the Author

On Writing Process, part three: Outlines and sundry

Posted in writing, process.

ETA: So many typos T_T

I want to take a small detour to talk about outlines – the thing I don’t write.

I want to close the gap between outlines and pantsing a bit. And I want to make clear that nothing about either is cut and dried.

When I finished the Books of the Sundered, I real­ized the thing that had really, really slowed me down was lack of concrete details in my worldbuilding.

I had a story I wanted to tell — and this story became the two book Sacred Hunt, the Hunter duology. (For the record, I thought it was one book when I started it.) The scene that came to me was the end of Stephen’s arc, and to me it was really strong.

But I had to, once again, build a world in which that scene would have enough context that it would have impact on people who read it. And this time, I wanted to do one other thing as well: I wanted to create a nobility that by its nature and its respon­si­bil­i­ties was valued. Not for power, but for what they brought to the people they ruled.

So Breo­danir society came from that. What would be valued? How would it be noted? What about the posi­tion itself would keep those who served and were ruled from resenting those who did rule?

This is not an outline of the actual story or its events. But it’s what I spent a lot of time thinking about before I started page one. I created the Hunt­brothers and the Hunters; I created what they knew of their history, which was some­what sepa­rate from what I knew of their history.

I created the Hunt and the women who effec­tively became the law of their indi­vidual lands.

There are notes about the colors of their clothing and what those notes mean to their ranks, because for me, these things are not things that come natu­rally, and — as in eye colors, even of people I know very, very well — they leave.

World­building suggests story elements to me as I go – but I don’t write those down; I think about them. Anything that is going to be strong enough to sustain a novel, I won’t actu­ally forget. And anything that isn’t, while it might be a great idea, I let circle my internal thoughts like butter­flies, or pieces of things that have not cohered.

World­building is context. Char­acter exists inside of that context, for me. Base char­ac­ter­is­tics blend with the cultural surround­ings, but the latter are necessary.

I tend to think about a story, to look at its bound­aries (say, it has to have a dragon. Or a cat. Or a dog. Or some­thing that fits a theme). I often have a feeling, a tone, when I sit down and start to write. The number of set bound­aries will change with the length of a work; the world that’s built to support it will define many of the elements that later come into play.

I don’t do exhaus­tive world­building when I’m writing a short story (more on that later). In a short piece that’s not attached to a world, I’m looking for a tune, not an orches­tral piece.

I once worked on a collab­o­ra­tive short story with a friend. Our process differs, and I didn’t realize how much of a differ­ence this would make – but we learn from these moments, we become more aware of what we need, and of what we can, and can’t, do.

(I am not one of nature’s brain­stormers. I know people who are prac­ti­cally elec­tricity and light­ning when they’re brain­storming: it’s pie-in-the-sky, anything goes, where ideas can be thrown into the mix with rapid and excited abandon.

I’m the wet blanket.

Because I have learned this, I don’t brain­storm. I can listen to other people brain­storm, but I don’t tend to partic­i­pate, because most of my partic­i­pa­tion is of the, “but, wait, that won’t work.” or “but what about this? Won’t this break your idea?” You get the idea =/. I can sit on this and keep these words on the inside of my mouth, but some­times it’s hard.

I think that brain­storming in theory is really cool, and you can also work back­ward from it: you have a great idea, and all of the things that would prevent it from working are the things you then need to fix or iron out before you start. I do them both at the same time, but… I don’t consider it a damp­ener on the inside of my head.)

We agreed to write alter­nating scenes, and we did discuss what we would be doing with the story, and story beats. This was diffi­cult for me; it was prob­ably diffi­cult for my partner of the time.

But at one point she had an idea about cats (story had to have cats), and I said, “no, we can’t do that, because struc­turally and symbol­i­cally the cat in the story we’ve written has always been in this loca­tion, and …” Michelle began to rifle through her subcon­scious because the response was so imme­diate and visceral, “he’s inside because of these three things.”

All of this was true. None of this had been discussed prior to this point. I under­stood, without that discus­sion, what struc­tural role this one cat played and what it meant — but not consciously.

