This Is Madness, or: Julie’s Outline Process of DOOM

I’m currently preparing to write my third novel, and as I go I find myself marveling at the madness of the process.

I don’t know what it looks like when other writers set out to develop a book idea or draft an initial outline, but for me it’s a bit like watching a star form out of Chaos. First two random hunks of rock hurtling through space and time and life collide (Idea!) and then there’s this magnetic pull: slight at first, and then strong, stronger, and finally berserk. The gravity that’s been ignited is the initial idea drawing other pieces, fragments of the story to it. The pieces fly to one another and fuse, arranging and building on themselves with unstoppable electric energy, and the gravity of the gathering mass increases until the particles whooshing toward it fly so fast they could shatter bones. And then, when the parts have gathered and shaped themselves and the dust has settled, there it is: Your Story.

Or rather: Outline #1.

That’s right. Everything I’ve just described– the forming of a microcosm unto itself–

Yep, “Eyjafjallajökull,” about accurately describes it–

is what I see happen whenever I go about planning a book.

To understand me, one has merely to refer to one of the sprawling documents that is my starting outline. I sometimes save these documents as “Book Title – Master doc,” but “master” could not be a balder misnomer. The first outline is sheer madness.

What Julie’s initial outline for a book looks like:

It starts with a single detail or a vague idea. A few main events follow. Perhaps a series of details I think I’ll need to refer back to: the phases and dates of an MC’s rotating art class, the items she has with her when she stumbles into another world. After that a numbered list; a collection of sentences that begin with the word “maybe”; a handful of homeless puzzle pieces.

And then, oh, I don’t know, a 74-itemed working list of all the story’s events in haphazard chronological order? But only if said list is replete with dozens of sub letters, highlighted sentences, half-written passages and dialogues, snippets of text turned blue or pink or green or in brackets. And ah– let’s not forget times and dates, where applicable.

After that disorientation, another two pages of questions, backstory, orphaned details and yet more sentences that begin with “maybe” should follow. Insert bullet list for good measure.

Finally, after a few nonsensical equations (Cat = Lulu) and at least one BIG REVEAL!, a portion of text near the end which is bolded and then promptly forgotten.

Then: When all this is achieved, work should be done exclusively from the document’s middle.

This is an approximation of what past and present starting outlines have looked like for me. Like I said, chaos.

And yet somehow, out of this mindstorm of confusion and debris and disorder within disorder, a story is born. It might take a few drafts– hell, it might take a few outlines– but eventually that initial groundwork translates into a single, coherent, easily-read and satisfying novel.

Your Book.

If that’s not a human miracle, I don’t know what is.

Forum Friday: How Do You Outline?

Unless you are a prodigy, a diehard pantser, or some combination thereof, an outline is an absolutely essential blueprint for writing a novel. An outline allows us to chart events, organize them, rearrange, cut, add, develop characters and motivations along the way. It’s kind of a like a scale model of an elaborate mansion or theme park: you are visualizing the full, complex picture before you start building, and by planning it all out first you are saving yourself valuable time and reconstruction efforts!

But how to go about doing it?

Here are just a few of the possible methods out there:

  1. Flowchart
  2. Word Document
  3. Sticky Notes
  4. Note Cards (see haphazard starter attempt top right)
  5. The All-Encompassing Super Spreadsheet of DOOM (aka JK Rowling Style)

Sureasmel of Ink Out Loud mentioned Final Draft, a program that brands itself as screenwriting software, but can be very useful for novel outlining, too. Here is a handy dandy, color-coded screenshot from her:

An outline from Sureasmel using Final Draft 8

Be sure to check out Sureasmel’s full and very informative post on outlines, too.

All methods have their pros and cons. From personal experience, I would strongly advocate AGAINST starting with a word document– it’s very difficult to see where everything is at once and move things around. But once things are basically set in place, a word document is great for quick and tidy reference.

So how about you? How do you outline your books, and what method(s) do you find most effective? ***NOTE*** If you already have a photo of an outline or outline attempt on your blog, I would be happy to show it here, give you credit and link to the post in which it appears.