“Friday is for Writers
Outlining… or as I call it, 1, 2, 3’ing my Rice Krispies.
So this couldn’t be a better topic for me right now because I am currently outlining The Sinner (Syn’s story, which is coming 3/17/20,) and am up to my eyeballs in planning that book. I feel like I’m in a really good place with the outline because the main scenes have downloaded in my head and the order is set pretty much- I’m just putting laying it all out on the page so I can start drafting 9/1.
Now, before I get into the way I do outlines, I’d like to put out the reminder that there is no right way or wrong way to do anything when it comes to process. In fact, the “right” way is the way that works for you. Best practices are very individual, and your mileage may vary.
For me, any given book in the Black Dagger Brotherhood series (or any of my series, but I’m going to focus on the BDB here) is made up of a string of scenes that have funneled down into my brain from wherever they come from. These snippets of story come to me at all hours of the day or night. They interrupt phone calls and conversation, keep me company while I run, intrude on cocktail parties and movies. They have no sense of boundaries or time. They’re the rudest neighbors coupled with those people who barge in front of you on exit ramps added to those bargain shoppers who are willing to rip something out of your hands over the $10 bin of blue jeans.
And I wouldn’t change them for the world.
That being said, my scenes have no sense of chronology or story arc. They come to me willy nilly, all over the place in whatever world they’re apart of and whatever book they should be in. When I was outlining Dark Lover, for example, I had scenes from Lover Awakened (Wellsie dying) and Lover Reborn (Tohr and No’One) barging in (along with parts of all of the first ten books.) When I was working on Lover Awakened, I had scenes from Lover Enshrined knocking on my door, and when I was working on Lover Enshrined, I had scenes from Lover Avenged coming at me. And this is a small sample of the constant overcrowding in my chrome dome. Like, right now, there are scenes from four books in my head: The first of the Wolfen books, then The Sinner and The Jackal, and then also this other thing that I’m toying around with.
Outlining, for me, serves the purpose of ordering these scenes. Lining them up. Seeing what the book looks like- and trying to balance the plotlines. The thing is, you want to take the reader on a rollercoaster ride of emotion. You want the highs and lows balanced out. As Sue (Grafton) always told me, “High drama is boring. If everyone is ranting and raving, throwing things, weeping and gnashing on every page, not only is that not what real people do, it’s a one note. Just because it’s loud, doesn’t mean it’s interesting.”
When I order the scenes, I’m looking for proper chronology, of course (some scenes cannot take place before others because people haven’t met properly yet or something else needs to happen before they can interact,) but I’m also checking to make sure there are calms before the emotional storms, the right poignant moment where you need one, and a crescendo at the end. Well, and lately, I’ve been having to balance Lassiter being… well, Lassiter (# goldenglobes.) It can take me a couple of tries to get it all right, and I include differing levels of detail. Some scenes I put dialogue in. Others, for example the sex scenes, I just say they get it on. But I go through my outlines a number of times, always checking to make sure that the foundation blocks of the book are sound, that the layout makes sense, and that the conflict and resolution is on point.
Oh, and I forgot. At the beginning of every outline, I list the main people in the book and provide an overview of where they were (are) when we last saw them. I do this mainly for my editor so she is back in context when she reads the material, but it’s also a reminder to myself about where things left off.
Here are some common questions that folks ask me about my outlining or outlines in general:
1. Do I get it all correct? Yes, in the sense that I think through the pitfalls in a book before I start drafting. What I’ve learned over the years is that it’s far better to get in the weeds in an outline, than in the actual writing of a manuscript. The BDBs are long and complicated- they’re like steering an ocean liner. As a result, I’ve got to make sure that I know where I’m going because pulling a course correction three hundred pages in is not only inefficient, it can potentially cause a problem with the deadline and I make it a personal mission never to blow them barring extraordinary circumstances (for example, the stomach flu got me and I missed The Thief’s manuscript delivery by 72 hrs.- and I hated missing the deadline more than being sick.)
2. Do I follow my outline? Absolutely. But I’m careful when I create it. I’m a control freak, but I have learned that I cannot force the stories in any particular direction. I have to sit back and let the stories breathe. I’m also careful to include things that make no particular sense (like the coffins.) Generally, if I see something, even if it’s not pertinent in the current book, I have learned over time that it will show up somewhere else.
3. Do I add anything to what was in my outline when I draft? Always. The superstructure of the books is set solidly, like the frame of a house- a good eighty percent of the final book is in the outline. But the twenty percent I add while I write? That is always some of the best stuff in any story. It’s like the book breathes and expands to fill contours I didn’t see. These “decorative moments,” if we want to follow the house building analogy, never change the layout of the rooms or the heights of the ceilings. But they always make things more vivid.
4. How long are my outlines? The quick answer is, “As long as they need to be.” But the page count answer is anywhere from a low of about twenty (for a shorter book) to a high of sixty (The King, Lover Avenged.) My outlines are single spaced, Times New Roman 12, with a double space between paragraphs, and I write them in the present tense- which is weird because my books are in the past tense. Why I do that? No clue, I just always have. Back to the length. Over the years, I’ve gotten more efficient, but even with that, my outlines are long.
5. Have I ever been a pantser? Yes, in the beginning, when I was learning craft. I totally winged it with Leaping Hearts, my first published book- and I certainly winged it for the partials and the one book I finished before that. I think most folks start out winging it. I know for Leaping Hearts, all I had was an initial scene and an idea- and I can remember where I was when they both hit me. I built on them while I was writing, and kind of felt my way around the story- which was okay because I had no deadline to worry about and the story wasn’t a complicated one. Also, that’s what you do when you’re starting out and learning your craft. Also- some people, even after years, are still pantsers because that’s what works for them.
6. Do you use a writing program? Okay, so I’m not even sure what these are- I type my outlines and books on MS Word and am as computer literate as a squirrel. I’m assuming that folks are referring to some kind of organizer? I am afraid I know nothing about them, but I’m sure that there are writers out there who can comment and benefit from them. Again, there is no right way of doing anything, and if these programs help people, then that’s the right answer for them.
7. Do you ever find yourself “written out” by the time you finish the outline? In other words, do I put it all into the outline and then have no more interest left in the book itself? No, I’ve never had that experience- but then Sue always said, “Don’t talk out a book. If you have an idea, sit on it, tap on that vein, and don’t talk about it. You’ll exhaust the idea. Save it for the writing.” This is very true. I don’t discuss my books with anyone or use people as sounding boards. I might tell my family about a scene that has made me laugh or cry, but I hold on to the material and keep it close. I have heard other authors say that they don’t outline for precisely this reason, however. For some, by the time they’ve outlined their book, they’re done with it- and I get how that could happen. Again, whatever works for you is the right answer.
So that’s what I know about outlines! If you want to see what one looks like, I included the proposal for Dark Lover in the Insider’s Guide. Now, I will say that that was fifteen years ago- and so I was really still figuring things out in terms of craft and the BDB world itself. You’ll see what changed between the outline and the book- and there are some noticeable alterations. But on the whole, it’s all there.
Please remember, that everything is right as long as it works for you! All you need to do is believe, believe, believe. And know that magic happens in the real world.
Sending hugs and love from the frontlines,