This is the way I often approach story. There are elements that will end up on the page as a big surprise – but while I didn’t plan them, they have a tone and texture that is absolutely part of the weave of the partic­ular story.

If I am on chapter six and someone says that some­thing doesn’t fit, I can tell them how it fits — but only then. I don’t ques­tion the things that feel right. It’s like I’m afraid to poke the story; I want to write it all down before I lose it.

But… tone and voice define what those surprises are. There will be no clowns that randomly prance across the stage when fighting a dragon, for instance. The “anything goes” is not actu­ally anything. What enters the story from stage left has the right tone and the write shape for that story.

When I’m writing I listen, for want of a better metaphor, for the voice of the book. When I start a West novel, for instance, I can start it multiple times, write up to a chapter, and hesi­tate. There’s always a bit of doubt: is this the start of the book? I will choose an event. I will shift view­points. I will move forward in time by a bit, or back­ward in time.

But when I actu­ally find the start of the book, there’s no doubt. This is it. This is where the books starts. Once I have that start, I write pretty contin­u­ously until I reach the end. I will break to research things I didn’t consider before I started (like, say, how to move 50k troops. How to feed them. Where to house them, or where to tent them. I honestly did not know), and I hate having to do that — it breaks the flow of the story for me. It’s why, with the West novels in partic­ular, I did a lot of world­building — I wanted to just know what the char­ac­ters knew, so I wouldn’t have to leave the book to find out.

Some­times people don’t like to discuss their process because it sounds new-agey. Or it sounds preten­tious. Or it sounds self-aggran­dizing. Or it sounds lack­adaisical. Or it sounds … well, you get the picture.

If I have to describe my writing day, I would say I start by listening to the voice of the book. (See what I mean? What does that even mean, Michelle?)

There are many, many voices that can inter­rupt that process. If I am writing while hearing the voice of my fear, it’s not the book. I stumble. I can’t find the view­point. I can’t reach that story itself; there’s too much in the way. If I write from a place of fear — say fear of judge­ment — I keep walls between myself and the book, because who wants to be vulner­able? Who wants to expose those vulner­a­bil­i­ties so that people can judge them?

Writing takes a lot of vulner­a­bility, regard­less. Authoring takes armor. Writing takes honesty, a kind of truth, even and espe­cially when writing fiction.

Many people have put it another way: You need to be able to turn your internal editor off while you’re writing.

I am trying to describe how I create story, how I write it, how I make it work. Some­times, when listening to other writers talk about their process, I feel entirely inad­e­quate; I feel as if I should be doing what they’re doing because it seems so impres­sive from where I’m standing.

This has… never, ever worked out well for me when I have made that attempt. No matter how unim­pres­sive my own process sounds to me, it’s the one that works for me.

I know writers who outline. Some write twenty thou­sand words of outline, and then fill in the spaces between those words. Some write twelve page outlines. Some write outlines at 1 page per 10 book pages. I know people who pants their way to about 2/3s of a finished book and then outline.

Most of them are writers you’ve prob­ably heard of; all of them have found a metric that works for them. I know people who started out writing the way I do, and lost a book because they’d written them­selves into a corner; they learned the hard way when and how to outline, because it was neces­sary. All of these differing processes have produced novels. All of these have produced good novels.

There is nothing wrong with outlining. Outlining, like every other part of writing a book, is a tool. There are still some writers who write their first draft by hand. I can’t imagine it. I know it works for them. Drafting by hand is also a tool.

Not writing with an outline is not supe­rior; there’s nothing about the process that should be judged as inferior/superior. You are not better for outlining. You are not worse for pantsing. And vice versa. It’s entirely about what works for you, and what you can make work for you.

I like process discus­sions because it’s like the blind men and the elephant. I feel like we’re all groping in the dark, and we’re all grab­bing onto the greater sense of story, and we’re all describing the parts we’ve found, and… process discus­sions are kind of like trying to get a grasp of the entire elephant, to me. Even if I can only grab its ear.

