Amber Michelle (myaru) wrote,
Amber Michelle

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100 Things #006: outlines in action (or: why can't I do this all the time?)

This is a weird, sort of embarrassing post. I almost never show my outlines or story notes because they're an awful mess. Also, the ideas I start with aren't often the ones I end up putting on paper, even in my crappier stories; whatever you see in print on the fic journal was preceded by a more cliche/hackneyed idea that even I couldn't stand to use. So, I have no idea what you (general) consider my skill-level in something like dialogue, but whatever is in my notes will be worse than what you expect from the finished product. Fair warning.

As an example I'll use a fanfic that's been up for a while. I don't feel comfortable using original work in public, and the only story I've outlined to hell and back is an older one I worked on a couple of years ago.

Anyway! This isn't a lesson post or anything. I wrote about outlines earlier, and thought it would be interesting to look at the different ways I use them, and maybe remind myself in the process that hey, you can use these for original fiction too, self. Why don't you?

(Really. Why don't you? :/)


When writing a story, I tend to outline for two reasons - to know where I'm going, or to get over a rough spot that's been hanging me up. And lately: plot. Some people may not be surprised to hear that until I read a book that outlined the details of what plot really was, I pretty much didn't bother. If I ended up with a cohesive plot after finishing a story, it was completely by accident. That doesn't mean I didn't outline, just that the purpose of my outlines was to remember stuff, not to arrange it in any kind of order. I had a general "plot" outline of what I wanted to happen in the story I'll be using as my example (The Summer Chronicle), but that was completely inadequate for actually writing a chapter. Sure, X and Y need to happen, but how do I get there from W?

Well, as it turns out, that's what the chapter-level outline is for. These got a little ambitious:

[1.] confrontation with Soren; what right does he have, his mother is laguz; perhaps you belong in prison--
[2.] reports come in: Lekain did indeed have slaves in the north mines. Checkmate. (Reveal while with Sephiran?)
2a. decides to tell the truth boldly, about her family. It doesn't matter if Sephiran is laguz then.
[3.] Late at night: demands Sephiran tell her if there are any records on Branded Apostles.
3a. has him give her names of his people; they seal the palace so she can sneak out to find records.
3b. he refuses until she tells him why; he is unhappy, but she'll go anyway if he doesn't tell her, so--
3c. even so, he's frantic to convince her not to. This killed Misaha, don't you see?
[4.] goes with Rafiel to information vaults only her hand can open. Tense, he helps her, listens for trouble. Evidence.
4a. next chapter she gives information to Amelia. Or, is on her way when the assassin strikes at point 6.
[5.] Lekain's trial begins. He's confrontational; he denies slaveholding, as noted below.
[6.] assassination attempt. She is held in a safety room for hours.
[7.] when she comes out, they've seized Soren as a possible instigator - and Sephiran. They're both in prison.
*** End

Haha, like I could fit all of that into one chapter! I think this was for chapter 16; I managed to get to #4, and then had to push the rest into chapter seventeen, because there just wasn't room. Too much had already happened, and I had the LJ character limit to worry about. These chapters commonly ended up breaking nine thousand words without ever covering the entire chapter outline I set off with at the beginning. But hey, at least I knew where I was supposed to be going, right?

I'm thinking that, in the end, that's the only true purpose of the outline. A plot is a somewhat different exercise that just happens to masquerade as an outline at times.

But it didn't stop here, not with the Chronicle! Besides the general chapter outline (which I did manage to follow most of the time, unlike the plot-level one), I also often did scene-specific outlines. A lot of the time I'd write it in my notes just below the paragraph I'm working on (with atrocious use of semi-colons) to make sure I would remember a good idea. These blocks of text are very stream-of-consciousness. But sometimes I'd take it farther - for example, I might outline the dialogue in a scene I'm working on to make sure I don't forget what I want everyone to say while I'm trying to figure out all the details (the gestures that go with the dialogue, etc.). This practice is also good when I want to get the feel of the scene down before dedicating the next two hours to writing it all out.

