Monday, August 13, 2012

How to Outline a Story

In my previous post, Advantages of Giving It a Go, I revealed I'm a reformed pantser, proud of casting off my old ways to plot out my stories before I write them. In the comments, M Pax asked, how then do I outline? She stumped me with the question because I hadn't thought about it before. The amusing thing is, I approach outlining much the same way as I used to approach writing: by the seat of my pants. This led me to realise there is no one true method. Each writer who wants to outline has to find a way that works for them. However, to answer Mary's question, this post is my attempt to explain how I go about outlining my stories. It's much like building a fire:

The Spark: Every novel begins as a tiny spark in the writer's mind. The ideas can come from anywhere and everywhere. One of my sparks came from a two second scene from a Shakespeare movie trailer and turned into a novel with a potential for a trilogy. The novel has nothing to do with the movie or scene which sparked it all. Of course, not every spark will catch and turn into a roaring fire that will keep the writer fuelled long enough to complete the novel. Each spark needs to be tested.

Testing the Spark: I collect sparks. I have a little notebook where I write them all down. Some ideas are a mere sentence, a 'what if?' Some are paragraphs, some are scrawled pages of notes. I recorded my latest one as a diagram. When I'm ready to begin outlining, I go through the ideas and see which grab my interest. I then focus only on the big picture: What do I want the story to be about? This is a great time to play with possible taglines for the novel. Sometimes this works for me, sometimes I need to fan the fire.

Turning the Spark into a Flame: The characters are what drive the stories for me. Some writers will do character interviews, hunt the net for pictures of actors who look like their characters, write up extensive backstories. I do none of that. Instead I pick a major weakness to give my main character, one I can exploit, one the character can overcome over the course of the story. From there the fire grows, other characters spawn as foils to the main character, and the story starts to evolve.

Feeding the Fire with Kindling: Working out the setting is a great way to feed the fire, to add those extra details to expand the ideas. In my latest work in progress (WIP) the setting came first. It developed like a main character. World-building became so crucial to the story that I wrote a novelette to gain a greater understanding of the world.

Feeding the Fire with Logs: This is my favourite part of outlining, the part many would consider the 'true' outlining. I use a mini notebook and pour out the story, chapter by chapter, from start to finish. I keep it brief. Sometimes it includes dialogue, but mostly it includes, 'this happens then this happens.' I write it fast and let the story and characters guide me.

Keeping the Fire Contained: To keep my ideas from going wild, I try to keep an eye on the big picture through the whole process. I do this by using a whiteboard and writing down each chapter in its most basic form on post-it notes. For details on how I use the whiteboard, see an older post, Writers' Tools: The Whiteboard. I'll adjust the scenes, slot in any ah-ha moments that spark, and build a cohesive story, checking the character arcs and the pacing.

And voila! This can take anywhere from one to two months. It might sound like a long time, but it saves me a lot of time and hassle in the revision stage.

Did I scare anyone off from outlining? How do you go about developing your stories?

--

Congrats to Suze of Subliminal Coffee for making it to the finals (top three, with the winner to be announced in September) for her novel in an international contest, Mainstream/Literary category. Woo hoo!! I'm not surprised, girl!

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89 comments:

  1. Wow, it sounds like a lot of work, but when I think of how much time it will save you in revisions it makes it worth the effort. I'm a pantser who is trying to make the move to plotter. I've done a bare bones outline of my current WIP, which is more than I've ever done for any other WIP. I'm also keeping very detailed character profiles on all characters, rather than just the MC as was my habit with past projects.

    Michelle :)

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  2. Hi Lynda. Wow, I'm first unless someone types faster, lol!

    This is awesome. I'm a reformed pantser, too, but haven't developed as far as you in outlining. I think I read too much which becomes more than a little confusing. I like your allusions to fire. I'm going to copy this and maybe try to use it as I get my latest WIP into some sort of outline before too much writing gets done. Thanks pal.

    And a huge congrats to Suze. I must pop over.