19 Responses to On Writing Process, part three: Outlines and sundry

  1. Argentum says:

    I under­stand your repeated emphasis that the ‘right’ process is what works for the writer. I get it, I agree, it rings true, and I attach no moral weight in any direc­tion to outlining, in general. BUT I have to say it is super impres­sive that you can start at the begin­ning and write to the end of books as complex as the West novels, because how in the world can you keep all the many char­ac­ters and subplots and view­points straight, absent one of those matrices which JK Rowling made famous? How can you keep track of what Evayne knows and doesn’t yet know?

    The voice of the book’ makes total sense to me! I commonly write out of order (every­thing — novels, acad­emic essays, corpo­rate emails, internet comments) which LARGELY works for me but can make finding that voice a challenge.

  2. michelle says:

    A writer friend recently said the same thing to me: that I was handling a lot of threads and subplots and she was certain that this was a thing she couldn’t do.

    Evayne is a terrible pain T_T. She’s actu­ally the most diffi­cult char­acter, and possibly the only truly diffi­cult one (I take notes, I have a graph of her age and the events she was part of at which age).

    But. Hmmm. Voice of the book is a way of describing it.

    But possibly another way of looking at it is: weave. Weaving. What I want is a whole cloth, or a tapestry. Some­thing that requires thread.

    Some threads, I will pick up and pull in — but once I’ve done that, that thread is part of the whole thing. I won’t pick up a thick wool strand when I’m trying to work silk. That one doesn’t work. I don’t need to think about this — and if it were weaving or embroi­dery, the person doing it wouldn’t either. They’d just kind of touch it and know.

    But view­points give me different things and different maneu­ver­ability. If I need someone to notice some­thing subtle, then I want Haval or Kallan­dras. If I need them to notice and make plans because of it, I prob­ably want Jarven. If I need someone who under­stands the emotional cost, the emotions inherent in an event, I want Jewel. Or Finch. If I want those events to have very little personal weight, I want Jester.

    All of these people do move through the story with their own goals, their own tasks — but, hmmm.

    But they’re part of the whole, and not sepa­rate from it. I don’t think of the plot strands as sepa­rate things that I have to track — and it’s possible that this is not a good thing for some readers.

    With the CAST books, I have Kaylin. Kaylin has a specific way of looking at the universe and trying to learn from it, even if some­times that’s grudging. So in the case of the CAST books, it’s different. I don’t have that flex­i­bility because in theory she has to be in each and every scene. That’s one of the bound­aries I was talking about: it’s one of the elements that curbs or serves as a guide­line (or wall). Because that’s true, the stories have a different shape; there are certain places they can’t go.

    What I like about multiple view­points is that you have many people, but the story can open and close windows on those people in their natural settings. 

    But… those people become part of the whole thing. It’s like Jewel in HUNTER’S DEATH. I wanted a view­point that would be aware of the disap­pear­ances, at the hands of the demon, in hold­ings in which no one would theo­ret­i­cally care. It would be diffi­cult to do that with Stephen and Gilliam unless I shifted events. I didn’t have to move the story; I moved the viewpoint.

    But having done so? Jewel was now a thread that had been pulled into the whole of the book; she was now part of its voice, part of its harmony. She could and did go where Stephen and Gilliam could not natu­rally go, and she became part of the whole thing.

    it’s. Hmmm. It’s seeing what is needed for the struc­ture, if that makes sense? It’s not that I have 50 threads that I’m trying to keep track of it; it’s like I have one story, but different threads are required for different parts of it.

  3. michelle says:

    … in fact, when I think about things before I start writing, what I often know is event. I know certain things that are not emotional — not end of book — but are fixed. Things can only remain fixed when they’re off the page, but — in my mind certain things are events.

    So: the plans of the kialli are events.

    I think my proposal for the BROKEN CROWN and SUN SWORD (two books) was 2 double spaced pages, or maybe one, about Allasakar’s plans and moti­va­tions. With a sentence or two about the people who could hope­fully stop him.

    Those events, like world-building, are part of the pre-writing. They’re not the book, but they’re foundational. 

    This is, btw, why it’s harder to delin­eate how I write. Because it’s not a one-for-one thing; there’s a general order of prece­dence, but it’s not fixed, and some­times I look at a book through one filter and some­times another. But: I’m trying :)

  4. michelle says:

    oh, and I see that I did not answer the one question. 

