Friday, 5 February 2010
Stage One of the Writing Process: Brainstorming / Outlining
I have combined brainstorming and outlining in one stage, because even though pantsters might find it difficult to believe, outlining is a creative process. Before you huff and puff in protest, let me explain. Up until NaNo Novel in 2009, I was a pantster, and now I am a firm outliner, so I have been on both sides of the fence. Writing has always been the method of learning and remembering for me, and a way to develop ideas. When I was in school, if I needed to memorize things for exams, instead of just reading it, I would write it down over and over again. Even now, the things I write down become more solid memories even if I never look at them again. So when I am brainstorming a story, I write down those thoughts. Of course, like most people, I have creative flashes in random places at random times. But if I attempt to do conscious brainstorming, I can’t do it just by thinking, because my mind is far too susceptible to distractions. For example, if I decide to brainstorm when say taking a shower or walking somewhere – I start thinking about my story, and then a few moments later, I have moved on to something else. Having pen and a paper at hand, keeps me firmly grounded on my subject. From Scribbles to Skeleton Once I have all the scribbles and I feel that I am familiar enough with the story and the characters, and generally have a feel for the book, it’s time to consolidate the scribbles into a skeleton outline. Skeleton outline is a step up from brainstorming, but it is still very much a provisional document. In my skeleton outline, I write down bullet points of things that happen, in the order that they would happen in the book. The length of this outline depends on how much I know about the story at this stage. For example, currently I am trying to decide which book I will write next. I have two options. For one of them I have a skeleton outline that is 4000 words, and for the other one I have a skeleton outline that is 600 words. I have spent far longer with the former idea so it makes perfect sense that I know more about that story. I prefer to move on to my skeleton outline as soon as I have major facts of the story, because that gives me the foundation, around which I can build my story. For example, say I know about two scenes that will happen. The MC will be run over by heroine’s car The MC will escape from the hospital Those two scenes are the foundation. And here is where the creativity in outline comes in. Now, I get to brainstorm some more and think about where and how MC got hit by the car. Did he already know the heroine? Is this their first meeting? Whose fault was it? Did she stick around to take him to the hospital? Why did he escape? Was he hiding something or did he have to be somewhere? How would the heroine feel about this? You get the idea. So now, I am brainstorming, but in a slightly structured manner. I am brainstorming for specific answers. The more questions I ask, the more answers I get, and my outline becomes all the more deeper for it. Sometimes though, I get endless parade of questions and not many answers. But that’s okay. It just means that I need to spend some time at that stage. From Skeleton to Skin Okay, we have got the skeleton. But that ain’t pretty. So now we need to gloss it up with shiny skin. This is the time to add more details. This is where I make sure that entire plot makes sense, and there are no plot holes. This is where all subplots must be tied up. This, in theory, should be the preliminary version of synopsis that you might one day send to an agent. Every single scene that is supposed to happen in the story is recorded in the correct order. If my story is going to be in two parts, then my outline will be in two parts. This is the pencil sketch, over which you will paint your pretty picture. Once I have this, I revise it. Yup, revise the outline. Make sure it all makes sense. That's not to say that it's perfect. In my NaNo novel, I found I had left one subplot hanging after all. But it's still a damn sight better than any other book I have written without an outline. Skin can be Modified So we have got the revised outline. It's all neat and tidy, probably printed off, and looks so formal and final. Except that it isn't. That outline, despite all the work and thousands of words, is still just a map. It is the provisional sketch of a story I intend to write. It tells me facts. It tells me this will happen, and that will happen. But it doesn't show me how all of that will happen. Nor does it make me feel what my hero is feeling. That's what the writing is for. When I start writing, despite the outline, despite knowing what every single scene is going to be, it is still a creative process. Because now, I am trying to tell a story. Now, I am trying to bring a character to life that I want my readers to love. Now, I am trying to make the world that is my own creation, be the kind of place that other people might want to live in. Now, I am trying to use the power of the words. In doing so, it might happen that something changes; a plot might go off in a different direction that I had planned. And that is okay. When those changes occure, I automatically change the outline. Depending on its significance, I might or might not change the actual physical outline (if I am in the middle of writing, I don't want to step out of that process), but I will be aware of that alteration, and will reflect in all the coming scenes. You may ask, what's the point of wasting time on the outline if you end up with changes anyway? I firmly believe that if I have spent enough time brainstorming and outlining, chances of major plot changes are quite slim. Because by spending considerable time during this first stage, I have already gone through many variations of the story. I have already considered the possibilities and decided what I liked best. By not hastily jumping into the first draft, I have given the story a chance to float in my mind and become more concrete. The Moral of the Story Is... Only you can decide what works for you. You just need to experiment and find out. But for me, a combination of organised outlining with creative brainstorming is the all important first step. I suppose outline is the tunnel through which my creativity can be focused into a coherent storyline. Without that tunnel, the creative juices simply tumble into the sea, all over the place and I have to swim around and gather them together.