Writing Craft Discussion - Outlining

The last two posts I shared on writing craft were Research and Worldbuilding. Today, I’ll talk a little about the final step before actually writing — outlining. It’s important to note that as we step through the process, the variety of tactics writers use increases. There is no “right” way to write. There are really talented authors doing completely different methods. I encourage you to do what works for YOU, and not what works for THEM. <this is a huge pet peeve of mine, you do you!> But regardless of what you think your style is, the value in talking about tactics is that to begin, you have to start somewhere. And once you get started, it’s worth evaluating your methods, considering new tactics, and always striving to improve your craft. No one is perfect, which means we can all stand to get a little bit better.

Okay, so first up, in a lot of early writer’s workshops / groups you’ll hear the terms “pantser” and “plotter”. Meaning, someone who writes by the seat of their pants, or someone who thoroughly plots their story before they begin. The truth is, there is no distinct cut-off between these methods and you don’t have to be one or the other. You don’t have to have an outline, you can have a 30,000 foot one, you can have a couple of pages, you can have a 100-page outline and story bible. None of these are right or wrong, they are just what works for that author. And importantly, what works on one story may not work on another.

With Benjamin Ashwood, I had no outline at all. With later books in that series, I had rudimentary ones (1-2 pages) because I found I was spending loads of time going back and correcting plot holes. I briefly toyed with longer, more robust outlines around books 3 & 4, but I found with Ben’s story I didn’t like it. There is only one POV, it’s a straight-forward timeline, and all I really needed was a high level summary of what Ben was going to be up to. I found I could chart it almost on a geographical basis. Ie, he goes to X place, fights Y guy, and reveals Z. Done. Anything more than that and I was wasting time outlining when I could be writing.

With the Cartographer, I needed a great deal more detail. There are multiple points of view, the action is happening in different geographic locations, and the timelines matter. There is a layer of history and foreshadowing that is gradually unveiled as the story progresses, and that onion-like unfolding has to be set up at the beginning. The elements of the world (magic, politics, commerce, geography, etc) are much more important to the story flow with this series. Just in general, the story is vastly more complex than Benjamin Ashwood was. To keep my shit together, I needed an outline. And not just an outline, but a story bible / wiki / whatever you want to call it. That’s a carry-over from the world building discussion, but it’s all related, and all of these pre-writing documents support each other.

For the Cartographer, I have 8-10 pages of story bible, outlining themes, organizations, characters, technology, magic, etc. From there, I built an overall trilogy story arc, which is fairly basic. It outlines where the characters will be, who the confrontations will be between, and when there will be major reveals. This one is about 1-2 pages. For Quill, I then went a layer deeper and outlined that specific story arc. It’s about 3-4 pages of bullet point level detail on what is happening. Again, I considered expanding this, but from my experience with Benjamin Ashwood, I know I like to have some freedom when I write. I know X and Y will fight each other, but I don’t map out the actual fight until I’m in the scene. It’s more fun for me that way. I also did 1 pagers for Books 2 & 3 before I began real writing, and as I get to those books, I flesh the outlines out to match the 3-4 pages of detail I had for Quill. The reason I do this is that I have the general concept of what will happen in the books which allows me to foreshadow in previous ones, but I’ve left myself room to add characters and elements as I go. There are some minor characters who will appear and 2 & 3 that were never part of the original outlines. But, they’re either a lot of fun and worth adding, or I found ways they can fill in the details and support the original bullet points.

And here’s an insider tip. Aside from the Cartographer trilogy I’ve committed to writing, I also mapped out a potential 9-book arc. I don’t know if I’ll write those later books, but if the series takes off and I’m still enjoying it, there are ideas I’ve documented so I can continue and it will feel natural to the reader. The groundwork is already laid down, and it will be there whether I choose to use it or not.

Finally, how this all works in practice. Most authors I know have some level of outlining. Whether it’s a massive, intricate tome, or a one pager, they’ve got some idea of where their story is going. That saves you from writing off on some tangent that goes nowhere and you end up deleting tens of thousands of words in editing. But writers also don’t handcuff themselves to the outline. It’s your story, and if you want to change it, you do. I’ve found the beginning and the end are generally static in my outlines, but I frequently change what’s happening in the middle. As I write, I discover, and it’d be a shame to not use what I’m learning about my world, my characters, and how they can interact. My outlines are suggestions as I write, rather than rules ;)

So at the end of the day, don’t worry about whether you’re a pantser or a plotter. It only matters what you’re comfortable with, and it’s worth doing a little experimentation to find where that spot is. If you’re already written some books, try going into a little more detail on the next outline, or try granting yourself freedom to divert. If you’ve never written a book, then I do recommend spending some time on the outline. You can always steer away from it, but until you’ve got a feel for your own style, it doesn’t hurt to put up a few signposts.

Alright, hope this helps, and I’ll be back in a few weeks to talk about Drafting.