    I don’t always remember secondary or tertiary char­ac­ters; I always remember view­point char­ac­ters. I know what Jevri el’Sol is like, even now, at a remove. I remember Ashaf clearly.

    I think the distin­guishing features, for me, are entirely the inte­ri­ority of the char­acter. So that carries a tone and a weight, and because I rely on words for every­thing I do in life, writing them is almost natural. I do not remember their eye colors T_T. 

    But… this is like a michelle version of eye color or hair color or phys­ical appear­ance. This is the thing that distin­guishes them.

    …and yes, I kind of love thinking about process and trying to describe it and under­stand it enough to explain it. In case that was not already 10000% obvious.

  5. Argentum says:

    It’s not that I have 50 threads that I’m trying to keep track of it; it’s like I have one story, but different threads are required for different parts of it.”

    That DOES make sense — and is partic­u­larly eye-opening. Thank you so much for the extended follow-up!

    Also, Evayne is the coolest :)

  6. michelle says:

    That insight was brought to you by multiple attempts to explain why I thought this partic­ular friend could do what I was doing, but was looking at in using the wrong metaphor. 

    But to be fair, she is the one who intro­duced me to her own concept of struc­ture as a 3D object: proper struc­ture is balanced; the whole can spin. Improper struc­ture, unwieldy struc­ture, won’t spin; it wobbles.

    Some­times, when I think of the end stretch or sequence, I now think of it that way.

    And although we’re talking about our process, or the metaphors we use to describe it — that metaphor was very helpful to me; it was another way of assessing, of looking at things.

  7. I only write fan fiction, but inter­est­ingly like you, I often start with a scene and that scene is what drives the rest of the story.

    My last classic example of that was I clearly visu­alised the end scene of a story — but I had to fight my way through 28000 words to get to that point 

    It was a really good expe­ri­ence about thinking about struc­ture and tone, pace and plot lines, intro­duced my first OC who helped with pace and plot, filled in some essen­tial back­story for the heroine.

    So I absolutely get what you are saying. I still struggle with under­standing exactly HOW you do it and stay sane, given the deep complexity of your books, but I get it :)

  8. michelle says:

    @lensaddiction: I have no other hobbies. I mean, I have writing, reading, and I’m a bit of a book­store geek. I am one of those terrible people for whom food is fuel (although good food would be a delight). I cannot knit, and I can’t art (as a verb, to cover a collec­tion of things). Also, I can’t read maps and can get turned around in my own city and head in the wrong direc­tion and not notice if I’m thinking.

    … or possibly sanity is over-rated.

    ETA: writing fan fiction is still writing, and doesn’t require a qual­i­fier like “only” :)

  9. :) I can’t knit either, and didnt think I could art until I found an art that made my brain happy.

    As someone who cooks, people who eat as if their life depended it are the best of audiences :)

    Luckily I have inher­ited the spatial aware­ness re finding my way around but I have often found myself at a desti­na­tion, after driving there, with NO memory of the driving expe­ri­ence, because I was thinking so hard LOL

    And sanity is defi­nately overrated!

  10. Carrie Hamilton says:

    Let me say how much I admire your will­ing­ness to discuss your process. I am in awe that you have taken the time to express your­self at such length. I am an acad­emic, and my conscience screams at me in any “free” moment (i.e. when I’m not chasing kids, running errands, cooking dinner, etc) to be researching and/or writing. I am expe­ri­encing a panic attack just composing this (LOL), so I genuinely appre­ciate your generosity in responding to your fans. I was surprised to learn that you feel you are not visu­ally oriented because you evoke such rich images with your words. They are part of the reason I enjoy all of your books. Your process makes me wonder, though, how you manage conti­nuity issues without losing your mind? Your series now have so many books that it must be increas­ingly diffi­cult for you not only to revisit them but also remember minute details (e.g. I assume I’m not alone in wondering when and in what context Rath will speak to Jewel one last time). Thanks again!