    Denise

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    1. The only reason why I get detailed with my outlines is because I find deleting polished scenes exceptionally difficult. So if I can skip that as much as possible, it's a win.

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  3. Knowing me, my spark will burn the house down, I'm so clumsy! LOL!!!! Love how you outline - amazing! Take care
    x

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    1. Be sure to keep a fire extinguisher with you at all times ;)

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  4. That is the best description of how to outline I've ever seen! Characters drive the stories for me and starting with a weakness or flaw is the best way to begin. (Never figured out how to interview a character that doesn't exist yet anyway.)

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    1. Character interviews was one of those methods I tried, but I just didn't warm to.

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  5. Fab post Lynda. I love the 'turning the spark into a flame' analogy. I also like the sound of the feeding the fire with log phase it allows for creativity in a structured way.
    Aha moments! Now that is a great phrase.

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  6. I agree with Alex. You've got a dynamite post here. I outline, but not as deeply as I probably should. (I've got a problem with outlines in general; too much of a free spirit here, LOL.) But I read your post carefully and and feel empowered. Many thanks!

    Off to congratulate Suze. Love that gal!

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    1. I'd always felt I had too much of a free spirit as well, but the time saver element won out for me. Plus I get to indulge the pantser in me in the 'feeding the fire with logs' stage.
      I hope it helps.

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  7. wonder if that film was ANONYMOUS or not? :) Or something older?

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    1. It was from the trailer of Tempest with Helen Mirren. You actually featured the trailer on your blog :)

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    2. ah, it was a very bad film in the end, sadly, I remember trying two times to watch it and would stop after half an hour :) Glad it at least gave you some inspiration, Lyndy!

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    3. Ha! I haven't seen the movie. I was planning to (though, as you can see I wasn't in a hurry), but now I won't waste my time! :)

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  8. Actually for the first time I am not scared off from this idea.I need to outline and each time I write a book, I try to plan more ahead of time but I know I haven't done it enough. I'd like to do this with my next book I start this fall. Your method makes sense to me and isn't so overwhelming!

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    1. oh wow, that's fantastic. I hope it makes a difference for you.

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  9. Now, you have me even more curious to read SM! ;) I'd love to see the results of this very unique process.

    Thanks for mentioning my post, Lynnie. That was awfully kind.

    xx

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    1. Not long now... ;)
      I want to hear all about the awards ceremony!!
      hugs!

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  10. I like that process. The logs section scares me a little - but I might have to give this a try next time :)

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    1. to me it's like pantsing the novel, only quicker and it matters less if you get it wrong.

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  11. Love the analogy!

    Nothing like a fire to inspire!

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  12. Love this take on outlining. I usually just do the chapters first and then take the time to build the important points that have to happen within that chapter to move the story along. I don't do serious detailed outlines though and it gives me some freedom to let my characters lead the way but keep them tied to the plot.

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  13. Your method sounds similar to my method. In the brainstorming of characters and settings, plot lines/scenes seem to just pop into existence.

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  14. I think jotting down the sequence of the novel really helps me see if I'm missing something, if there are enough ups and downs, and if the climax has enough climax before I start writing. If it's all on one or two pages, it's much easier to see if the story works.

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  15. Isn't it funny how we find our own processes for all the steps in writing, and how long it takes us to refine each step?

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  16. I like the fire allusion. Like you, I used to be a "pantser" but after writing myself into several corners, I decided to try my hand at outlining.

    It really does save lots of time. The plot is framed and I know my characters fairly well. What I've learned is, during the writing phase, sometimes my characters veer off the main highway and take a back road. The new scenery tends to enhance the journey, therefore, making it more enjoyable and engaging.

    Great post, enjoyed it.

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    1. Yep, well developed characters have a way of writing their own stories. If they suddenly want to go a back road, I tend to let them too.

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  17. Intelligent and interesting post about the fire, very present in my life.

