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Monday, April 12, 2010

Writing a Novel: Outlining

I ... am writing a novel.

Of course you knew that if you are reading this post.

I have been writing a novel for probably five years now, going on six this fall. And while I've been writing this novel I've gotten ideas for others, jotted down notes, chapters, brief scenes, etc. But I've never once strayed from this original project.

This project is called Redemption's Journey and will eventually be made up of four novels. It is an epic fantasy series that I have quite a few dreams for.

But it will have to wait.

This spring I set the series aside to work on my novella, The Guardian's Tree. And now, as I await its acceptance for publication, I will begin in the summer a new novel.

The Fire

Tentative title of course.

Starting a new novel for the first time in five years is scary. I haven't planned out a story since I was ten years old. Ever since then I've been a Seat-of-pants writer running off a loose outline of previous drafts. I hardly remember starting.

But, based on short stories I've written, this novella, and previous novel-start attempts, I am going to become an outline-er. If you are a SOP writer God bless you. But I can write with an outline ten times better than I can without one. Granted, it will be a very loose outline, but guidelines nonetheless.

Thus begins the new blog series and my new novel. Expect infrequent updates on this particular series. It's going to be my go-to series ;)

First thing's first for any writer.


Before any writer can start writing they need a basic, general, idea. This could come in the form of an image, a phrase, a symbol, a character, or something else. Typically this happens in combination. You get an image and a phrase, an image and a character, etc. But you need a basic image. For example, The Guardian's Tree spurred from a symbolic image of a man and a tree. However, getting inspiration is another post altogether.


Next, you look at your basic idea in detail. Here is where I will not tell you what you do...I'll tell you what I am doing for The Fire. Take the idea, and look at it. Look around it. Fast forward in time. Rewind time. Examine in detail your basic idea. For example, for TF I had the idea of people willingly burning themselves. So it was time to ask the questions: Why are they burning themselves? Who is burning? And what is the purpose of the story as a whole.

What I ended up doing was whipping out a piece of paper and writing down everything I knew. This ended up being the climax of the story. I wrote out the setting, the chaos happening in this world, two characters, and the symbolism.

Then I whipped out another sheet and wrote the back story, and the ultimate conclusion.

These two parts were easier for me, because of the symbolism of the story. It had to be a certain way, not much getting around it. But when the reader gets a hold of the story, I will have it planned out that they will not know what has to be until it hits them. So is the plan :P lol


So I have the back story, the climax, and the ending. What comes next? Well, I thought before I started writing the details of the story I better figure out who's perspective it would be from. So I chose two characters, and in doing so added a whole new dimension to the story. At this stage, it was important for me to look at the pasts of the characters and where I saw them going. I got to look at personalities, appearances, etc and all of this based on the original big picture.


At this point, I haven't started outlining the details of the plot. But I imagine I will do the same thing. Start with the big picture, and slowly move inward.

I think that, for this story at least, that is the key and point of outlining. I was inspired by a big image, the people willingly burning....warring wolves....four mountains...etc, and through outlining I am meeting characters and developing the details of the plot. But the whole purpose of the story, using this method, will all be based on that original image--the burning people.

And I think most stories are written like this. The author has one thing in mind and everything in the story leads up to it. Everything in the story happens so that this one scene can. Everything in the LOTR happened for The Return of the King. Everything in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe happened for Aslan to rise again. Whether these scenes were the original idea or a newer one, the story revolved around them.

And I enjoy those stories. And I think it will be easier to write a story like this via outlining. And I think the story will be better for it.

To sum up, here are quick tips on outlining from a newbie:

Start Big: You don't need details until you actually write.
Think All Angles: Plot, character, past, future, etc. But especially the past. I find back stories to drive the main plot easier. The story can write itself with a good back story ;)
Spill Your Guts: Don't hold back! Make like....10 outlines if you have to and choose one or combine them!

What do you think? Do you outline or write from the hip?

To the end,


Beorn said...

Outlining is definitely one of the harder things, at least for me, in writing. I have part of an outline; it's about 4-5 pages long and I only have the first 5 chapters outlined! =0

But, nonetheless, I will keep outlining. To the death. =P

Very good post!

Squeaks said...

