Dr. Bulletpoint or: How I learned to Stop Worrying and Outline My Stories

If you’d asked me what kind of writer I was just a few months ago, I would have said, without reservation, that I was a discovery writer.  (This despite the fact that, in a loose way, I had outlined much of the novel I had written a few years earlier in Wikidpad.)

Now, though?  Well, for one thing, I’d say that outlining and discovery writing are not a binary, one or the other, but a spectrum.  Like gender.  The very act of writing an outline is indeed an act of discovery writing.  More to the point, though, I actually learned how to outline effectively by being made to outline a story (actually five stories, though I’ve only written one of them so far) in Mary Robinette Kowal’s workshop.

Previously, I would just sort of plunk away at a story, generally going from one idea to the next, and if I was very lucky, I knew the general shape of what I was building towards.  And that method can still work for me.

But.

(And this is a big “but,” which I like, and cannot lie.)

But this method presupposes that I have all the time I want for my writing (or that I have a deadline—in undergrad, deadlines were generally a pretty effective way of getting me to finish a story).  I don’t now.  I have a full-time job.  I have a family.  I have many obligations, and I must shoehorn my writing into the crevices between those.  And if I can sit down and have an outline telling me where I’m going next, I won’t waste as much time noodling and staring at an empty page wondering what the fuck I’m going to write next.

This covers the “why” decently, but not the “how” of outlining, or at least of the outlining process that I learned from Mary.

The how starts with a sketch.  A hundred words, give or take (at least for a short story), that covers the basic beats of the story, beginning, middle, and end, along with which MICE element(s) come up.  During the workshop, I managed to bang out five of these in about an hour and a half, with a little twittering and cat-wrangling in the middle.

From the sketch, I pretty much went straight into a bulleted list with each point being a beat of the story (plot, character, emotional).  This is the stage where I can really start to work out the problems of the story; the initial sketch is just the shape of the story, but this is where the detail starts to emerge.

From the list of story beats, then I make another list, with each point being a distinct scene in the story.  If the first ~100 words were a rough sketch of the shape and the first list was starting to pencil in the details, this next list would be the next stage of pencils if not an initial inking.

What Mary suggests, following this scene-by-scene breakdown, is to make a copy of this list and stick it in the live document you’re writing in, and then remove sentences as you actually write those parts of the story.  While this may seem too rigid of a process for some people, I’ve found that it still leaves me plenty of freedom.  Just because you’ve written an outline doesn’t mean that everything you write must follow it to the letter.  (I will say, however, that if you find yourself diverging too far from your outline as written, it might be prudent to re-outline the as-yet-unwritten parts.)

Will this process work for 100% of people 100% of the time?  No.  Nothing ever does.  But this works for me, and it might work for you, too.

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About Hilary B. Bisenieks

Hilary B. Bisenieks (Biss-en-yex) n. 1. An author of fact, fancy, and opinion based out of Oakland, CA. 2. A graduate of the Creative Writing program at Warren Wilson college and Mary Robinette Kowal's Short Story Workshop. 3. A man unable to be trusted to update basic biographical information with any regularity. View all posts by Hilary B. Bisenieks

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