  11. Thunderchild says:

    How do you know which “threads” are in play? As an example, the leaves Jewel gath­ered in shining court didn’t have a reso­lu­tion till skir­mish. Was that always the intent or was it a thread in the back­ground that suddenly you could use? 

    Another example might be the blue leaf. I totally under­stand Jewel giving the leaf to Carver, but when writing it do you under­stand Jewel made a mistake then and there and are you cursing at Jewel while writing it or does the real­i­sa­tion come about after the scene is finished and then start cursing at Jewel? 

    Possibly what I’m trying to under­stand here is the nature of pantsing and how it impacts the story.

  12. michelle says:

    @Carrie: I don’t remember every­thing. And also: eye color is a terrible thing. I think my cover artist (Jody Lee) caught a mistake once because she was reading the book and she notices visual markers like that (Stephen of Elseth’s eye color). 


    Certain elements form part of the emotional arc of a char­acter or an ending. I know, for instance, who is wearing the rings that Evayne once salvaged from the coli­seum. I know what those rings mean. I don’t need to look those up.

    The very partic­ular example you asked about, I can’t answer until June because some people really, really hate spoilers.

    Do you know what I started doing a book review column? Because of that panic that you describe. I could not even sit down and read a book because if I had time to read a book I had time to clean up the mess of the house, play with my kids, try to make lunch/dinner for said kids, try to get more words written.

    My schedule with young kids was … fraught. They’re older now, and out of school (school for the oldest was a special kind of stress on the rest of us).

    The very last thing I want for anyone patient enough to read these posts is any compar­ison what­so­ever between someone who now writes full time for a living and someone who is working full-time (or the parent of young kids, in which case working 24/7) and trying to squeeze in what­ever writing time they can manage to find.

    But: I know where Evayne’s arc — emotion­ally — ends. I know where Kiriel’s arc ends. There are things that have to happen to get to those ends. I know where Meralon­ne’s arc ends. And again, there are things that have to happen before any of those endings are written. The things that have to happen are there­fore easy to remember. 

    The elements of other char­ac­ters fold into those endings, so I remember those. Oh! Auralis. I know his, too.

    Those stories, or sub-stories, aren’t finished, so in some fashion, they remain vibrant or alive.

    What I don’t remember clearly is how the Widan in the Dominion are consti­tuted. I don’t remember every detail of their initi­a­tion rites (I do remember the bridge). So I will some­times do a full reread (which, yes, takes time). I don’t remember the Hand of God — well, no, I do, but not clearly. I will lose small details, but not large ones, if that makes sense?

    So I read the words, and it brings me to a place where every­thing is sharper and clearer. Unless I’m sure I know and I’m wrong. T_T.

  13. michelle says:

    How do you know which “threads” are in play? As an example, the leaves Jewel gath­ered in shining court didn’t have a reso­lu­tion till skir­mish. Was that always the intent or was it a thread in the back­ground that suddenly you could use?

    The leaves are an example of picking up a thread and weaving it in. They were signif­i­cant. I never forgot them. I did not know exactly what purpose they served. I assumed that they would become rele­vant in the End of Days arc. They’re an example of a thread that you pick up and weave in that kind of resonates. You know, when you’re writing it, that it’s impor­tant – even if you don’t consciously know why or how. I did not put the leaves there assuming they would be used the way they were.

    Nothing in Skir­mish worked that way, sadly. I really expected, and planned for, a polit­ical war. But — the books are a weave. The things that occurred earlier become enmeshed in the things that follow. I knew, the minute she let the leaves fly, what would happen to them – and I knew that this was not going to be a polit­ical book. I seri­ously consid­ered cutting it all and starting again. But… the story flow was so strong from the moment she loosed the leaves for the next 60k words that I just couldn’t. So I accepted that this was what it was.

    But this built on Sea of Sorrows, as well. And I think the hardest thing for me with Firstborn/War was the fact that I did not want the ending. I wanted a different ending. I wanted any other ending. And there was no other ending.

    Another example might be the blue leaf. I totally under­stand Jewel giving the leaf to Carver, but when writing it do you under­stand Jewel made a mistake then and there and are you cursing at Jewel while writing it or does the real­i­sa­tion come about after the scene is finished and then start cursing at Jewel?

