Glorious Outlining Master Race

George RR Martin claims there are two types of writers: architects, and gardeners.

Architects plan everything out ahead of time. They detail every character, chapter, and plot before doing any real writing. When they finally sit down to write they know the story by heart, and how they want to tell it. Brandon Sanderson is this way, as he explains in his public BYU lectures (available on youtube). 

Gardeners write by feel. They may have a general idea of a few things, but overall they don't know what they're going to write. They sit down and see where their story takes them. Stephen King is this way: he says that he comes up with an interesting character and puts them in an interesting scenario, and then starts writing and sees what happens.

I'm an architect. I need a pretty good idea of where I'm going when I write. The more detailed it is, the easier the writing flows. When my outlines are poor I find I get writer's block more often, but when the outline is detailed I chug along happily. 

So today I figured I would talk about my outlining process.

Here's how I outlined "The Ancillary",  the second part of Tales of a Dying Star: Book II. I'll keep a lot of the information vague like mad-libs, to keep from giving away my entire story.

Part 1: What is this I don't even

Here's what I started with:

  • Beth is on the Ancillary when [event happens]

That's it. I know what happens before her chapters, and what happens after, but right now Beth's chapter centers around one event. Time to build it up.

Part 2: Jotting down ideas

Next I just start writing down things that need to happen.

  • Background on Beth
  • Beth deals with some minor problem to establish her personality and the setting
  • Beth misses [Person]
  • [Someone's] ship returns, but something isn't right
  • She gets suspicion, but doesn't realize [something] until it's too late
  • Shit hits the fan
  • There was a firefight! Beth gives orders and shows her background
  • [Event] happens to Beth
  • Fallout from [event]
  • Some discussions between Beth and [person]
  • Beth does [something]

Nothing too detailed, just getting a feel for all the things I want to happen. Now we've got stuff to work with. But how to arrange it?

Part 3: Chapters appear

Chapters are important. They help divide your story into manageable chunks for the reader, and groups certain themes/events together. So I start clumping stuff together to see what sticks.

  • Chapter 1: Beth's background, basic duties around the Ancillary, she deals with minor problem to establish info about herself, she misses [person]
  • Chapter 2: [Someone's] ship returns, Beth suspects that something is wrong, she's doing other stuff and is distracted though, then she realizes what's wrong too late, shit hits the fan
  • Chapter 3: [Action stuff], Beth dealing with it, giving orders and doing her best, but eventually [event] happens
  • Chapter 4: Fallout from [event], dialogue between Beth and [person], reader finds out about motivations, then Beth does [something]

Everything is still really rough at this point, but it helps me to group them into chapters. This will help with pacing: I can now take a look at what's happening when in my story, and take a really top-level look at it. Does the action take too long to happen? Is there too much build-up, or not enough? All of those questions are asked at this point.

Part 4: Details

Now is where things start getting filled in. I'll show you what Chapter 1 alone looks like:

  • Chapter 1
    • Someone alerts Beth to a problem in the core
    • Description of Beth in the command room
    • Beth reacts to the news. Follows person to the core
    • Description of hallways and Ancillary: tunnels and ladders throughout facility
    • Exposition on the transition to that facility from previous station
    • They arrive at core, description of it
    • Description of person who is having problem with core
    • Beth asks what happened. 
    • Other person explains for the person that [problem]
    • Background info on the facility's purpose
    • Explanation of what Beth thinks about it all
    • Beth scolds worker, is unsympathetic
    • Walks back to command room, frustrated
    • Thinks about gore/blood doesn't phase her anymore. Background on childhood, brother always had more empathy
    • But that was a long time ago: now her brother is a rookie in the fleet, and she's a veteran. Vaguely wonders how brother is doing. Hasn't seen any of her family in a while.
    • Thinks about how boss is more of a father-figure to her. 
    • Thinks more about boss. Wonders how he would have reacted to [problem]. Laughs at the thought.
    • Wonders if boss is okay. He seemed stressed the last time they spoke. 
    • End it somehow

Some of these are vague if I still don't have a clear idea of what I want to do, but some parts are more specific now. I'm getting an idea for each scene, for how I want Beth to feel and react to certain things. It's starting to come together.

Now is also a good time to review the outline to see how it might flow. Near the end of the chapter I have several bullets in a row where Beth is "thinking" about something. Is it too much? Maybe I need to move some of it around, or have her talking to someone instead of just thinking a bunch. Either way, having the outline lets me notice that sort of thing.

And that's about as detailed as I get. I now have blueprints for the first chapter. As I begin outlining the remaining chapters the above will change a lot more, but it gives me something to work off. 

Once the outline is done... I let it sit for a week. If any ideas come to me, I jump on the outline and add them, or make a note. After a week I revisit it to see how the story sounds. There are always some minor stuff that needs to be tweaked, or things that need rearranging. I like to catch them here, instead of after a first draft is written.

The four (now five--I ended up splitting more apart after writing it!) chapters in The Ancillary ended up being 15,000 words, about ~30 hours of writing spread out over two weeks. The outline itself took 3 hours to write and review. 10% dedicated to outlining may seem like a lot, but makes my writing process far more smooth and enjoyable.