and let the creative part of my brain go to town. Sometimes this meant just sitting in my chair, staring into space, and taking the occasional sip of coffee as my thoughts wandered about before eventually coming to a stop at a nice connection or twist or dramatic event. If I ever want to see all the points intermixed again as they will appear in the novel, I sort col1, col2, check how things flow, then swap back by sorting col2, col1. That’s not to say that if something amazing occurs to me about another plot line I will ignore it. No, I go to that subplot, edit or add a new point, and go back to what I was doing.

When the subplot I am working on meets up with another subplot, I look over the other subplot. Is it complete up to where it meets the one I’m working on? If not, I flesh that subplot out to the intersection and then hop back to the subplot I was on. Sometimes I can’t continue with the current subplot because it depends on events from too many other subplots. When that happens I pick another subplot and go as far as I can with that one. And so on, jumping back when able.

Something else I find I need is a calendar. Lethera has days that are longer than earth days* and, more importantly, months with a set 30 days each (except for leap months, and such). Therefore, I can’t just use a normal calendar. I make my own calendars on a separate tab in my outline spreadsheet. I then put a note on days where a chapter occurs (Ch 1, Ch 2, etc). This lets me look at the calendar and make sure things happen in reasonable time frames. For instance, if I know a trip takes 4 weeks, I can ctrl-page-dn to the calendar, check where in the month the chapter is, and thus know during which week later the arrival should happen. Ctrl-page-up takes me back to the first tab. At least it does in OpenOffice Calc, the spreadsheet software I use. The calendar also lets me make sure sentences like “Although he’d been trying to think of an excuse for the last XX days…” use the right number of days.

It’s been working well for me so far. I’ve got about 90% of the sequel outlined. I’ve done several re-arrangements of points, completely removed a subplot (Saved, I think, for the next book), and stared into space countless times. Through it all, the outlining process has worked. Once the outline is complete, I’ll be able to write in all the details. That’s not to say nothing will change as I flesh everything out. Something might come up, a character may surprise me, or I may think of something crazy to shake things up, but at least I have a framework and a direction so that I won’t write along a path that eventually gets cut. It should save me wasted time and effort later.

*The people of Letrhera use 100 seconds for a minute, 50 minutes for an hour, and 20 hours for a day. This is because their day is nearly four hours longer than ours and they tend to do thinks vaguely metric-y. Is that a word? Hmm. Anyway, they favor 10, 50, 100, and the like. They had to use 20 hours for a day because that’s what it ends up as. Even so, that’s 10 morning hours and 10 evening hours, so we’re back to using 10 and everyone is happy.

Categories: Books, Lethera, Tips, Update, Writing | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment

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One thought on “Outlining: Not So Bad After All

  1. Pingback: Another Kind of Map (and Library updated) | Adventures in Lethera

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