    No, this I knew. I knew what the leaf was. I knew what it was meant to do. I knew that Jewel had made a mistake. I think… Hmmm. I know that some people have not been best pleased with my deci­sions about Jewel and her ambiva­lence. I think people trust Jewel; Jewel’s lack of trust in herself there­fore frus­trates them. They know she is, for want of a better word, a good person. They can’t imagine why she’s afraid to accept her power because they’d trust her with that power. But… she’s a person. People make mistakes. People make mistakes for reasons that are entirely human. Is love a mistake? Is guilt a mistake? When you have the power that she has and has not fully accepted, what is the cost of a mistake? And if you have the power of a nascent god, how large will your mistakes be? What is the cost of love and pain and guilt at that point?

    Possibly what I’m trying to under­stand here is the nature of pantsing and how it impacts the story.

    I think this is what I was trying to get at when I said outline/pantsing were not diamet­ri­cally opposed when looked at beneath the surface. I do just sit down and write when I’m writing a book; that’s not a lie. I don’t inter­ro­gate the book (but have been known to scream at the computer when someone does some­thing incred­ibly stupid) But… it’s like skin is skin, but it’s not actu­ally the person. Pantsing, writing by the seat of the pants, is a bit like that skin; there’s a person’s worth of messy bits underneath.

  14. Joyce Ronquillo says:

    I am defi­nitely a wet blanket, too, Michelle, in every­thing I do. I inter­nalize and analyze before I even begin. I why and but every­thing so it is good to know I am not alone. Your approach works for you and the results speak for them­selves. I have not been able to get into the West books, though I haven’t given up, but I have been along for Kaylin’s journey since the begin­ning and a new Cast book is the only book I pre-order.

    Outlines give me hives, figu­ra­tively speaking, and have done since school. Teachers always wanted me to stick to the outline, which I had to turn in first, and I didn’t know where what­ever I was set to write was going to go until I wrote it. This was not gener­ally fiction but even essays took winding paths.

  15. michelle says:

    @Joyce: I once told a very regular customer who came to the counter with Broken Crown to put it back. She wanted to try it because she liked the CAST books. My response: “It is every­thing you hate. It has multiple view­points, it is epic fantasy, and it is very political.”

    But you wrote it, and I liked the other books you wrote.”

    Yes, but I’ve also been recom­mending books to you for years and trust me, you will not like this one.”

    Obvi­ously, I love them both. So: it’s perfectly fine to like one over the other, or not to like one, or etc.

    I never under­stood one thing about high school essay writing: Why would you tell someone who pretty much knows nothing to come up with a thesis about some­thing and support it? Like, if a thesis is an opinion and the point of the essay is to offer facts in support of that opinion, that’s great. But:

    How am I supposed to have an opinion about some­thing I know nothing about? Seriously?

    I can under­stand if you ask, say, a histo­rian to do this; they have opin­ions and also, should have better general research skills and resources. Those histo­rians have opin­ions based on what they already know.

    I was not a terrible student, but I could occa­sion­ally be oppositional.

  16. Joyce Ronquillo says:

    Exactly. I once had to outline a term paper and follow it completely even before I knew how much I could find in research mate­rial. It was hell.

  17. Kith says:

    I’m still working out what my process is. So far I have learned that a full outline will take my interest in telling a story and kill it dead. Much like you — I have already told the story, so what’s the point in writing it. 

    But I also cannot write at all unless I know where I’m going — not just an ending, but waypoints to hit along the road. Like the ‘events’ you were talking about in a post above. (I tried to reply to that one, but my phone is not coop­er­ating.) I always need to be writing to a specific point in the not-too-distant future or every­thing turns to pudding and I drown in it.

    For my current project, I built a rough outline before I started. I don’t much care if I deviate from the details, because the bones of it seem to be holding. Every time I get stuck, I re-outline my way to the next waypoint. I pretty much imme­di­ately abandon the details, but at least I’ve gotten myself moving again. 

    It seems to be working?

