I tried outlining. I used to long to be a writer who outlines in very much the same achingly desperate way that I used to long to become a person with tidy and organized closets. Thing is, I’m just not the sort for either one. Adi’s hilarious and insightful Monday post started me thinking about why.
Google “novel outline images” and you’ll find gobs of ways to outline a book. It’s not always the roman numeral/capital letter stuff. Methods abound. But my problem is, they are almost always linear. Left to right, up to down. It’s right there in the word itself: Outline.
My stories aren’t left to right or up to down to me. I visualize them more like helixes. I’m at one end of the helix when starting a new project and during the process I’m inside it, with its characters and scenes all around me. If I’m lucky I will eventually come to the far end of the helix, with all the plotting behind me, and then the book is complete.
I am not known as a linear thinker–just ask my family. What I do instead, I think the experts call it “radial thinking.” Ideas sparking other ideas in all directions. In three dimensions, even. While this trait apparently makes me a laugh riot at the bar with my droll asides and non sequiturs, it makes just about any outlining task anathema to me. The closest I get to an outline that works for me is an Idea Web. (Incidentally, here’s a pretty cool one.)
So how do I organize a plot? The same way I go about organizing a closet. First few drafts, I just cram everything in there, wherever it fits, even if it doesn’t.
Then in the next draft I take everything out. Yup. Empty the entire closet and set all of its contents on the floor. In other words, by the time I start this particular draft, I’m starting over. I’ve figured out the scenes that are essential and that have a specific place they need to occur in the plot line. Those things are like the most important things that need to be in the closet. I place those on the shelves first, where I can make sure they go into their ideal slots. The inciting incident, at the beginning; the climax scene, near the end, etc. Sometimes I do this physically, by cutting up a printed draft and laying out everything on the floor around me. Then I figure out how the other scenes/items need to fit around them.
The closet shelves are getting filled up again, but neatly this time. The draft seems to be coming together.
Then, a reversal! At some point I realize that not everything I want in the closet is going to fit. I have to omit items, or change them or wedge them in differently. Often, once I see how things are not quite fitting into my closet, I have to take every last item out and start over again. Scenes get pulled out and reworked or rearranged.
I organize and place them by instinct almost, juxtaposing scenes for max effect, keeping all the plot balls in the air.
At some point, finally, everything has a place. It looks good; it feels right and complete. I don’t know how else to explain it, but my story is plotted then. It’s set. It’s done.
Now you. Tell me about your outlining technique. At least, tell me if my method makes sense to anyone but me.