As with every “how X has made me a better writer” piece, this isn’t guaranteed to make anyone else a better writer, and some of the time by “better” what I actually mean is “more able to vomit out 4000 words in two hours and spend the rest of the day dicking about on the internet and failing to clean the kitchen”.
So really the title should be “How Being Outlines Hitler Made It Easier For Me To Write Books Quickly” but frankly the connotations of that are a little more damning.
National Novel Writing Month’s “be competitive with yourself” approach has worked for me in terms of output, but it can take a long time if I have to think about what I’m doing and where I’m going with a story on the fly. That’s fine if you have nothing else on, but for several of the years I’ve been doing this idiotic fiction dash I’ve also had a day job, and time has been slender.
2006 – the “I have no idea where this is heading”
The first year that I did a full NaNo (as opposed to a half-NaNo, which I did the year before like the cowardly custard I was) I forgot I was going to do it, and sat down on the afternoon of the first of November and went “shit, write something”. It wasn’t until four days of meandering and collecting references to characters from my meander that I decided it would need a plot, and lifted one from Shakespeare, and continued to meander with slightly more direction.
This was the beginning of the end for what had previously been a popular approach for me, the “start out and see where you go”. Going in totally blind and finding your own way is still popular with a lot of people and often produces great works of exploratory fiction (especially after it’s been edited), but for me it began to lose its shine when I stalled at the end of November and still hadn’t finished my story. It took me a further six years to finish it.
2007-2008 – the “tracking PoVs because there are so many”
Over the course of two years, while I had a day job that required eight solid hours of typing at high speeds, I wrote two halves of a novel that came out at over 300,000 words. Looking back I have no idea how this happened because even organised, motivated me could not puke up 150k+ while doing eight hour days now: I have some clear memories, too, of weekend days spent locked in my bedroom more-or-less beating my face against the keyboard, trying to extract 4,000 words from the confines of my empty head.
For this, I had to keep track of an ungodly number of PoV chapters and the passage of the McGuffin through them or around them – a plot one of the readers described in her feedback as “like a contra-dance”. So I made a diagram showing the movement of the narrative, and the movement of the characters around it, which was immensely useful, and after a while started making notes for what was happening in future chapters.
2009 – the “I didn’t make a proper plan and thus didn’t finish”
This year was a hideous disaster festival for a lot of reasons, and one of them was that while I wrote 80k, I didn’t finish the book, and still haven’t.
2010 – the “day plan cometh”
Trying to force-birth a first draft of a book while doing something that, at last, required some of my brain (A BTEC HNC in Music Production for reasons that seemed like a good idea at the time) was also, not coincidentally, the time in which day plans first came into use. Mostly not detailed at this point, but the whole plot had been worked out in advance, and a spreadsheet full of “this happens next” was brought into being. As a consequence of this I ploughed through the appropriate plot points at a speed which would otherwise have been impossible, and didn’t fail my silly vocational qualification.
2011 – the “several spreadsheets”
This was the year where I picked up my planning by the scruff of its neck, hurled it into an armchair, and threw a library at it. It was also the year I began using a chronological spreadsheet, to work out what each of the characters was doing and when, regardless of whether they were on opposite sides of the world. I made sure I knew what was happening on each day, and where the characters were going to be, and how this affected each of them, even if I didn’t always make a solid or rigid outline for the days.
And lo, the novel passed largely without incident.
2012 – the “last-minute re-outlining/pacing failure”
I’d intended to write something else, realised I didn’t have my plot ready or my research ready, and went into panic mode. The panic produced a rough outline, and the rough day-by-day guide produced a manuscript. In the later editing it was determined that, despite my best intentions, the outline hadn’t given a strong enough shape to the overall novel in terms of pacing and act distribution, and that the end of Act Three came rather out of nowhere, and so I was obliged to pull an extra two chapters out of my arse. This is not a good place for chapters to live, and was the impetus to start putting in Act divisions in future outlines (or at least, in some of them).
2013 – the “we’re going to need a bigger boat”.
I did a lot of research for this book. Or at the time I thought I did a lot of research for it, but then I spent most of this year reading increasingly disturbing books about viruses for my current effort and I want to slap the me of last year for being a coward. But it was a grand leap forward in outlines, where I divided up my outline into three acts, and then into what I was writing for each year of the story, and then which days I was writing each section on, and how many words that needed to be…
… and then I dumped every single bit of dialogue, vague scene exploration, character note, or snapshot I’d made about the story in the seven years between first coming up with the idea and actually writing it, into the outline, at the appropriate juncture.
This gave me an outline which was if I recall, more than 20,000 words long, which seemed a lot but in retrospect cannot hold a candle to the planning document for this year.
As a consequence of this I swanned through 146k words without really raising my pulse, which sounds wonderful until you realise I had to edit out about 20,000 words of that.
2014 – the “double-distilled for clarity”
And now, this year. Oh, this year.
This year my outline document was 52,000 words because I put so much research gunk in it.
That is, if you are not up to speed, longer than the actual required length of a NaNoWriMo winning manuscript, but that is neither necessary nor the point. The point is that, having repeatedly extended and rewritten and fiddled with and extended and rewritten my outline, and then gone through and made a note of all the characters, locations, and research points needed for each day’s writing (which I may not have been, er, religiously sticking to), I’ve made getting down to the business of writing even easier this year.
With an outline already in place, each day I read through the original outline entry for that day, square it with what’s been happening in the story up to that point, and draw up a series of points – headlines, if you like – to summarise each of the separate major scenes covering that day’s segment. Occasionally these involve a bit of dialogue as it comes to me, or just a note on what the outcome is going to be and who is there: sometimes the whole collection expands out to about 500 words.
This, I’m finding, helps put me in the right mindset to continue with the story and, once I’ve started writing, to know exactly where I’m going and not need to take any breaks to think about what’s happening next – everything’s already been thought of in advance.
And that is how I use ridiculously detailed outlines to turn “writing a book” into a game of “filling in cells” which takes significantly less of my time each day than it used to.