More than Roman Numerals: My Outline Process

I’ve had a couple of people ask me about my writing process, including my outline process, so I’m going to break it down here. And by break it down, I mean, this will be incredibly long, I’m sorry, but if you read this blog regularly, you are not surprised. #notreallysorry

I used to be a pantser which means I wrote to figure out what was happening. And then on the backside, I’d outline or figure out what worked and didn’t work and fix it. For some people, this works just fine. Those people are miracle workers and awesome and all the power to them. I realized this past fall that I was not one of those people. I thought I wasn’t a good outliner because I’m a kinesthetic and visual learner so the literal process of writing, typing, and seeing the words on my screen was really helpful for me.

But then I outlined THE KILLING MISTS, my Icelandic magical realism YA crossover book. I outlined the shit out of it. As a result, I did the first draft in 6 days. Doesn’t mean that it didn’t need heavy revising, but I never lost momentum. I never worried about where I was going next because the outline existed. I just checked and went, “Okay, that’s next, here we go!” I never went on side tangents because I had a road map.

Okay, it turns out I love road maps. Love, love, love. Will never write without one again. When I sat down to tackle magicballoonbook again (which turned into a rewrite over a revision: only about 5k survived from first draft to second draft, by the way, if you want to feel better about your own revisions), I outlined it first and sent the outline to my CPs who were Ok with spoilers. I said, “Poke holes in it. Tell me where the plot holes are NOW.”

I was lucky. There were no plot holes. The pacing felt right to them and it looked good. But I think that was crucial, figuring out the weaknesses of the outline first, before I even started to write/rewrite.

My outlines take me a LONG time. They take me about a month to write. So in some/most cases, they’re taking me longer to write than the draft takes me. They’re 4-6k long and detailed, far beyond plot points.

The Killing Mists has been totally gutted and rebooted (I didn’t say that an outline prevented this!) so I feel OK sharing my first chapter outline for that book in its original format.

  1. The Mist Horses

    1. Valdís Pálsdóttir is by the marsh waiting for the horses at sunset (“The sky was bleeding red” or “the sky was hemorrhaging” as opening line).
    2. Sven Jónsson is late (“You’re late,” she told him and he smiled at the greeting but offered no explanation. He had never been late before.”)
    3. They have a routine

                                               i.     She has an apple for each of them (She tosses it to him—the apples come from the farmer’s market where she buys only from the stall of the person who used to be her father’s largest competitor so she doesn’t have to buy from the person who bought their farm)

ii.     He brings her a few lumps of sugar (he presses the lumps into her palm. Sugar is a precious commodity and him having biweekly access to it, or maybe even daily she doesn’t know, is a sign of wealth)

iii.     They joke that if the horses can’t eat them, then they will.

D.  Description of the mist horses and the scenery very important

i.     Moody, misty, chilly, perpetual autumn/early winter weather

ii.     Slippery leaves, brackish mud that smells like rot but comforts Valdís because she’s still alive.

iii.     Horses come out of the mist, manes then noses and then the rest of them flying together, like the mists coming together. They are fully formed, faintly colored like autumnal leaves

E.  Differences in how she and Sven dress

i. Valdís wearing worn trousers, a thick cable corded sweater with a scarf. Her strawberry blondeish hair is braided. She wears fingerless gloves and carries a canvas tote with her schoolbooks. She carries her shoes in her tote when she’s in the marsh because her boots aren’t waterproofed and the marsh wet and mud will kill them.

ii. Sven dresses with high collar shirts, always shades of white and brown and black. His jacket is of a finer material, like Valdís’s father used to wear when he was alive and they could afford things like that. His trousers never have holes in them, are never patched. He wears leather shoes that are never scruffed and are waterproofed.

 

F.  Parting ways, Sven always checks to find out when she’ll be there next

i.     A little awkward, he always looks like he should do something else

ii.     Valdís’s a little afraid he might kiss her goodbye one of these days

iii.     Valdís tells him to outrun the mists and he laughs

The formatting looks a little screwy, but hopefully you get the idea? That’s the first chapter alone. Every chapter’s done like that. It’s not like I wrote “His trousers never have holes in them” but it was important that Valdis note the differences between their economic circumstances. I also put in important notes to myself about setting, emotion, and rhythm, especially with dialogue.

In Sarajevobook, I have notes to myself in the outline about scope. One of my narrators is an outsider and talking about Sarajevo during the War is a different experience for him than my other two narrators who are Sarajevo natives. He tends to look at big picture issues. When he interacts with characters who work for the UN, he’s looking at the big picture: who’s going to ‘win’ the war? What does winning meaning? What are NATO deliberations like? When my Sarajevan characters interact with the UN, their focus is: When are we getting more food? Is the water clean? I need medicine. There’s two different focuses and intents here.

People’s priorities are different as characters, but also, as a writer, after I have a big picture chapter where they’re debating the merits of international involvement in the war, I needed to remember to zoom in on a character whose life is profoundly affected by the war. So I have a character arguing with the UN about involvement, and in the next chapter, I have someone who finds a single potato, but doesn’t have enough water to boil it. I write down in the outline why I am doing that, so when I come back to it in a month and go, “Eh? Potato? What was I going for?” I remember that there was a specific narrative intent when I was planning the story.

I also leave myself funny notes, like “Heyzeus crispo, Kai, why do you always fall for the girls you can’t have?” and “This scene better be so swoony that Dad gets teary-eyed.”

(My dad loves YA but dislikes kissing. It’s his most common complaint about books. “There was too much kissing!” Now whenever I write a kiss scene, I can hear him in my head. It’s super awkward.)

In Magicballoonbook, this outlining process was crucial as I have three points of view, and 3 time periods (though only one chapter in present day, the rest are split between 1988 and 1942/1943). The outline helped make sure that I was delivering information at the right pace, at the right time, and through the right point of view. When you’re writing multiple points of view, the outline is extra helpful because you’re controlling what information each character has and what information the reader has at what pace.

In Magicballoonbook, Ellie has very little knowledge about the balloons and East Germany. But what she does do really well is connect the dots. She’s very smart. She might not understand the how but she does get the what faster. So even though Kai is the one who gives the reader all of this information about magic, balloons, and East Germany because he can do it without info dumping like Ellie would have to, Ellie’s the one who connects the information he has with the events of the book.

TL;DR

Outlines are helpful to me. I hope that the example above and how I use outlines is helpful to you too!.

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