Tuesday, March 12, 2013

How I Outline, Guest Post #3: Ian Isaro

The purpose of this series is to debunk some of the mystery, myth, and frustration behind the concept of outlining. No two people outline the same way and there is no one right method to outlining.

Welcome back to Ian Isaro, author of the Sorcery and Scholarships series and fellow AQCer. Here is Ian's method to outlining in his own words:

I'm pretty far on the outliner side of the continuum. I think of my process as having two outlines, but now that I consider it there's actually more stages than that.

Books gradually coalesce out of my general creative process. This step shouldn't be ignored, because I rarely write anything down until I have quite a few ideas. When I feel like I have most of the book more or less clear I put things down in categories, which quickly reveals what I'm lacking. Maybe there's no balance in my POV characters, maybe I just have plot ideas and not enough substance, or maybe I've neglected someone's personal arc.

Once I have what feels like a balanced set of ideas, I lay out the plot. Sometimes there's a series of events that go in an obvious sequence, which forms a narrative spine. Otherwise, I only have a plot in stages. A generic example: mystery is introduced, characters investigate based on wrong assumption, pivotal scene gets them on the right track, major plot twist, climax, ending.

I'd then place all my ideas in one of those six segments. Most ideas are obviously attached to one, so the plot of the story becomes clear. Some could go anywhere: say the villain has an interesting subordinate, and I decide to put the first conflict with him in the investigation section because that part isn't as exciting. Others are like subplots: if characters have a book-long conflict, I'll put notes to start it in the first segment, then have follow-up scenes where talking would be appropriate.

Things tend to lump together during this stage. Maybe an action sequence lacks emotional weight, so one character's personal crisis should happen at the same time. Maybe I realize that one character disappears for a while, so I give a subplot to him/her so it can happen simultaneously instead of two events back to back. That kind of thing.

Once I finish the outline, I usually have a vision of the whole story in my head. In a sense it's "written" for me; I might not know some of the details, but the plot is clear and I have some scenes thought out almost word for word. Typically the outline is more detailed at the beginning of the plot and grows less so toward the end. I start writing and do a second outline for upcoming segments as I decide how to do things.

Unless I've made a large mistake, I only stretch/compress things while writing. Maybe the way I write, it's obvious the characters would realize their false assumption early and that part has to speed up. Sometimes a character or element doesn't fit in a scene and I place it somewhere later. But other than these things, I basically write straight through to the end.

For series that I can't write all at once, there are a few additional outlining issues. I have a grand series outline that covers what broad issues each book will address as well as major character arcs and developments. Until books are written, elements can shuffle around like they do in the plot of any given book.

Once I've written one, however, I consider it "canon" and build other outlines from there. If I foreshadow something, I make sure I have a clear idea what exactly I intend (and that subplot chain throughout all the future books solidifies). I also keep a list of promises made to the reader and which pieces of worldbuilding I've referenced to influence what new elements I should introduce in the future.

With The Dying War, I have the additional complication of too many side characters for any one given book. I try to have each book choose a few characters as strongly secondary and I note this so that no one disappears for several books at a time. Ideally that coincides with a reason for the character to be absent, but I could improve on character management overall. This is one of the areas where my series-long outlines are lacking, because it's difficult to know which secondary characters will become strongest in the writing.

I have an additional piece of advice for series writers: watch the complexity. In my series, I didn't want any major force to seem thrown in at random or invented just for a later book, but because of that I went overboard with foreshadowing. The first novel needs to be a strong hook, fulfilling enough of its promises that readers want to continue. Every reader's opinion on this will vary, but in general be careful not to overshoot. Things that look neatly intricate in outline will appear messier in the reading.

Thank you, Ian. You've made some excellent points.

For more posts on outlining see:
Outlining: The Simple Version
Jumping the Tracks
How I Outline, Guest Post #1: Darke Conteur
How I Outline, Guest Post #2: Derrick Camardo

If you would like to share your method or reason for outlining in a guest blogpost, send an email to joycealton at ymail.com

1 comment:

  1. I'm so impressed. That's a lot of detail and forethought. As someone who wings, I can honestly say that I don't know how you do it.

    Seems to me that the way you work is perfect for producing series. It surely keeps you from having to go back and adjust the first book over and over.