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  18. Great ideas. I didn't outline my first couple novels, but because I ended up doing so many rewrites on them I started doing some rough outlining and found that it's helpful. I'm a new follower from my friend Lauren's Eclectic blog.

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    1. Welcome! It's lovely to have you here.

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  19. I don't know if I could tell you how I outline. It's such a gradual thing. Sometimes while I'm writing I'll have an idea that works better and have to go back to fix the plots, but it usually works better for me.

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  20. I am definitely an outliner. However, after writing my first draft I always put more "meat on the bones." I love the fire metaphor, Lynda. Thanks!

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  21. I do something similar, I must confess. I tend to do stream of thought forn the earlystages and when I have most of the plot in my mind - vaguely - I write scene outines and put them on cards. I number and tag them and then I can re-order the story as I go along.

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  22. I'm writing my first book and I began with the thought that I'd never share it but as I write, I think I may want to share it one day. I am currently in the flying by the seat of my pants mode. Now I'm wondering just how much work I've created for myself doing it this way....

    Thank you for all the helpful tips - once again =)

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    1. Many successful writers still write by the seat of their pants. There is nothing wrong with it if it's a method that works for you.

      I hope you do one day share your writing.

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  23. This is one of the best posts for tips on outlining. I like the idea of giving a character flaws. For my last book I took two months to write a chapter by chapter outline and then a summary. After that writing the book was easy.

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  24. I need to bookmark this. I am terrible when it comes to outlining, but I really want to be better at it!

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  25. This is really great! I'm trying to become more of a plotter, but my pantser muse thwarts any attempt I make.

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  26. Thank you so much, Lynda, for these great tips in plotting a novel. I am terrified to begin. I've only been writing short stories, non-fiction, and memoir. But I've always wanted to write a book. This would be how I'd do it, extensive notes and outlines. I'm too chicken to fly by my pants!

    Thanks again for this helpful information. ~Victoria Marie Lees

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    1. The beauty of doing it this way (for me, anyway) is that nothing is set in stone and anything can be changed before you start writing the first draft.
      Good luck starting your first novel.

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  27. This is great! I'm trying to move to outlining but with no real idea of what I'm doing...now I have a little guidance :)

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  28. That's really a great analogy! I use similar techiques, but the books I write are much shorter, so the process is a little quicker.

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  29. Thanks for answering. I was curious. I like the picking a weakness thing ... only for me, it seems to come out as I write and isn't always something I can preset. I do write bios for my characters ... short snippets of their lives before the story opens. I find that really helpful.

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  30. I don't use an outline, but I do use a timeline with plot events that happen on each day and in what order. And character development in the order that certain things occur according to the timeline. So I work on character, plot, and timeline all separately and blend them together in notes and on a spreadsheet. But no actual writing until I sit down for first draft.

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  31. Thanks for the info. You're quite organized. I can learn from you.

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  32. Sounds like we have the exact same outlining process!

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  33. I love the fire analogy.

    I have to plot or I'll never get my stories written. As I'm plotting, I'll jot down character points, setting details. Scene ideas often occur to me, and I'll write them and set them aside. Later, I'll see if they fit in anywhere.

    I prefer revision to drafting, honestly :-)

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  34. I write 1-5 sentences for each chapter on a spreadsheet.

    Lately, before I write the outline, I write a short pitch and then a brief synopsis so that I can focus on the big picture.

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  35. I am a list persona and always have been. When I started writing, I just naturally started outlining without even realizing this made me 'different' from most beginning writers. The section you call 'feeding the fire with logs' I call my 'scene breakdown'. It helps me stay focused. And I have found that I don't spend a lot of time cutting needless plots, but rather making the necessary plots and subplots better!

    Great post!

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  36. I hope this article is beneficial to me, because im really interested in story telling.








     Cover Letter Samples 

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  37. Great post! I'm the biggest panster out there so this is certainly helpful. Especially, feeding the fire with logs. I am going to give this a serious go for my next novel.

