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LookingForOctober ([personal profile] lookingforoctober) wrote2017-02-28 07:10 pm
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My Process, Part One: Simple Outline

Written last year:

At a very basic level, the way I work (with a process or without) is extremely simple: come up with stuff that goes into the story, try to organize it. Repeat.

(I think I got to this point after following various writing advice about how it's important to turn off your internal editor when you write, just get it down, etc. etc.. I seem to have gotten pretty good at that, at the cost of... well, when I'm really going, ideas bounce around in no order or organization at all. I suspect that if I were a bit more tolerant of stream-of-consciousness in organization (i.e. just go with the flow, jumping from one related idea to the next), I might be a bit more of a Robin McKinley type of writer. If I had a bit more idea of where I was going when I started, I might be a Rumer Godden type. As it is, I guess I'm...a me type writer :) )

Anyway, generation and organization generally, for me, happen at different times. (It's actually really hard for me to come up with ideas and then organize them on the same day. I have a theory that I need sleep in between, but I haven't really tested that. Early morning and late evening might work just as well.)

So technically, the very first step of the process is to have an idea. (A generation step.) But since I have more ideas than I have time, and keep coming up with more, in my process, having some kind of basic idea -- pretty much taken for granted. (In January [2016], I went through all my old ideas and pulled out the ones that are 1) original 2) could probably be written as short stories and not novels 3) were already fairly well developed and 4) I still liked, hoping to narrow it down to about a dozen that I could try to write this year, one a month. I found 35 that I really liked, and have since added another idea to the list.

[June 2016: Hmm, that idea about trying to write a short story a month...would have been a good idea were it not that I seem to have a limit of two things that I'm working on for any amount of time. I've been alternating working on two long projects all year, and the short stories just couldn't inspire me enough to actually fight their way into my brain, and I guess I just wasn't motivated enough to fight for them. Hmm.

It might have helped if my criteria for picking stories to write had had a bit more to do with being truly excited about them, rather than well, this idea is the shortest and so should be easiest to finish. Though really, I like all my ideas, so I'm not sure how much difference that would make.]

My ideas usually start with character (or a relationship, by which I don't usually mean a romantic relationship), a world (sometimes sketchy, but I usually have an idea about science fiction or fantasy, modern or future or past, technology/magic level, things like that), and some kind of idea about what the whole thing is about. These are usually pretty fused together, the about part usually has something to do with the character and the world, etc.

So given that, the first step of the process is to take the idea about what's going on and try to make it more story-shaped. Usually the idea is more like...there are these forces that are opposed to each other, either internal or external (i.e. maybe the character is divided against themself, maybe they are opposed to something that's happening in the world) but the story has to move from a beginning to an ending.

And now:

It's funny, I had forgotten about how last year I was trying to write original short stories. This year, I'm thinking about trying to write more short fanfic, and I've put one of my large projects on hold, which makes room for shorter projects, because it's still true about two things at a time. ...though actually, I can sometimes squeeze in a long project and two short projects so long as the short projects are in different stages of development.

Anyway, I thought I'd written much more than that last year, but at that point it quit being writing and turned into semi-random notes, which is disappointing. I thought I wrote about how to create a two-level outline (which was the first step in my theoretical process) and yet that isn't here.

I also notice that I talk about generation of ideas and organization of ideas but not about winnowing of ideas, which is totally typical, and one reason that I tend to write long, no doubt.

Anyway, the idea of the two level outline was to start with a very general pattern (I liked motivation - reaction as a pattern because it's very simple and very general and can encompass a lot of different things while feeling true to how things generally work) and use that pattern at the top level either once or twice.

(And then I tended to add another thing on to the ending, which I thought of as synthesis, because otherwise the story didn't have a satisfactory ending. So the pattern was either motivation - reaction - synthesis or motivation - reaction - motivation - reaction - synthesis.)

(I also played around with the idea of using different structures as the basis for repetition. For example, there's the aaba pattern, which I think might make a good pattern for something that's more thematic rather than plotty.)

And then the idea was to break out each section into smaller motivation - reaction sections (or whatever pattern is being used). Usually two repetitions of the complete pattern. (This did end up being ... really structured, but I figured that would come out when I started writing and things took more room or less.)

I believe at the time I had the idea that when I did this, I would end up with something like chapters as the lowest level of this outline. I then had another pass where I went through and came up with scenes... And then I was supposed to write the scenes and then be done. Ish.

What actually happened last year as I attempted to implement this process was that instead of working my way through by using the results of the previous step as they stood in order to produce something with more detail but basically the same plot, I had to redo every step along the way every time I went through because the previous ideas I had weren't good enough.

Which was a lot of work and took a lot of time, but I did end up with a very detailed scene level outline. And then before I got very far into the writing part of it, I realized that I was running long, and did several things to try to fix that (one of which ended up being changing the antagonist, which changed the shape of the story a lot, though not necessarily all of the events), which brings me to now.

So the question is, do I still believe in this process, and I guess the answer is both yes and no.

First of all, I don't think any process is going to eliminate the "better idea as I work on it" problem, if you want to call it a problem. Sure, it would be nice if I could come up with the best idea from the first, but as things develop, new possibilities come into sight and if they're better, then that's a good thing and not a flaw in the process.

Re: outlining the plot via fractal patterns of motivation and reaction, I think that was something that I needed to do because I wasn't very good at plot. As a crutch, it did let me come up with a plot that I could work with and then come up with something better, so that's probably worth remembering for instances when I'm stuck.

But overall, I think it was a bit too structured, and also it led me to try to include things that weren't exactly part of the story. That is, it encouraged me to think linearly rather than holistically, and I'm sure there are writers who write that way, but it turns out that's not my ideal.

(I also tried to fill in a certain amount of stuff into each section so that the pattern would repeat the way I was expecting, which was probably also a problem because some of that stuff wasn't important enough to deserve the space I was giving it.)

I think this process also encourages writing long, because there's nothing in there about how to figure out what belongs in the story.

Although in my defense, a big part of the idea was to come up with everything that happens, and then make each event either big or small in terms of the actual words it took, either foreground or background, depending on the needs of the story. It turned out, though, that I'd rather keep some ideas for the next book rather than make them small and put them into the background just because they don't fit this book.

I also have doubts about thinking of everything as motivation - reaction. Turning points might be a more useful way of thinking about most of the big events that happen in the book.

(In a way, motivation - reaction and turning points are the same thing. The moment, or the space that happens between a motivation and a reaction could be thought of as a turning point. I.e. you start with a situation where something is wrong or imperfect (motivation for a character), and at some point (maybe things get worse, maybe the character is just fed up) the character can't stand it and decides (turning point) that they have to do something, or change what they've been doing because of the situation (reaction).

But I'm not sure if I really think of turning points as being completely character based in the way this suggests. Sometimes turning points are about the world changing (and the characters reacting, true). In fact, turning points are not just the character or just the world, it's the whole story turning in a new direction, and having potentially a new focus (though each section's focus is, of course, related to the overall story focus)...

Which is something that motivation - reaction, which is very much about character rather than story overall, doesn't quite get to.)

There are also a couple of things about this process that are still useful to me. First of all, I don't think the first pass of outlining should try to capture the whole story. I think the first pass should try to capture something simple and basic about the story, which is what this was also trying to do.

Also, I forgot to mention that every time I described something when outlining (an act, a chapter, a scene) I used a certain structure. I would try to come up with three things: from, through, and to. This captures the idea that in every piece of the story, something needs to change.

This is probably the most important thing about plot -- plot is when something changes, and it was definitely a good habit to foster, thinking about the story on every level in terms of change.