Monday, May 6, 2013

Outlining a Novel 101

You know that feeling you get when you put on a pair of jeans you haven't worn for a long time and you find a ten dollar bill in the pocket that you had no idea was there? Well, that's kind of how I feel about these extra six weeks. At first, I was upset and such, but I've come to see them as something good and needed even. I've spent a lot of time writing during them, which is nice, since before these six weeks I had practically been working to get all my stories to a good stopping place and sorted out, so now everything is all organized and perfect for working on them.

Since I'm so organized, here are some current stats:

I currently have 129 stories. 62 of them are fanfictions. 15 of the originals ones are actually poems and 13 are short stories. That means that I'm currently working on 39 original novels right now. Of those 39, 24 of them are part of series/trilogies, making 15 stand-alone novels. Only four of my original novels have been written all the way through. Two of those four are back in the outlining stage as I prepare to rewrite them. I have four other novels that have been partially written, but not completed. 

As every time I write currently, it seems that I only feel like working on my original novels, and the majority of my novels are currently in the outlining stage (arguably the second most important stage, the first being editing, and the third being writing), I've been putting a lot of thought into how I outline my novels.

I've come up with seven steps.

First, I write what I call a "Base Idea". This is a one sentence synopsis that gives the basic main character and biggest conflict they have to face. For example, the base idea for my novel, Involuntary Notions is this:

After receiving a vision from her dead mother, Melissa leaves on a quest that will change her life forever.

After the Base Idea, on my prewrite document, I have what I call my "Outline Outline". Basically, these are just random ideas that I want to find a place for in my novel, but I'm not certain where. Typically, I also write  the original inspiration for my novel here as well, so I can go back and refer to it, if needed. I also put possible character names, interactions, or sequel ideas in this area. 

Third is to write what I call my "Basic Outline". For this I don't care about character names or specific settings, I just lay out the beginning, the end, and the biggest plot points that I want to occur in the middle.

Fourth, I write a "Defined Basic Outline" which is kind of like the basic outline, except I connect all the dots. I write in detail how the story starts and what leads them from point A to B to C and beyond, all the way to the end. 

This is where I typically start developing my characters. I make up to four separate documents, besides my outline document. 

One is for all my character profiles, relationships, backgrounds, etc. 

Another is for my settings, world history, and culture. 

The third is my research document. I create a list of questions of things I'm not sure about (like how bodies decay in space, for my novel Imminent Pandemonium) and then, when I get the time, I research and write the answers down, so I can more easily refer to it. I also add plot points here that I'm not sure how to add in, or questions such as "What happens to Gothel about Rapunzel escapes from the tower? She just kind of disappears..." from my novel Charming Disaster. Even if it isn't crucial to the novel or plot, I like to have an answer to all those things for my own reference, or in case I decide to make that character appear later on. Besides, what if someday when I'm famous, someone asks that question? I have to have an answer.

The last document, I don't often do, only with my more complicated novels, where things are happening multiple places at once (like Paradox). It's a timeline. I write the dates of every event, so I can keep things consistent. 

After my basic outlines are done, the next step is to write my "Extended Outline - Chapters". This takes the Defined Basic Outline and sorts it into chapters, splitting it up according to how many word count or where there's a perfect cliff-hanger moment. (I'm a sucker for a good cliff-hanger. Reading my fanfic The Brotherhood is proof of that.)

If I'm feeling really ambitious (I've only done this on two fanfictions so far, but it was really effective, so I'm planning on doing it with any original novel I am really invested in publishing some day, which is only about 20 of them), I create a fourth outline I call my "Extended Outline - Scenes". For this, I take my Extended Outline - Chapters and split each chapter into all the possible scenes it could include. I ensure all the major events of the chapter are included as scenes, and then I'll often add an "optional scene" that adds more depth or develops a character more, or gives additional perspective through another character's point of view, that I can write if I feel the chapter is too short with just the necessary scenes. These can often be cut out later, if the entire novel's length is too long, or sometimes they add a second plot-line that makes the novel better and which I wasn't even planning on. 

At this point, I'm ready to just sit down and write. I can pick any scene out and write it, skipping over scenes that are difficult or I'm not in the mood for. My research is already most of the way complete, so I don't have to stop while writing to figure something out. I know what my characters are supposed to do, and hopefully how they'll act while they do it. I know my setting well enough that I can play with it and make sure everything still fits as it should.

My total prewrite, using this method, usually ends up being about 25,000 words of writing, at the least. When I'm prepping for a NaNoWriMo novel, in October, it typically takes the entire month to do so, assuming I haven't worked on it before that. 

And now you know why most of my novels are still in the outlining stage. Once their outlines are complete, it's smooth sailing and I could probably write the novel in a week or two.