Outlining is a painful process. Where some writers swear they enjoy writing most when just sitting down and unearthing the story, discovering what happens along the way, it just doesn’t work that way for me. I have to outline to not get lost during the writing, and to know what I want to write when I sit down that day. I even do two outline levels in the end, which I will talk about later. The “sitting down to write” part used to be the most difficult step in the creation of a story for me, and I abandoned it quickly in favour of a plan. The way to get there mapped out, I can then go discover it and see what happens as a witness. For me, it’s less of a “read the synopsis before the book” kind of deal, more like drawing lines on a map (not picking the course on Google Maps, which determines the turns and stops for you), then driving according to my plans. Let’s see if I can break it down.
From Idea to Outline
This right here is the most painful step of them all, and it’s kind of like the snowflake method by Randy Ingermanson, in that it starts with an image, then develops into an idea, from which I then craft a story. I’ll give an example for it, because this is just too vague and abstract to follow.
Most of my books start with a picture, a split second of the story I want to tell. For Pendulum, that was a young druid, standing on the bridge of a starship. For Synthesis, I thought of a Winter Court faerie being the good guy (they’re usually not). Emergent was a coder in a lab, looking at the code of a general AI, and in 5150, I imagined a priest whipping a girl while screeching “Spare the rod and spoil the child!”. This is how it starts, the first step. I’ll go through the complete process using 5150 from now on.
Image and Goal
The image I have usually sparks the idea. Once I got an image in mind, I look at my list of goals for the Aes Sidhe universe at a whole and evaluate them. In 5150, I wanted to give Daniel closure, who was an important character in Emergent, but disappeared at the end. Leaving Daniel’s fate open after Emergent, I gave myself the chance to do something with him in the future, without worrying too much about it yet at the time. I just liked him enough to want to tell more of his story. He could have died in Emergent, to give the ending more oomph. He could have hit it off with Nadya, and then worked with her for Makoto and the AI, but I hadn’t written a romance arc in that story, and I don’t feel confident I even can pull one off without it getting cringe. Peter F. Hamilton is often named as an author who writes damn good science fiction, and then ruining it for some people with sex scenes. I never saw that as a real problem as a reader; just skip ahead, right? It’s a book, not a movie. But as a writer, I wouldn’t want to spend days writing scenes some readers just don’t read at all. I had had a very dramatic experience with Red/Green/Blue Mars just a short while ago, where the long-winded descriptions made me question whether I wanted to even finish the books. At the end, Stanley Robinson rambled on endlessly about some lichen, and I dropped and DNF the last book in a trilogy I had worked really hard to progress with, only to get frustrated with it. And it was the last stretch of the book, for fuck’s sake. Ok, back to topic. A realistic way to tell Daniel’s story was to bring him back to Gilead. He could shine a light on this part of the world, with his unique qualification as an insider. I had the image—the girl getting whipped by the priest—and a goal. Now I needed a story to bring these two together.
Image, Goal and Idea
So Daniel disappeared at the end of Emergent. The goal was to use him as a device to show off Gilead, and to somehow implement the image of the whipped girl. The idea became clear when I thought about a good reason for the man to go back to a place where he’s wanted as a traitor and a criminal. Daniel isn’t a fanatic zealot, he’s pragmatic rather than idealistic character, and he’s a badass who pursues his goals like a bloodhound. I had to make a few decisions here regarding his character. In a series that isn’t linear, like Aes Sidhe, where there are even different casts of characters separated by both space and time, characters either have an arc—then they can’t be around for too long. Think Indiana Jones, the movies are made similarly and it would be jarring if Indy morphed into a wise, understanding man, only to be back to his chaotic reckless self in the next one. Or they don’t, which is fine, too. So how to proceed in this case? This was Daniel’s second appearance, and I make it clear in the book itself that he has a past that’s described in Emergent, so this story, while a reader can read it in isolation, is still a continuation of sorts. I wrestled with this idea for a while, but kept him as-is. However, this decision only came when I worked on the end of the story on an outline level, and had to decide how to wrap things up. So in the end, the idea was to bring him back on a quest to save the girl, and because this story wasn’t about his growth as a character mainly, I had to have him fail or die, or both. Not gonna spoil it here for you, though. I had described the problem his two network interface chips caused for his brain, slowly causing damage through traffic overload and incompatibility issues, so the logical next step was to pick it up here, show him experiencing those problems as seizures and hallucinations (which go hand in hand sometimes, so this fits). There it was: Daniel has hallucinations that lead to him going back to Gilead on a quest to save a girl he had orphaned himself in the past.
