An Outline In Time, Saves Nine (freakin drafts)

Bloody Book

I finally crossed into the last third of my WIP with my massive revision!

Yaay!!!

Woohoo!!!

*throws papers up in the air*

*dances on her manuscript*

Now,

let me explain why this means so much to me.

I started my revision (draft#2) before truly finishing my analysis of draft#1, because I just burned to make corrections. They kept me up at night, like a bunch of doctors standing at the foot of my bed, looking down their noses, waiting to declare me and my work a lost cause. I started draft #2 and almost got through the first third of the manuscript before I realized the worldbuilding had to be expanded. I had SO MANY new ideas that would make the novel SO MUCH better this time around!

So I stopped, brainstormed and world-built and had a blast imagining how awesome the story will be, and then I started draft #3.

I got to the middle this time, before I realized I had to rework the plot. Some things were too loose, others too tight, there were two subplots too many and the main plot needed some oiling, and the whole machine just sputtered and rattled and fought against the laws of physics and natural degradation, running on my sheer naivete alone.

So I stopped again, reworked the detailed outline of the story, and started draft #4.

Then I got pregnant and died a few times every day because of the terrible, horrible, incredibly fucking torturous pregnancy sickness, and could no longer focus to write shit. Several months passed, and took my sickness with them — and I swore on my ancestors’ graves I would find and slaughter the moron who called it “morning sickness” and not “whole-day agony”.

But then I looked at my Frankensteinian concoction of a manuscript, and my eyeballs almost fell outta my head. It wasn’t a novel. It wasn’t even a draft—it was a freakin mutant! Lying there in a puddle of drool, breathing heavily like Ripley’s seventh clone, begging me to kill it.

So I went through it again (draft#5?), to remember what the hell I did to it, and to EDIT some of the nasty stuff out that I threw in there in my insane revision frenzy. Of course the outlines I had were nothing more than scene lists, no clear intention or plan, and none of the feverish ideas I had before were written down. But I kept going, and soon passed the bloodstains where each previous draft had died in pain, and just kept going.

And now I’ve reached the last third! The farthest I’ve been so far. Yay!

Behind me, the corpses of several dead drafts, cut out scenes and subplots, chopped off mutant limbs and corrected plot warts.

Before me, a chunk of virgin first draft that I haven’t even read once since I wrote it last year!

I’m going to upgrade this baby so it clicks with the rest, and have a finished manuscript that can finally be gazed upon by someone else’s talented eyes.

What draft will it be, technically? The second? The sixth? Who cares?! At least I’ve learned something important:

A good first draft is worth gold, and

You should never start a revision without a solid plan.

Also,

Proper outlines can save your life — those before ever putting pen to paper, and those before taking the scalpel to your work. Good outlines are like magical fairies that spring out of your mind when you’re sober, and form a protective ring around you later when you’re raging mad with frustration, eager to trash your own stuff just to release creative energy.

True story.

19 Replies to “An Outline In Time, Saves Nine (freakin drafts)”

  1. A great story well told – your post that is. Mind you there can be a false dichotomy between pantsing Vs those who spend tortuous hours conceiving a detailed plan, because these detailed plans can also be thrown out the window, never mind the fact that conceiving such plans are in themselves difficult without a thorough grasp of your key characters/events that only come out in real life. It’s why God in his wisdom grants us free will rather than writing out a divinely ordered plan for each one of us to follow. I’m not disagreeing with your position as such, just saying that like most things, the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle.

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    1. It’s much easier though, both on the heart and on the mind, to throw away an outline, than to throw away your entire first draft.

      I’m certainly not against pantsing, but not all types of stories can be pantsed, and most definitely not those which are driven in their complexity by the nature of the genre, the number of POV characters, the number of subplots, and the nature of the theme.

      While a single-POV linear story can be pantsed to great effect by those who have an intuitive grasp of story structure and effective storytelling, trying to pants a complex story with 4 POV characters in first and third person, 3 subplots, a dualistic theme and complex worldbuilding (such as in my case—and it’s my first novel on top of that) is an undertaking destined to fail. Or at least, as in my case, result in a first draft that needs such a thorough revision the story is practically being entirely rewritten. I would have spent a lot less time and invested a lot less energy concocting a good and thorough outline beforehand, than I have writing that explorative first draft and its subsequent failed revisions. 🙂

      However, you’re right when you say the truth lies in the middle. It always does. And it all depends on the nature of the story and the craftiness and experience of the writer.

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  2. I have mixed feelings about outlines. Mine look like simple to-do lists that can be reordered and expanded, the rest is pantsed. Once I get a tight grip of characters, I follow their story through their heads, looking at my to-do list–and no, my stories are not linear. I re-read every time I open the file to write. Those frequent re-reads give me headaches sometimes (especially when I burn to produce more, faster), but with this method my first draft looks solid enough to leave it as is and re-read later in full, adding and developing ideas, but never rewrite the story. The downside of the process–I write slowly.

    When I write, I focus only on one thing that matters to me–there is a story wants to be told, by that particular character (or a bunch of those). Let her rip, unhindered by literary theory and other things I better have no knowledge of–or I will never have pleasure in writing another word.

    I might never become a bestselling SF author. I might never become popular with my style of writing fiction. I will write, I will move on, I will get better at things I love doing. The only rule is not to torture myself with the unnecessary work and enjoy the ride. 🙂

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    1. I agree with you, Jelena. Worrying too much about the HOW can kill the pleasure of WHAT. Focusing too much on how to write, how to get better, how to make this or that work, can prevent us from having fun and just letting the story flow and be told as it needs to be told.