    Just got t sort this one out first

    Thank you for sharing.

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  38. I need to learn to outline better. I'm a pantser by nature so outlining it tough. I really want to give it a shot though. have you tried the Snoflake method? Can you recommend it?

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    1. erm... I wasn't familiar with the snowflake method until you mentioned it. I did a quick read up on it. It sounds like a very analytical approach. If that's your thing, the methodical expansion of ideas from the tagline to the scenes etc, then go for it. There is a danger of become too regimented with it, but again, if you love order and structure with your creative process, then give it a go.

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  39. i was never good at outlining---great helpful post!

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  40. I can outline my non-fiction . . . no problem, but not my fiction. I do spend a lot of upfront time making the story come together in my head before I start, but about the only thing can do close to outlining is a list of dates to help me with the timeline of the story.

    You've worked through a super system and I'm so glad it saves you time in the revision stage. That means you've done the preparation just right. Congratulations.

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  41. I love your analogy here--it works sooo well! I wish I could outline, but it just kills the story for me (and trust me, I've tried!). It's such a good way to keep everything together, I wish I could master it!

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  42. Very informative. Will have to take time to study your blog in detail.

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  43. That sounds like a good system for outlining. I'm an outliner. I go from the spark, to seeing scenes in my head here and there, to finally getting around and writing scenes down (a this happens and this) for the outline.

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  44. Great spark/fire analogy, not unlike Stephen King's suggestion to star with a situation.
    Catherine Stine’s Idea City

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  45. I'm sure everyone has differing methods, but your way sounds awesome. I may have to steal some ideas. I've been meaning to get a whiteboard.

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  46. Very helpful post. I was intrigued by your method of starting with a weakness for your character. I have just started a new book and will consider trying that. My stories start much like yours with the spark of an idea and then I just go with it. I am still a panster and do very little plotting. Not character sketches, either, although I do create a "bible" for all my projects where I jot down characteristics and physical details for all characters. I'm writing a series, so that is really important. I also keep a log of what is happening in the story chapter by chapter, with notes of what could happen later in the story based on what happened here. I guess that is sort of a haphazard approach to outlining.

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    1. yes, those logs are super important, especially for consistency over a series.

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  47. I too have a pantser muse. I get so deep into my characters that when I do start writing, they drag me through the chapter. So far I am comfortable with it, but I think as I am just starting a new book (#4) I will use both methods and see how it works.

    Thank you so much for all your wisdom and help. I find I learn so much with each book and have a lot more to learn.

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    1. good luck with #4. I hope using both methods works for you.

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  48. Yes, I like testing its spark, in a way I can compare the when I take pictures.

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  49. I love outlining, but I tend to use different styles of outlining for different novels, I have no one set way. I use Scrivener and like to collect images, not always of characters, sometimes I have to let them form naturally, but often of locations or items like cars, buildings, clothing etc. I also keep character profiles and write a lot of vignettes that I already know won't appear in the end novel, but build a more realistic world for myself.
    One thing I must have before I write is a scene structure. I think I enjoy the plotting and outlining the most :)

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    1. Oh interesting... I usually use pictures to help me with non-character descriptions. For example, if I want to describe a place of reverance, I'll look up pics of cathedrals and absorb the feel of them. (If that makes sense, lol)

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  50. I love this! I need to break things in the WIP down. Like you, I can be more SOTP in this area. I need to give this some serious thought. Thank you!

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  51. supercool analogy, or super hot!
    yay for plotting & notebooks!

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  52. I think you've put some excitement back in outlining, Lynda. I mean, writing is suppose to be fun. Some of us need to remember that. This was a great post, thanks!

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  53. I like the idea of starting with a weakness when you develop your characters. It's always more interesting to read about a flawed character than a perfect one, and I have actually read stories where the characters seemed too good to be true.
    I haven't done a lot of plotting; I usually just write out first drafts with a lot of cross-outs, and then I go back and rewrite them. Sometimes I write character sketches beforehand, though.

