Outlining as a Writing Tool: Garden of the Unconscious

Posted: April 2, 2016 in Writing

After completing a number of science fiction short stories and a novel, I decided I’d like to take better advantage of all the world- and character-building I like to do. A novel seemed like a marathon, but now, having finished one, it seems it was over too quickly. To remedy that feeling, I’ve decided to write a series of novels following several story arcs. I’ve also expanded the amount of world-building I plan to do. Perhaps I’ve gone too far. We’ll see. As I begin the long campaign to write a series, I’ve given quite a bit of thought about how to prepare. The two most talked-about approaches seem to be: A) winging it (no outline, make it up as you go); B) plotting/outlining in detail.

In retrospect, Strawberry PlantI’ve operated somewhere in the middle, brainstorming and note-taking, then mashing those notes into a crude outline which I then flesh out into the actual text. I outline as I need to—some scenes step by step (often action scenes that require careful choreographing), others just a main idea or a visual description or some dialogue. Even as the early portions of the outline are replaced by the full text, I continue to revise the remaining outline throughout the writing process, especially when I encounter a problem (often conflicts in the logic of the plot or something technical) or need to expand something I hadn’t thought through sufficiently (often setting).

The best metaphor I’ve come up with for this process is a garden. I first plant seeds from my unconscious (ideas). Some turn out to be weeds (bad ideas or ones that just don’t work with the overall story) and get cut. Others bear fruit and make it into the story. The rest form the stems and leaves and roots: background information I need to conceive the story, but most of which never appears in the story. This process repeats until I’m finished.

Given the magnitude of a series, though, I’m going to need a lot more background material. In addition, I don’t want to repeat my past pattern of writing without having an end clearly in mind. This time around, I want to more clearly understand where I’m going, so I can get there without as much backtracking and rewriting (that’s the theory anyway).

So far, after several months of brainstorming, I have:

  • Five notes files:
    • General: A miscellaneous file for tasks, unresolved issues, ideas, and interesting pieces of text I’ve written but not yet found a place for.
    • Aliens: I’ve come up with 12 alien species, not including various “very advanced beings” that have surpassed the concept of “species.” I’ve also got a detailed alien template (probably too detailed) that I plan to complete for each species.
    • Characters: Almost 20 so far. Character templates (detailed and abbreviated) mostly ironed out, but now need to be completed for each character.
    • Setting: Detailed history and contemporary (story present) description of human expansion.
    • Plot: 5 story arcs, each with its own main character.
  • Several maps of the Milky Way Galaxy and various alien civilizations over the last 6 billion years or so and a corresponding history.
  • Alien sketches.

I’ve got quite a ways to go before I’ll be ready to start the actual writing process, yet my fingers are already itching to start. I’m holding myself back, though, until I’ve fleshed things out more. Smart? Not so smart? I’m not sure, but in this time of everyone wanting to write faster to sell more, I’m focused on writing better (using my own writing as the yardstick), even I end up being slower. Admittedly, I’m not doing this as a full-time writer, so I can afford to go slow (and in many ways have no choice). Regardless, following the Tolkien model, I’d rather produce my best three novels over the next decade than ten forgettable novels.

Any novel research and outlining tips, suggestions, ideas? What works for you? I’d love to hear about your thoughts and experiences.



Image credit: Strawberry Plant by George Hodan



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