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Organized chaos? What’s your method for outlining and keeping your story on track?

Virtually every author,  fiction or nonfiction, needs a method for outlining and staying organized. Day 10 of the 5-Week Author Blog Challenge asks our bloggers to describe their outlining and organizational processes. All 35 posts for this Challenge will be focused on writing, publishing, and book marketing. I hope you’ll stick around through all 35 posts. And if you want to take part, come on in – the water is great! You can register here.

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Day 10 writing prompt:

Describe your process for outlining your book. What do you do to stay organized? Do you use a software like Scrivener? Index cards? Sticky notes? Giant posterboards taped to the wall?

Sometimes, the desire to write the book shows up before we even know what the book will be about. That was somewhat the case for me with Stan Finds Himself on the Other Side of the World. It was also the case for my friend, Joe Torres.

Joe’s been attending the Phoenix Publishing & Book Promotion Meetup (PP&BP) for a few months, and every time he comes, he’s made some significant progress on his book. A couple sessions ago, he described his outlining process: grabbing several huge sticky-back sheets of poster paper, slapping them on the wall, and recording the ideas for his first novel as fast as they come to him.

Joe's outlines

Joe’s outlines

My process was a little tamer. Mind you, there is NO right way or wrong way to do this. It’s just important that you have an outline of some sort and know who your characters are, where they came from, what they did yesterday, what they will do tomorrow.

My story is about a man who travels around the world, visiting 23 countries over the course of a year-and-a-half. It’s an audacious undertaking, as I personally have visited five of those 23 countries. Which means the book required research. Back in 2004 when I began writing, the Internet was still young and there were no such sites as TripAdvisor.com or LonelyPlanet.com. But there were Lonely Planet travel guidebooks, and I used them heavily in the planning for Stan’s trip.

As I mentioned yesterday, the novel began as a submission for the 3-Day Novel Contest. The rules prohibited writing ahead, but allowed participating authors to construct a full outline before the contest got underway. So I spent the three days prior to the contest ensconced in travel books up to my eyeballs, deciding where Stan would go, and how he would get there. Knowing I’d never been most of the places he would go, I made a deliberate decision to keep many of his visits off the main tourist thoroughfare. For example, he doesn’t go to London, Paris, Rome. Of course there will always be a reader who’s been there to catch me up on an error or inaccurate description, regardless of where Stan travels – but why give them extra ammunition? I have had several globetrotting friends as beta readers, asking them to check the descriptions for accuracy. The reports thus far are that my depictions are quite good, particularly for my not having visited most of these places in person.

Microsoft Word - schedule - lo 2013

Since the novel is told partially in flashback, I also had to create a timeline so that I could keep track of Stan’s past. When did his dad leave? When did he graduate from college? Get his MBA? Start dating Gretchen? Meet Paula? As new details find their way into the story, I add to the timeline. It’s just a Word document, stored in the “Stan” file of my computer.

I’ve tried Scrivener, and it seems like a great tool for someone who needs a lot of help to get and stay organized. I was already so far into my novel by the time I came across it, though, that moving all the information into the Scrivener system seemed like more work than reward. Fellow author C.K. Thomas wrote a blog post for the PP&BP blog about the importance of writing character profiles, something I would not have initially thought to do, but now consider a worthy time investment.

The tool you use to organize your outline, keep your characters straight, and move your plot in the right direction is unimportant. What’s important is that you do those things. Readers notice inconsistencies, like moving a scene from the beginning of the story to somewhere toward the end, but forgetting to remove subsequent mentions that now pre-date the original mention of the episode. They notice when a character started out as a Boston native, but somehow and inexplicably morphed into a guy who’s originally from L.A.

A screenwriting system I learned from Jeff Schimmel could easily be applied to novel writing. It involves a couple of decks of index cards. One set is for the characters. Each character gets a color, and every detail about the character is recorded on a different card. Physical description,3d cover significant relationships, education, hobbies, etc. Another set of cards is for the scenes. In Stan Finds Himself on the Other Side of the World, it would make sense to use a different card (or set of cards) for each country Stan visits. Dialogue goes on another set of cards. What eventually emerges is a storyboard – a graphic organization system that allows you to pre-visualize the story.

Please be sure to check out my next post, which overlaps quite a bit with this one: about my research process for #StanTravels.

And for the record, I’d love your feedback on my Author Blog Challenge posts! And, of course, would really love to have you support all of the bloggers in the Challenge. Find their links here.

Here’s to staying organized in your writing!

Laura

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We welcome and encourage your thoughtful, courteous comments below.