I definitely agree. Outlining was always hard for me. I've gotten to the point where I write a tentative 1-2 pager before I start...before I used to just write and write; everything always turned out to be a jumbled mess of chaos with no point to connect everything XD

Awesome post


Chris said...

I really think I should try outlining, a while ago I started writing a story (handwriting I might add) and by the end of the 3rd chapter (I think) I had gotten at least 4 main characters as opposed to the original one I started with (I think it might have later become at least 7) so, I put it on hold for a while until I could get my hands on a computer I could use to write with, which I believe I've found (handwriting my be nostalgic but it's really slow)
so, I think I'll give outlining a try
sorry if this was kinda random, that's the way I am :P

Katherine Sophia said...

Ow... I hate outlining. :) Even when I write papers for school, I generally have to go back afterwards and make an outline to turn in. :D Half the time I write stories because I want to find out what happens to the characters - I don't know what is going on or where the thing is going. :)
Good post, though! If I ever manage to make myself do an outline, this is very helpful! :)

Jessica said...

I hover between two styles. Complete outline worked pretty well then I thought I would try sop...that didn't work so well...isn't working so well.

My latest inspiration came in a burst of different scenes which I then had to write. I have tried saving them for later and they fade away into an impression rather the the bright catching scenes that they were originally. Now with some basic scenes and a general feel for the story I am sketching the outline.

Nathan God has called you to be a writer I have no doubts that this new project (love the current title btw) will only make your awesome writing even better. :)

Jessica said...

Oh forgot to mention...I sort of tagged you at my blog. Naturally it is your decision what you wish to do with it.

Galadriel said...

It's interesting you should mention that, because I just started writing--not yet posting--a series on names for my blog, and the first post--on naming my characters--also went into inspiration.
For example, my current novella, Three Dark Roses, started with a dream I had. I was laying in a bed, injuried but peaceful, when "Joel's father" came. His son had treated me, which surprised me, as I didn't think he would care or even know how.
'He was commanded to." the man said
A wild hope lept in my heart, the King?
There was a symbol on my chest--three roses, a color darker than black and richer than of those things you only see in dreams, of course. a
And I started running it over in my mind...I don't remember the whole process, but I think it was one of those stories that springs to life nearly full blown, because when I looked at my journal there was no false starts.
I love dreams as inspiration.

(Is this post too offtopic? Well, it might be)

word thing is fialike...that could be an inspiration.

Joraiem said...

Good ideas and plan!

I too make outlines that help me as I plan out stories I write, and my novels in the series that have to come. This helps me think about what is happening at that moment, and also what is to come!

I find it very good to think about reasons for everything a character does, and effects of everything that happens!!

Great post!!

Barie said...

I've always known where my stories are going, whether I wrote down the outline or not, I've always had one, lol. It's like second nature to me. Haha.
It's always much more organized on paper though :D Some of my outlines (and the stories that went with them) were pretty hopeless.
For my book now, I'm like making a ridiculously detailed outline. This could be very interesting to see how it works out . . .

Oh, and Nathan, I almost forgot to tell you, but I loved your post on "Girl Power" ;D

Evergreena said...

I'm both!

I'm a Snowflake-outliner with most of my novels,
and for Script Frenzy I'm a total SOP. :D

I never did an outline (or finished a story) until I came across the Snowflake Method for planning a novel (google it!). I modified it to suit me better, and I've used it many times. It really helps me finish a novel.

Now I've been going back to the Seat-of-the-pants method. I've found that I can surprise even myself with interesting plot twists this way, and I also do it just to challenge myself. :)

Yay for loose outlines, and good luck with the new novel! I'm looking forward to this new series.


Izori said...

I just figured out that I am an out-line person. Without outlines, I usually don't get past the first few pages.

Barie said...

Evergreena, for my current book I did a simple outline at the begining, and now (twenty-thousand words into it) I'm doing the snowflake too, lol. Except I've made it even more complecated, haha. Perhaps I am procrastinating the actual writing part . . .

Pyrosian Heir said...

i'm definitely a SOP writer. seriously, if i tried to do that it would screw with my head. mostly because of me having the back story develop itself. its actually quite wierd. every single portion of my book seems to write itself, its quite nice.

as far as inspiration goes the restart/revamp on my current book was caused by a song on my mp3 player. as it played one day i got the entire opening bit running through my head and it had to be put in harddcopy immediately.

Nathan R. Petrie said...