    Sadly, another part of my process seems to be: get 1/3 of the way into a project, throw it all out and start again. But so far every project has been better for it. :/ I’m trying to make my peace with that, but I am not a patient person. :)

    As for the new-agey bits… one of the coolest things I learned in my year of writing every day was that I do actu­ally know things about plot and struc­ture. I always used to say those were the things that I sucked at because I thought I was supposed to know them at a conscious level, but it turns out they’re programmed into my brain at a subcon­scious level and some very cool stuff comes out if I just keep writing. I’m excited about some stuff in my current project, although I won’t know if it ACTUALLY works until I get to the end.

  18. michelle says:

    @Kith: I under­stand why writing 1/3 of a project and dumping those words is frus­trating — I feel that way about the iter­a­tive attempts to write chapter one. 

    But this comment made me go back and think. Again. 

    When I say I have the end before I start, I mean I have the end of an emotional arc. But when I wrote Broken Crown, the end I was aiming for was an action on Diora’s part that happened in… Shining Court.

    I had events. Those events happened largely off-screen – but the conse­quence of those events were entirely on the page.

    The end of the actual book was not the end I was writing toward when I started the book; that ending had moved. 

    Hmmm. I will often sit down and think about what I’m going to be writing today. If things are compli­cated (like Cast in Sorrow), I will make a bullet point list of things that are likely to happen. I once got ten points in. Point one was the writing I was doing that day. Point two was what I thought likely to occur after it. Except when I started point two, every­thing blew up, which rendered the causality of the points that followed useless.

    I didn’t consider this an outline because I was not committed to it in any way. This is what might happen, causally. Not what will happen.

    One of the things I have noticed about people who outline more completely is this: They can look at that outline for glaring plot prob­lems, but… even if it’s made struc­turally solid they don’t feel committed to the outline itself. The outline remains a tool. If some­thing does change while they’re writing the book, they go with the book and toss the outline.

    And I think for me, an outline is a commit­ment. It’s a plan. I mentioned that I did one full synopsis for a book. It was neces­sary if I wanted to sell the book (well, 3 books). But it was a cage for me. Every time the story or the char­ac­ters wanted to diverge from that outline, it was impos­sible because they bought the book based on the outline.

    Except every publisher is different. And synopses are not, appar­ently, consid­ered sacro­sanct. And other editors have, hmmm, lectured me about outlines as a tool and some­thing to take to edito­rial boards. Even knowing this, they give me hives.

    Also: yes! Our story brains do under­stand story struc­ture because we both see and create narra­tive struc­tures all the time. We read a lot, watch a lot; our attempts to under­stand things that make no sense in the people around us require some construc­tion of what-if and possible “story” blocks in order to disgorge explanations.

    These posts are kind of my wander-in-circles attempt to consciously discuss processes that are not conscious processes.

  19. michelle says:

    @Kith: and also one more thing.

    The endings I do have are the core or heart of the struc­ture of the whole. They inform the tone and the voice of the book, or books. Although each view­point has its own vari­a­tion on tone and voice, all of it has to fit under the umbrella of that ending. Or the shadow of it.

    If I know the endings, I know emotion­ally what resonates with that ending.

    You know those bowl-shaped bells? When you hit them, they ring. But if they’re well-made, they ring, and as they do, the sound becomes louder; they’re not loudest when you hit them, but rather a few seconds after. And then the pealing dies out. 

    I think of endings as that moment when the volume of the peal is the loudest — but I think of the begin­nings as the striking of the bell. The loudest part of that ringing is the end; the dying into still­ness is denouement. 

    If I don’t have the right begin­ning, I won’t get the right sound; they won’t match. This is the voice of the book, to me. I think my iter­a­tive attempts are almost a testing of that sound, that peal. I know what the sound at the end should be; the strike at the begin­ning has to match it, to lead into it. And then it becomes easier because once I’ve hit that note, I trust the book to go to that end.

    So: if I have to write and ditch 30k words (that was the worst) of Chapter One, grinding my teeth because I am wasting my writing time if I have to constantly throw new words away, it’s frus­trating but … process. Mine.

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