I used to start writing stories when I knew the beginning (kind of hard to ‘start’ otherwise), and sometimes the middle or end – but never both. I wrote a lot of great story beginnings, but found I’d almost always have no idea what was supposed to happen next. I have a nice collection of stories I may never find endings for …
Once I recognized what was happening, I instituted a rule: never start writing a story unless I know how it ends. Okay, it’s really more of a guideline since I have no qualms about starting to write something I’m super excited about even if I don’t know where it’s going to go. And sometimes that approach even works out. 🙂 But most of the time I stall out if I don’t have a plan, and I have so little writing time that I need to make the most of it, so this guideline was easy to start following. It’s worked out very well – now I know that unless I’m intentionally choosing to ignore my rule that I’ll finish every story I start. That’s been great. I’ve boosted my efficiency! Yay!
However … while this means I’ll eventually finish the stories where I’ve followed my guideline, that doesn’t mean I’ll finish them very quickly. Sometimes I do – sometimes I come up with an idea for a short story, sit down, and shazam! It’s done! But for many other stories, and for every novel I’ve worked on, once I hit a section I haven’t thought through I slow to a crawl.
I have no problem making a note to myself like “add a scene about X” and figuring that out later. But I don’t like running out of steam. Sometimes when I reach one of these unknown points I get back on track in a few hours or days – but sometimes it’s weeks, or even months.
I like to think that if I were a full-time writer this wouldn’t be a big deal. Either I’d buckle down and figure out what I didn’t know, or I could put that project on hold, work on another, and think about the first project in the background. Since I’m not (sadly) a full-time writer I can pretend that it would all work out if I were – and maybe it would. But I’m doing this on the side, in my evenings and weekends. When I get stuck I do things like tidy my office. Sort through boxes of old papers in the garage. Pull weeds. Things that need to be done, but which don’t need to be done all that badly. And it’s hard to talk myself out of it. I mean – do I really need all the notes from all the French classes I took in college? No, but apparently I’m not willing to just throw them out willy-nilly – I want to look through them first. Sometimes my closet shelves are so messy that I really do need to take everything out and fold it all over again. And of course there are the thousands of dog photos that I have to go through one at a time.
I’ll tell myself: this is just a short break. I need to think about my story, and I can do it while I do these other tasks. Or maybe I shouldn’t think too hard about it because if I let go maybe my subconscious will figure out what I need. Or perhaps I should spend hours – or days – researching something, like what exactly did dryads do all day? Weren’t they bored just hanging out with their trees? And since I’m researching dryads, what about naiads? And goblins? Maybe I should add a goblin to my story – maybe not, but until I read about them I won’t know for sure.
Up until now I’ve done sparse outlines for novels, and no outlines for short stories. Here’s an example of my ‘outline’ for chapter 2 of my selkie novel.
- Mark hits Ardran with a pan.
- Ardran leaves.
- M&M go get a pizza.
- Mark asks Merenna about Ardran, and she tells him about Laran.
- Mark starts to feel funny.
- Merenna asks Mark about being a selkie.
- Mark insists on going back to Katy’s house.
- Merenna says she’ll come to Katy’s in the morning.
And my chapter cliffhanger, which I also note separately when I have one planned out in advance, was the nebulous:
- Mark isn’t himself, and it’s unclear why.
This outline totally worked for this chapter because I had it all very clear in my head ahead of time. For example, Ardran is a faerie and he’s hit with a cast iron pan. Iron is deadly to faeries. So he didn’t just leave, he was injured and ran off. And there’s a lot more like that. I didn’t need to write it down because I knew exactly what I wanted to have happen.
Here’s a chapter outline for chapter 15 in my ‘water’ novel. Note that I’ve completed the draft through chapter 7, and there are a lot of unknowns that I have yet to figure out.
- Leroy corners them (with or without his men?)
- Faeries arrive
This should illustrate the problem a little more clearly. Where are they when they’re being cornered? Does Leroy have his men, or not? What would the men do if they were in the scene? Where do the faeries come from? How many are there? Are they friends or foes? WTF?????
It’s not that I can’t work through all of these questions, and I do have some ideas that aren’t yet written down. But I’ve been stuck on this manuscript for a while, and the core problem is that the middle of the book (remember I’m on chapter 8) is not sufficiently clear to me. So it’s great that I know the ending, but there’s an awful lot of fuzziness in between where I’m at and the end of the novel.
I’ve run into this issue multiple times now, and back in May or June I decided I needed to try outlining. I had to clean my garage first, and pull weeds, etc., of course. 🙂 But I also read a few books on outlining, and googled around to look at things other authors do. I looked at the outlines I’d written and thought about what worked well, what didn’t work well, and what might have worked better. I tried using different tools – Excel, OmniOutliner, and Scapple. I buckled down and spent time on the outline for the water book. As you can see from the example above it’s still not very detailed, but forcing myself to think through the later chapters (originally I had zilch for chapter 15, and now I have two whole bullet points – woohoo!) helped me figure out more about the story, and also helped me think about approaches that might have worked better.
My current goal is to write an outline for every short story and every novel. They can be sparser when I have a really solid idea, and more dense when I don’t – but I want to at least reduce the number of holes where I don’t know what will happen.
I finished my first outline today – for a short story called Bewitchery. I started writing this story last week and had a little over 1,000 words written before I decided to write the outline; my outline is 1,550 words. It was a very interesting experience. I started off by putting notes in about things that were missing (like: where are they when they’re having this conversation?), and in a few cases where I couldn’t decide what I wanted to have happen I wrote down the options. By the time I was done I’d filled in all of the details about location, what materials were used for the two spells that were cast in the book (hey, the title is Bewitchery …), and I’d picked from the options I listed so there was nothing major left to figure out. I did leave a few minor things which I felt weren’t critical to the story, and which would be easier to come up with while I was writing. My guess is that the final story will be between 5,000 – 7,500 words, so on the one hand it seems silly to have written a 1,550-word outline. But the next time I work on the story I won’t have any missing pieces. Maybe I’ll fret over what a character is wearing, or what time of year it is – but those are trivial details. Unless something changes drastically when I’m writing, I’ve got a solid plan for the whole story.
One thing that I found really interesting was that while there’s lots of shorthand and things which are clearly not complete, like what gets described in this section:
- Ceana sees Gideon for the first time since falling in love. Describe what she sees.
I found that after finishing the outline I felt much like I do when I finish working on the writing part. In making a plan for my story I was using part of my creative side, so even though I wasn’t worrying about language or metaphors or anything, I was crafting the story. My plan had been to immediately start working on an outline for another short story, and instead I needed a break just like I would if I had been working on the actual manuscripts.
My goal is to finish two more outlines this week, one for a short story and one for the water novel. I’m hopeful that this will help increase my efficiency … I’ll report back! 🙂