The Process – Outlining

Recently I’ve been thinking about writing the first draft of my next project long-hand. The quote from Joe Hill at the bottom of this post put the idea in my head, and it was reinforced when Austin (of Oh Nothing Press and the Nothing Here Newsletter) told me about how much he’s enjoying the process of hand-writing the Zero Draft of his next project.

I’ve hand-written long-form work before. My first novel (a middle grade book inspired by The Invisibles, but which ended up looking more like Harry Potter by way of William S. Burroughs) was written by hand, and that came to around 50,000 words. But if I do it right, my next book will be closer to 90k. That is a lot of notebook pages, a lot of hand cramps.

But there’s definitely merit to it. You do feel freer working by hand, you can add notes and comments and all the rest into the margins of your page which just works and feels better than using comments in MS Word. The main place where it falls apart though, is in moving text around. Say you write a paragraph, and then decide you actually want to shift that around? It’s possible, but in my experience it means a lot of long arrows scratched into page margins, and much flipping between pages when it comes time to type it all up.

So, while I’m still not sure about hand-writing the draft, one thing I am all about is outlining by hand.

Because when you’re in the outlining phase of a project is when you are (and need to feel) freest. (Damn, that word looks weird, doesn’t it?) This is the time in the process when you want to be interrupting yourself, crossing things out, underlining, writing in different colours, adding asterisks and break-out boxes and quotes and ephemera. This is the part in the process when being stuck inside a rigid program is most likely to restrict your thinking and creativity. This is the ‘throw everything at the wall and see what sticks’ phase of the process, and by definition that means you need to get messy.

Now I’m going to let you in on a secret – I do all this twice. You see, the messy outlining is great for brainstorming and the aspect of pure creation, but the outline is a document with a very specific purpose. The outline is your blueprint, and a blueprint has no value if you can’t read it. There is nothing worse than knowing you solved a narrative problem already, and being completely unable to find the solution amongst all your inky mess.

So what I do is this: I start writing my outline in my ‘proper’ project notebook, and the moment things start to get vague – the moment a word like “somehow” creeps into my head – I put the ‘proper’ notebook aside and pick up a scratchpad. This is where the real mess happens, this is the land of chicken scratch handwriting, crossed out words and paragraphs, underlining, asterisking, and an almost conversational back-and-forth that would possibly sound unhinged if I was doing it out-loud instead of in the privacy of my notebook.

Sidenote: Have you heard of Rubber Duck debugging? Even if you haven’t, it’s something you’ve done; it’s something we all do. When you need help sorting a problem out, sometimes the best thing to do is explain it all to another person. Rubber Duck debugging is when you replace that person with an inanimate object – because most of the time it’s the process of explaining the problem that helps you solve it, rather than any reaction/feedback/help from the person who’s acting as your sounding board. All this is to say that sometimes when I get stuck, I just start automatic writing, having the conversation with myself on the page. It either fixes the problem, or I know I need to let the ideas keep composting before coming back to it later.

Once the free-wheeling mess has helped me get past the block or solve the problem, I write “my findings” into the proper notebook – a clean version of the part that I just hashed out on the page. So for every notebook page, there is probably 1-2 pages of handwritten mess that informed it.

So there you go – a look at part of my process. Let’s call this The Two Notebook Method of brainstorming, outlining, and generally making a mess.

I might make The Process an ongoing (but irregular) series. You’ll get more Process talk on the Nothing Here Newsletter. If you want to know why I call it “The Process”, then you probably want to listen to this episode of Reply All. Part Two of The Process (if and when I get around to writing it up) will cover Character Creation because I have a great little sheet I pieced together from Chuck Wendig’s blog that I’d love to share.

And as a little bonus – here’s the very first page of notes I put together when I started outlining Static Ruin. (To be completely honest, I can’t remember if this was before I after I pitched it to Tor. I always had a vague idea of what the third book would be, so this could have been after the pitch.) You’ll see me brainstorming for titles, and you’ll see a conversation between Mars and her father which never made it into the book.

“Does a star feel guilt for all the worlds it holds in its thrall? Does a supernova feel guilt when it explodes?”

Honestly, if I ever get back to the VoidWitch Universe, I’ll probably resurrect that line.