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    1. yep, that's the way I used to do it, but the cross-outs became a nightmare, not to mention all the holes I wrote myself into (I don't think I was skilled at winging it without an outline, lol)

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  54. i love this post! Definitely bookmarking it. I love the fire analogy--perfect for summer. :)
    Nutschell
    www.thewritingnut.com

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  55. I didn't know this was my process, but I think we work in a similar manner. I enjoyed this post.

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  56. Outlining is so important and so different for each writer.

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  57. I think your process is rather more involved than mine. But then, you probably get results quicker :/

    I tend to just start off writing (pantsing) and eventually have what amounts to a ~10,000-word short story. At this point, I have a grasp of the characters and the story and their interactions and motives. At this point, I will outline and try to build a pretty detailed outline. Then I start over again. (Yes, the first part is never going to see the light of day.) Then I have a longer, more-planned draft. But at this point, there's usually something that doesn't feel right. When I figure that out, it usually involves rewriting *again* -- this product is what I would consider my best effort.

    So I guess I'm a pantser and a plotter. Something about the first draft is what helps me get a handle on who the characters are that I've never been able to do any other way.

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    1. I do understand that. Sometimes the characters take a while to get to know.

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  58. Yes. I'm now terrified of outlining another story ever again . . . LOL.

    If I'm feeling really inspired by a story, I'll write down a couple chapters or so and then flesh out the rest of it with an outline.

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    1. yes, I'll sometimes write a first chapter, just to get a feel for the story too.

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  59. Oh, I liked this post a lot. I am by nature, a panster, but now I am working on Book two of a mystery series, and I'm turning into a plotter. But I like your way of approaching the outline. It's a good fit with what I'm calling an outline. :-)

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  60. Informative post. My first book - no plotting or outline. Second, WIP - plotting for sure. Done.

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  61. Outlining is soooo important. I din't do this when I first started. I wrote for the fun of finding out what happens. I learned in a year's worth of editing what a big mistake this was.

    You know what happened the firt time I wrote out an outline before writing?

    I got published! Hey.... in the same anthology with you. What a coincidence!

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    1. see! It works!! :)
      Looking forward to reading your story, by the way.

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  62. I love this post about outlining and plan on coming back to it in the future! My own outlining isn't very detailed, but you have given me some great ideas. I especially like the kindling section where you said you wrote a novella just to get a clearer picture of your world building.

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  63. Interesting post! When I was in high school, I remember teachers telling me I should write an outline, and I would scribble something down, write half of my essay largely ignoring what I'd scribbled, write a fake after-the-fact outline, and then turn it all in. I feel bad about that sometimes...

    Now that I'm a writer, though, I find that outlining is essential, but the process varies for each novel. In one especially complex story, I had a family history, a list of sculptures made by the main character, a time chart of events, and a synopsis for each chapter. My latest novel, though, simply had a date and one line of text for each chapter. Both worked equally well. Based on those experiences, I try to fit my outlining process to the type of novel I'm writing, actually. I thought your method with sticky notes on a board was interesting though. I'll keep that in mind for future reference, so thank you for sharing!

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  64. so interesting!! I definitely am not at the stage of collecting sparks...would like to be though...now I have a goal!

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  65. Reading this post just demonstrates to me how every writer has his or her own approach to the craft, and that's what makes it so awesome. Some people have a similar approach, and then others have completely different styles.

    I never outline. I get the spark, and then I see if I can write the entire story down in like two pages--sort of like a synopsis, but loose. Not set in stone. And if I can get a solid beginning, middle, end, I know I've got something. :D

    Good stuff~ :o) <3

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  66. As usual, a great analogy. I'm at the sparky stage right now with my WIP. :)

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  67. Gotta say I'm not an architect when it comes to planning out stories. In the piece I just wrote I basically winged the story from the thoughts/ideas in my head. I may give a detailed outline a go for my next project however.

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I'd love to hear your opinion. Thanks for leaving a comment.