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  3. I agree with Mike, and you know I’m (usually) a dedicated plotter. There are some stories that just refuse to be outlined. You have to get into the characters and the world before you can know where you’re going. I’ve done both and had success with both. I recently pantsed a paranormal novel when I tried the insanity that is NaNo that turned out to be “the one” and got picked up by a publisher. I’ve since planned a series based on that novel. So…yeah. I don’t know that you wouldn’t have had to stop and outline even if you started with an outline. The story you speak of has many facets, many twists and turns, and I think that some of these twists would still have evolved as you wrote, changing the story and characters, thus making you crazy anyway. 🙂

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    1. Well, to be exact, I started the story by pantsing. I wrote about 60K and realized I was still tip-toeing around the inciting incident and setting up the world and the characters. Then I ditched the thing, and did a basic outline. I started again, and wrote to that outline and pantsed what seemed to be missing in my initial plan as I went along. When the whole thing was done, the basic plot no longer looked like the outline, but I also had the distinct feeling that it wasn’t working as well as it should, that it was far more superficial and improvised than I expect of myself. Hence the beginning of the ordeal. During the many rewrites, I eventually had a very detailed and clear outline (a spreadsheet of scenes and notes) and the revision became much easier. I’m certain what I have now is MILES better than what I had in draft #1, but also vastly different than what I would have had, had I just kept pantsing in the very first run.

      Sigh.

      So I guess what I’m saying is that so far, in my limited writing experience, and with this one big project, it was the outline that kept me going and had the whole thing make sense, not the wild creative drive that I associate with pantsing (and which I also thoroughly enjoy). It was one huge learning experience for me, a sort of practice, and I’m sure the creation process of my next novel will be different.

      And as soon as I dedicate myself to another project (beside this trilogy, or series, or whatever it will become), I will definitely adapt my strategy to the respective story.

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  4. The outliner-versus-pantser debate has raged forever and will continue until the planet is a cold cinder because there is not right answer. I’m in revision hell right now – and on a really tight deadline – but outlining simply doesn’t work for me. It seems like my characters actively rebel against outlines. As soon as I try to predict in advance what they are going to do, they move in a completely different direction – and usually a better direction. So I have to follow an organic storytelling process. I start with characters I like in a situation I find interesting, but then I just give them the reins, follow them around my head and take notes. There comes that moment in any story, though, where I have to narrow the funnel and focus that chaotic and willful energy toward some kind of conclusion. That’s always the hardest thing for me to do and always the point (or points) in the story that ring most false in my own ears.

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    1. “That’s always the hardest thing for me to do and always the point (or points) in the story that ring most false in my own ears.”

      Oh I know the feeling. It’s what bothered me most about my first draft—well, after I wrote it, when I had to rewrite it to make some sense. Things that flow on their own, tend to flow in different directions, but the different threads (subplots, character arcs, etc.) need to flow into the same sea at the end, and rerouting them is a real pain.

      Sure, there will never be an end to the outlining vs. pantsing debate, and I don’t feel the need to decide on one either. I’ve only worked on one (albeit big) project so far, so who am I to decide what works, let alone for others? I just hope my own way of doing things gets a bit easier each time. And you know, venting frustration always helps.

      Thanks a lot for stopping by to comment, Dan. I like finding out how more seasoned writers do things. 🙂

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  5. I am not a pantser. At all. However, I also don’t do complex outlines. Mostly, I outline in my head, figure out where I’m going, and start going there.
    That said, I have this short story I’m working on that is being pantsed. Mainly because I had this idea for how it started, and I needed to write it down, but I haven’t gotten much farther than that, because, well, I don’t know where I’m going, and I just can’t go.

    Jim Butcher does huge outlines. Being poster things with how everything ties together in the one book and how it ties to the other books. It sounds pretty impressive the way he handles things.

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    1. Outlining in your head is pretty difficult too, but I can definitely understand the need to know where you’re going.

      I hope my own outlines won’t get humongous with future projects, I wouldn’t want it to get “out of hand” that way, and still preserve some spontaneity and the scary, sweet feeling of treading on new ground.

      Thanks for the comment, Andrew! 🙂

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  6. So glad I stopped in here today. I’ve finished a first draft that’s a train wreck. ..Dan, I’m in your boat. Because I panster with a loose outline, I made myself do this book “right” with a detailed outline. I’d been attending conferences and workshops on writing outlines. Must I say more. LOL Anyway the cursor refused to write the story in the beautiful outline. I trashed it. Since I started out a mystery, I decided it wasn’t a mystery it was a humorous women’s fiction. Now I’ve a1st draft with too many plot lines. Characters that veer off course. But a decent conclusion so I’ll take advice in this blog and muck my way through a 2nd draft. So, with my chapter outline in hand, I intend to put on my laser glasses and do surgery. If I’m lucky, by the 4th draft I might have something to really edit.

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  7. Way to mention Ripley’s clone! Impressed..

    I can’t work without an outline. I’m rewriting a book after several drafts. But luckily, the beginning, middle and end are firmly decided already.

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    1. Thanks, David. 🙂

      Yeah, I’ve got the first and last act together, it’s the middle that’s slippery like a new-born eel. But I’ma nail it to the board eventually. IF IT’S THE LAST THING I DO.

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  8. I’ve learned that I like to partially come up with plot as I write, but then plot out the new elements for a ways and weave them into my overall plot outline (which are really just major points I need the story to hit).

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  9. I’m a firm believer in charting out the entire journey before setting foot on the trail. I personally follow the Larry Brooks structure (which is similar to several others out there).
    Thanks for your blog.

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