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I only learned to outline because Homer made me do it

For the next 22 days, we’ll be taking a little detour from the traditional marketing posts you’ve come to know and love on the Marcie Brock blog as I lead by example and follow my own writing prompts for the Author Blog Challenge. There’s still time to register. Join today and qualify for drawings for daily giveaways for every day that you post.

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Day 7 writing prompt:

Describe your outline process for your book. What do you do to stay organized?

I’ve been writing for almost as long as I’ve been alive. In my formative years, I spit on the idea of pre-planning. This included researching or writing my papers any more than a day or two before they were due, and I certainly had no use for outlines. Then I got to advanced freshman comp at the U of A and my professor, Homer Pettey, (who’s still there!) required that we turn in our outlines for a part of our grades.

WTF?!? Outlines? I don’t write outlines. I don’t know how to write an outline. What kind of sissy writer uses an outline?

I still had to hand in my outlines.

The good news is that I learned how to write them. And now, I wouldn’t write without them. In fact, one of the primary things you learn in any screenwriting class is how essential the outline is to the success of a screenplay.

Outlines had less to do with the formation of my book than with the organization of its layout. As you may have read in my last post, I assembled 1,001 questions about every aspect of life as a 21st century American woman. I was encouraged to divide the questions by topic into chapters, of sorts – an idea I rejected. We don’t live our lives in categories, so I didn’t want to deliver the questions in such a compartmentalized fashion.

I did, however, create an extensive index, cross-referencing each question into one or more of some 80-plus categories. Eventually, I will act on the advice to segment the questions by topic, making smaller books or booklets that focus on subjects like work, family, money, health, and of course, sex. As it stands now, at the end of each question is a 3- or 4-character code that indicates which category(ies) that particular question falls under.

EXAMPLE:

Question #62: To whom did you last say “I love you”? Do you? To whom do you want to say “I love you”? Why don’t you? Who do you wish would say “I love you” to you? COM/LOVE/REL

In this example, the categories are Conversation/Communication (COM), Love (LOVE), and Relationships (REL).

Each question is cross-referenced in this way. The categories are listed below.

ACC … Accidents HEA … Health
ADO … Adoption HOL … Holidays/Birthdays
ADV … Advice HOME … Home/Household
AGE … Age/Aging HOMO … Homosexuality
ALC … Alcohol/Drugs HUM … Humor/Laughter
ANC … Ancestry/Family History HYG … Hygiene
ANG … Anger HYP … Hypothetical
ANI … Animals INF … Infidelity
ART … Art/Music/Creativity LOVE … Love
BOOK … Books/Reading MAR … Marriage/Wedding
CAR … Car/Transportation MED … Media/Advertising
CHIH … Childhood/Parents MET … Metaphysical
CHIR … Children MON … Money/Finances
CIV … Civic/Community MOR … Morality
CLO … Clothing/Apparel/Accessories MOST … Most/Best/Personal Records
COM … Communication/Conversation NAME … Names
CON … Conflict NAT … Nature
COS … Cosmetics OBS … Observations
CRI … Crime/Violence/Weapons PAR … Parenting/Children
CUR … Curiosity/Privacy PART … [Your] Partner
DATE … Dating PERC … Perceptions
DEA … Death PERS … Personality Traits
DEP … Depression PHIL … Philosophies/Beliefs
DRE … Dreams/Fantasies PHYS … Physical Appearance/Traits
EDU … Education/School PLAY … Play/Leisure/Hobbies
EMB … Embarrassment PORN … Pornography
EMO … Emotions REG … Pregnancy
EMP … Employment/Career/Workplace REG … Regrets
EXP … Experiences REL … Relationships
FAM … Family ROM … Romance
FAME … Fame SCI … Science
FAV … Favorites SEX … Sex
FEAR … Fear SHOP … Shopping
FOOD … Food/Eating SIB … Siblings
FOR … Forgiveness SLE … Sleep
FRI … Friendship SPO … Sports/Exercise
GEN … Gender Issues/Women & Men TAL … Talents/Skills
GIFT … Gifts TECH … Technology/Computers
GOD … God/Religion/Spirituality TIME … Time/Duration
GOV … Government/Politics TRAV … Travel
HAB … Habits/Behaviors TV … TV/Movies
HAP … Happiness TRU … Truth/Honesty

Outlining work in almost every kind of writing. How do you employ it?

Laura

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We welcome and encourage your thoughtful, courteous comments below.

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In honor of our 1-year anniversary (May 2, 2012), we’re hosting the Author Blog Challenge! It starts June 2 and is open to published authors, authors-in-progress, and would-be authors. Come check us out and register today!

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