When writing chapter twelve of the Summer Chronicle, I had a hard time managing so many characters and conversation threads; it was a party setting, so naturally about six people were involved in any one scene. I knew in general what I wanted them to say, where I wanted the scenes to go, but there were so many details to take care of (or details I could've put in, that I wasn't sure about yet) that I did a lot of staring at the file and not much typing until I tried this:

The outline:
Amelia: now, the true question: which will you dance the opening movement with, your majesty?
Sanaki: I-- :hmm: (why should this be a big deal? it's always with Sephiran, but she has a guest...)
Soren: Dance. :wince? pursing lips?: I don't do it well; honestly I'm here more for the conversation...
Sephiran: I don't recall the Daein court being inclined to such things, but you did learn, correct?
Soren: My mother insisted. :grimace: However, I'd prefer not to be the center of attention when I do so.
Sanaki: something you're not good at? :a lift of the eyebrow:
Soren: don't get used to it, your majesty.
Amelia: Well, that settles it, then. If it would please your majesty and Lord Sephiran to open the festivities... (etc.)

I usually abbreviate the names to save space, actually; when writing an outline, I can't stand to have any one point take up more than a single line, unless it's the last one. It's visually irritating. (So the above quote, at least on some journal formats? driving me nuts.) Since I have a history of RP (role-play), I often use the (very old?) method of putting gestures and non-verbal details between colons to allow abbreviation, and to keep them separate from the spoken text.

For contrast, what I actually wrote and posted as the "final" draft:

"Will you believe me if I say no? The senate's declaration regarding the impending engagement was my inspiration." Amelia turned her attention back to Sanaki, running her fingers over the long tail of a braid resting on her shoulder. "The real question is-- which of your charming escorts will you dance the opening festivities with? You should enter with him, whomever you choose."

She stared at Amelia and heard the shift of Soren's coat behind her, the chain clasp of his high collar clinking. Who else? was on the tip of her tongue. She danced with Sephiran every year, except for the one he was stranded on the other side of the Ribahn, yet they had a guest - one they must treat with respect, as he was present according to her own invitation. The senate's invitation, really, but outside of Begnion there was no difference. There were, however, assumptions made about her relations with other countries based on how their dignitaries were treated, regardless of Sanaki's own involvement in their experience.

Sigrun's appearance at the door saved her from answering immediately. Her knight motioned for the others to go inside. "Everything is arranged," she said, coming even with their hostess and inclining her head to Sanaki. "If you want to visit the gardens, please notify us first. An escort will be necessary."

"Consider me out of the running," Soren said, stepping up beside Sanaki and looking at her. "I'd rather not be the center of attention when I dance."

Sanaki lifted an eyebrow, turning her head only slightly to look at him from the corner of her eye. "Something you're not good at?"

He sighed loudly, dramatically, and looked up. Another winged shadow cycled over the garden and darkened his pale face to gray for an instant. "Don't get used to it, your majesty."

I axed a few things, but the mini-outline helped me get this onto paper. There's a ton of detail and POV thought-process that wasn't in the dialogue outline because I hadn't thought of it yet, and that's mostly what held me up - the details, and how I thought I should depict her decision process. It was so helpful - not only did I remember where I wanted to go, but also saw things I wanted to cut or save for later - that I started doing this for almost every chapter.

Detailed outlining didn't save this story, but it did help me keep track of what was going on over about 120.000 words, and kept me writing a hell of a lot longer than I would have otherwise, I think. This story in particular started with no plot and ended up with a very complicated one that I had to break down into manageable bits every time I sat down to write. It got me thinking that the Summer Chronicle process would be a good way to approach a real novel. I still don't know why I didn't bother to use it. But lately I've been working so hard to keep "fan" and "original" separate in my head that I may be unconsciously neglecting skills I developed for fanfic that would serve me pretty well in original work if I'd only use them.

My method for fic characterization and world-building is another one of these neglected processes. That's not outlining, though, so it has to wait.
Tags: #4, challenge: 100 things, public: writing
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