@Beorn, yeah outlines can be either REALLY detailed. Or REALLY vague. I like the vague ones. Loose outlines. Gives me freedoms and makes me feel like I'm SOPing it ;) the pain! rofl
Thanks man!

@Squeaks, if you find your story being a jumbled mess....then you should outline ;) Fight the pain ;) lol

@Chris, do whatever works best for you. Personally, I find outlines very helpful. Helps me speed up. And I get writer's block less.

@Katherine, Oh I am so with you there! I am the most SOP outline-er in the world :P I hate when teachers are like "Now make an outline" because it doesn't work that way for me. Especially for nonfiction. I just run with nonfiction. And for short stories I'm like you, I want to know what happens. Wanna take the ride. But for novels...I dunno. I'm in the middle :P

@Jessica, yeah I go back and forth too.
Oooh nice!
Thank you so much for saying so. You have no idea how much that means :D
And yeah, I'll do a huge post of tags sometime this week :P lol

@Galadriel, lucky you. I've never gotten dream inspiration :P Sounds great though!

@Joraiem, Yup. Character motivation is very important.

@Barie, yeah I'm like you. When I was 10..I knew where my novel was going but didn't write it now. Similar to what I have...but I want to write it down. So I can easily change it and throw foreshadowing in.
Glad you said so! I need more support on the comments ;) ROFL jk

@Evergreena, I looked into Snowflake once. I just like writing my own way I suppose haha. And totally, loose outlines are the BOMB.

@Izori, good for you! Whatever works!

@Barie again, uhoh....don't get stuck in outlining ;) LOL ::evil laugh:: You will never get out. haha

@Heir, yeah I know how that is. When I did the first draft of TSOF it was like that. The back story developing itself. Now I have it all nearly planned out and writing it down helps a lot. But of course, the discovery is just took a few years :P LOL
The Fire came from a song too ;) Awesome sauce! lol

Aidan Romero said...

I'll try an outline for one of my projects I know where they're going. Everything in 2-4 series is leading to one scene.

Star-Dreamer said...

Long ago I promised myself I'd never outline... I've broken that promise many times since and it's turned out to be for the best. :)

Nathan R. Petrie said...

@Aidan, if you know where it's going you might as well write it down lol :)

@Star-Dreamer, Me too! ::highfives:: lol

Barie said...

Nathan, actually, I'm writing and outlining at the same time, haha. I was joking about the procrastination :D In fact, I just topped 20k last night :D :D Which makes me happy because 19k is where most of my stories die, lol. I won't let this one die though. :D
The major outlining is just for the parts that I haven't thought out very thouroughly, I have loose outlines for the rest. Hmm, I've changed the snowflake so much, I'm not sure if it is the snowflake anymore . . . lol. Haha, I am way too chatty today.

Pais Charos said...

Hey Nathan, you've been tagged!

Gwendolyn said...

You defector, Nathan! :P

In ninth grade I wrote a book using outlining and a word limit. It didn't work. I ended up spending most of my time squeezing clique characters into the mold of the story instead of letting them write their own adventure, and it turned out to be pretty stupid. I'm hoping to re-write it someday, and then it'll be a fantastic book that knocks your socks off. (:P) But while I was writing? The outlining killed me. If I had only written without plotting the entire story first...

The current project on my plate, A Dragon Within, was inspired last year by a dream...a dream with a series of connected scenes. A orphaned girl fighting a dragon and falling before him, unable to conquer. A battle in a demolished castle. Rumors of witchery. Looking out from a hillside in the fresh morning light to watch a valley of hardworking ladies harvesting their grain. And when I woke up, the story was there. So I began writing it.

But at the same time, though I have a general idea of the story, it is still very vague. Like the focus on the binoculars isn't turned to the 'clear' setting. It's fuzzy. So I write as I go. I have a picture in my mind of various scenes, but I never am quite sure of what's going to turn out at the end of them, or what happens in the interim action. I've tried to find out. I've even plotted out the next scene. But somehow it never does turn out how I planned it, so I've packed away my crystal ball for good. ^_^

With Out of the You don't want to know how many times that story evolved. I plotted out three of the original storylines. Looking back, they resemble something very much like Star Wars. Now, having arrived at a point where the story is both original and off-the-wall, I have no use for any of my plans. Characters have been hewn off, others added, and we have a general ball figuring out how to explain away the dilemmas they get into. For that, I have a few general ideas of what might happen in various scenes, but I really have no clue where they're going. And I don't care. :P It's more fun to live it as it comes.

