Things are finally settling down for me. No sight of edits in the near future, the second installment of the Sanguire has been completed and sent to Bella Books, and I’m about a third of the way through the third book.

Didn’t make it to Saints & Sinners, won’t make it to GCLS or the World Science Fiction Convention like I’d planned — money’s too tight. I’m aiming for next GCLS in 2012, though, and there might be a book signing in September here in Portland, Oregon. As I know, you’ll know.

On to this week’s topic —

The Outlining Process

When I initially began writing, I didn’t outline a thing. For each ‘chapter’ of the Infinity Series fanfic, I scribbled the list of characters involved and what each would be doing. That’s it. Which is not to say that my original fiction didn’t have some sort of structure before I seriously began outlining my novels in advance. CyberEpic was crammed into The Last of the Mohicans movie plot; Tiopa Ki Lakota was loosely based on a verbal calendar from the Oglala Lakota; Warlord Metal starts off centered upon the age of the main character, Sonny Middlestead.

In fact, it wasn’t until Warlord Metal was up for publication with Fortitude Press that I tried to reverse-outline the manuscript. My editor, Cindy Cresap, informed me that she saw three story arcs in the manuscript. ’Really? Wow! I had no idea!’ But there were scenes that needed to be added, some way to soften Torrin Chizu into a likable enough character that wouldn’t force the reader to toss the book halfway through the second chapter. (I have this problem in at least half my books…my outsiders are too offensive and rough.)

To figure out where to add the requested scenes, I went through and used the colored index card method — Sonny, Torrin, the band, and Torrin’s sordid past each had their own color, and I painstakingly jotted down each scene with a note about what I’d wanted to get across to the reader. Wow, talk about a lot of work! It looked pretty cool, though I was still a little confused at what went where. I’d never compartmentalized a manuscript before, so it took me a bit to figure out.

That didn’t break me of my seat-o-the-pants method of writing, however. I promptly wrote Castle Walls in the same manner as before, once more resorting to reverse-outlining when it came to publication edits. It was easier to wrap my mind around the concept this time. I could better see, with my editor’s assistance, where I needed to add more material to flesh out the book.

You’d think I would have learned my lesson, right? Wrong. Kou Itten, a CyberEpic sequel is half written, as is a post-apocalyptic novel called Orphan Maker. Broken Trails’ only outlining concession was preparation for the race and the Iditarod itself. They all suffered from my inability to see the bigger picture, and stalled. I know where I want them to go, I know how to get started, and I have these wonderful scenes in my head that I want to write, but where does it end? My thoughts tend to be a little vague on that point…

Over the years I’ve seen a number of computer programs for writers. I had tried multiple free trials with little success. Dramatica Pro, WriteWay, WriteRoom, DarkRoom, Story Mill. It didn’t seem to matter, none of them appealed. Perhaps I was still wrapping my little pea-brain around the whole ‘outline’ concept, and had low comprehension levels. Perhaps my seat-o-the-pants method was too deeply ingrained, and needed more rounds of edits with professionals to work past the mental block. I don’t know. In any case, I’d about given up on outlining. Sure, it made a lot more work for both me and my editors, but trying to outline a manuscript in advance seemed to consign it forever to the Seventh Level of Hell where it would burn for eternity.

Then I found Scrivener, and something clicked.

The first thing I did was plug Broken Trails into it as I wanted to offer it to PD Publishing. I color coded all the scenes depending on whose point of view was involved, and was able to see a bulletin board with all these little colored notecards on my computer. Whoa! I didn’t have near enough of Scotch’s color — I needed to add more scenes from her POV! Since I had some major character changes to make, I was also able to use the document notes section for each scene to jot down reminders of what I was doing and why, to include any ideas for changing the scene to the new paradigm. Starting from the top, I was able to alter the content to portray the changes without losing track of what I was doing.

With such a success, I popped Orphan Maker into Scrivener, too. I’d stalled about two thirds through, not certain how to move on. Using my other books as guidelines, I tossed in enough scenes to bring it up to fifty (seems to be my average,) and then brainstormed what should happen where and when. It took a couple of days, but I realized that this book had shades of Warlord Metal with three subplots… The problem had been that I had only been paying attention to two of them — I needed to beef up the third. Voila! The outline is ready and waiting for me to return to it.

The Sanguire series — another seat-o-the-pants writing — had made it to two and a half books before lagging. I rewrote book one before Scrivener, and tossed it into the program. It was easy to move scenes around, add new ones, and remove useless ones. There’s even a section for Research. I spent a couple of days transferring all my Sanguire encyclopedia from NoteTaker to the Sanguire database. Now I have a window split into four vertical columns — the binder with the list of all scenes and database pages, the scene I’m working on, a second scene editor that I use for research and looking up things, and the Inspector which gives me specific data about the scene (name, synopsis, notes.) I no longer need to switch between multiple programs to keep writing.

This doesn’t mean that Scrivener is the reason I outline, nor is it how I learned to outline in the first place. By backtracking and outlining my previously written novels, I’ve been able to understand the process better. When I was a kid, I’d edit my letters to friends by moving blocks of text to like-topics, and copying it onto a fresh sheet of paper. As an artist, I began by drawing people or artwork I admired. This was just a matter of making sense of the structure for me. Scrivener was the final piece to a puzzle with which I’d been struggling.

One other thing came into place that has helped me — the Snowflake Method of outlining. Go have a look at it. If you’re starting from scratch, and have no idea what you’re doing, it’s an excellent method of teaching you how to develop characters and outline a novel. It’s also very time consuming; those of you who are beyond the basics might find it tedious as all get out. I have very little patience, and I’ll admit up front that I haven’t followed Randy Ingermanson’s method. What I found intriguing were the three disasters and an ending.

That’s the second thing that helped me finish outlining Orphan Maker. I had only two disasters lined up, yet it wasn’t far enough along to finish. It was almost like I needed to have a third disaster for the third subplot. Once I realized this, I came up with a blow-out that ties everything up and allows a satisfying climax for the ending of the book (which I already have in my head, and have had since I initially began writing it.)

If you’re not willing to invest a lot of effort into the Snowflake Method, no worries. Just like every book or website, it shouldn’t be taken as gospel. Everyone writes differently, so don’t feel that either outlining instructions or the Scrivener program (or any other program, for that matter) are the right way. I think that’s the most confusing thing about people who want to be writers — they assume that they have to do as their favorite writer does. When it doesn’t work for them, they become discouraged.

Whether you outline or not, always keep your eyes open. Try out new software, read how others write, take classes at your local colleges or online, become involved in writing communities and critique groups as you feel comfortable. No one person has the key, but all of them might hold pieces of it that make sense to you!