The first step in the outlining process is the bullet line. I quickly jot down a path from start to goal, then insert problems, other characters, then develop it from there. I knew I needed a partner for him. The partnership had to cause trouble. It had to provide him with a foil to contrast his character, and it had to develop into a proper story of its own. So I used an older image of “an ellyll in Memphis” I had in mind for a potential short story. I took it, made a proper character out of it, and here we are, Niamh, and I even connected her with the image for 5150. She would be the whipped girl. I wanted the story to be shorter than the usual Aes Sidhe novel, after just finishing the 120k word (or 480 pages) draft for Synthesis, and shot for 50k (200 pages). One scene in my books is usually a bit over 1000 words. The shortest ones could be as short as 80 words, while the longest scenes can run for over 3000, but in the end, it would average out at somewhere around maybe 1200. Taking 1000 as an estimation for one scene would give me a good idea of how much I needed to achieve the word count goal: 50. I designed a storyline that wasn’t as complex as the one in Synthesis. In the process, I had some weaker points, but I didn’t worry too much about it until I was in a more advanced stage. Here I added a third arc to the mix, and I picked Floyd, a gangster boss Daniel had a brief conversation with in Emergent. I like my criminal underbelly in my stories. There’s one in Emergent with both Floyd’s gang, and the Yakuza later, and in Synthesis, it plays an even bigger role. In 5150, I would make even more use of it by giving Floyd his own path. That would have to intersect with Daniel’s main story later. It was at this point that my story became too much to keep it contained in a list of bullet points.
A kanban is a planning tool. Imagine it as a whiteboard and a lot of sticky notes lined up, sorted into steps. These steps are, in my case, beats I want my story to hit. What do I mean with this? Look at this picture, and you’ll see categories with scenes sorted below. Opening Image, Catalyst, Midpoint, All-Is-Lost and so on. This is a 15-point plot structure derived from the Save The Cat model, adapted to what I need for my story. I slowly create scenes out of my bullet points and sort them into beats. Then I split these points into proper scenes. A point like “breaks into the house and searches it for treasure” would end up as scenes in which the character stakes the target location out, overcomes some obstacles on the way in, then shows them going through whatever they find in there. That is, if this point deserves this much showing. Not all do, some are best summarized quickly (told), but I wouldn’t know that at first, so I unravel them all and sort them in. Later, I can drag and drop them around, sort them into an order that fits better, helps the pacing. I can combine scenes or reuse some as intro or outro for more impactful points. Last but not least, I can label them by character and status to help me track my progress. This is a very visual process, since I literally have the story “before my eyes”. I now also have the scenes themselves, whose cards I can edit, like this (note that this is not what the actual scene looks like, I changed it a little to act as an example, while not spoiling my story).
During the writing process, I check my scene list and sometimes make it more detailed before I write. This happens in a simple notepad window, where I once again do a bullet list. These things disappear again after the scene is written. They won’t have to be stored for later. I do sometimes put these lists or mini-summaries in a scene card on my board, when the actual scene turn out differently, so I won’t get confused when I look at them a year later, when the finer details of the stories aren’t that fresh in my mind anymore, but usually, they only act as my guide while writing the actual scene. Then I put a “Done” tag when a scene is drafted and a “Check!” where I think I need to look into an issue, like a stale dialogue or an inconsistency, or when I need foreshadowing for something and have to go back later to put it in the story. I colour my chapters in Scrivener, too, so I can see who the POV characters are.
Now I can progress the drafting process, put my warning marks where I need them in the outline, and find important milestones in the draft itself without an endless search. And that concludes this little blog post about how I design my story and write an outline. Note that chapter names and scene names can be different. I usually correct that later, when I reshuffle it all. This is what the 5150 outline looks like zoomed in. The chapter names should be safe to show. They don’t spoil the story.