Short stories usually come all in a flash, and I have it all in my head waiting to be written down. I'm glad that doesn't happen with longer pieces, because I'd never get it written in time!

And regarding outlining in general, I find that the more I detail the plot, the less enthusiasm I have to write it. Outlining has ruined some storie ideas I had, because I detailed them to the point where I hated them.

Galadriel, I never heard the story behind Three Dark Roses. Fascinating! I love dream inspiration; there's something so...ethereal about it. Somehow a dream idea seems to go beyond the physical and arrest every sense until you have a clear picture of one thing. And that one thing becomes the central point for a story that plays every string on the harp of the soul. Dreams like that often are far and few between, but when they come it's like looking into another world. As if the imagination somehow expanded to hold so much more than just a simple idea...

Galadriel said...

Your story sounds cool. I love dream inspiration's like a snapshot of a movie. Sometimes I think (while dreaming) that something will make a great story, then I wake up and say..."That's an awful idea!"

Nathan R. Petrie said...

@Barie, WOOOOT! Every 10K added is like a finish line haha

@Gwen, I never really was an SOP writer. When I was 10 I briefly outlined....more of just drawing a map though lol

Honestly, outlining helped me keep good characters. Helps me see the whole story in perspective. And keeps me from forgetting foreshadowing I've placed earlier and helps me stay focused. But hey, I haven't technically written a story using an outline yet because TSOF doesn't count and TGT wasn't outlined until after I started writing. This is just why I'm going to start lol

What you are doing for ADW is what I did for TGT. I knew I wanted certain things to happen, and just let the story bring them about.

I'm sure SOP is a ton of fun :D lol Well, it is haha. I just think I can personally create a better story with an outline.

@Galadriel/Gwen, the few times when I get dream ideas...I sit in my bed trying to think of how to write it down...and by the time I start formulating the idea...the story is gone haha

Jake said...

Haha, I'm on my third novel (None published yet) and haven't outlined once. Does that make me weird? LOL.

My next novel will be based on only two things; A question and an image. I had the image of a man falling to his knees and crying in the wreckage of a once-beautiful city, and the question, "What if people pursued their enemies with relentless love instead of hate?"

I think it'll turn out well.

Good post!

Nathan R. Petrie said...

@Jake, LOL The writing world is split almost in half by outlinners and SOP-ers. But they all start out with a general idea. So...that's kinda like an outline...sorta haha

Love the idea for the novel! Sounds sweet!

beth said...

i wish i was into outlining, i think i would have a lot less unfinished stories if i was! lol. but i tried to outline a story once, and i got bored when i started writing it. like, i really enjoy feeling as if i'm reading the story while i'm writing it, it makes it more fun for me :)

do you ever use your friends/family for inspiration to write your stories? in the best stories i've written, the characters were based on my best friends. it was fun to write about them, but it also limited my story. like, i would have loved to have a little romance between a couple of the characters, but then it would have been awkward because it was about my friends! haha


James Matthewson said...

Excellent advice, Nathan. Outlining seems to be the method of choice for most writers, but, then again, it might just be me. :)

Keep up the good work! I'll be scanning the bookstore shelves for your novels in the future.

-James Matthewson

Taylor Beisler said...

Hey Nathan!

Nice post! Finally I've found another teenage author! This is great. :) I hope God blesses you on your endeavors in the future! :)

He's sure to shine through you.

Taylor J. Beisler

Nathan R. Petrie said...

@Beth, yeah it's a fine line. I just like having a plan. And I don't get too detailed with the outlines. I still feel like I'm reading ;) lol

Yeah, I've used friends as inspiration. But I've never based a character solely on a friend. Because, like you said, it limits your story. And honestly it will make the characters seem LESS real. What I have done in the past is take character traits from multiple friends and thrown them together. From there, you let the character write themselves.

@James, thank you! TGT will be the "first" ;)

@Taylor, Thanks for dropping by! You'd be surprised by how many teen authors there are! But...finding talented ones is another story ;) I hope you think I'm one of the few lol
If you're interested, check out my Starlighter giveaway!

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