Techniques for getting from a concept to an outline / a plot

Hu
Hugh
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Wed Aug 19, 2009 8:55 am Post

A McKee view of some of these issues.
'Listen, some quiet night, when you've shirked your work that day. Do you hear
that distant, almost inaudible clicking sound? That's one of your
competitors, working away in the night in
Paris or London or Erie, PA.'

ta
tammycravit
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Sat Oct 31, 2009 12:37 am Post

For managing the flood of ideas: I carry around a Moleskine notebook into which I dump ideas, scraps of ideas, overheard snippets of conversation, etc. One a month or so, or when I need a flash of inspiration, I'll troll through it and see what I find. For me, finding the idea isn't the problem -- the problem is finding which idea has enough meat behind it to carry a short story or novel. And that is a practice and judgment thing, at least for me.

As for the writing process itself: I totally agree that newspaper writing is good practice for writers of all stripes. When you're five minutes away from your press deadline and the editor's standing behind your chair screaming in your ear, you learn right quick that writer's block is a luxury you can't afford. :lol:

I use, more or less, the "writer's journal" approach suggested by Sue Grafton to keep me on track when I'm writing, and to plan my longer works of fiction. My pre-writing process consists of typically a hundred pages or so of brainstorming - bits and pieces of ideas, a few paragraphs of "what if?", a running dialogue with my subconscious mind while I flesh out the roughest contours of the story. I write mysteries (all, sadly, as yet unpublished), so by the time I'm done with this step, I know roughly who my main characters are, who gets killed, who the killer is, and what his/her motive is. Then as I write, I continue the dialogue with myself, journaling before each day's writing and talking about where I am in the story, what comes next, things I need to remember, stuff that's going on in my life at that time, and so forth. A lot of the journal is whiny and self-indulgent, and definitely NOT meant for public consumption, but it serves the purpose of giving me a place to work things through before I start writing. Sue Grafton's got some samples of this technique from her own mysteries up on her web site, here.

-- Tammy

dr
druid
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Sat Oct 31, 2009 12:57 am Post

Tammy,

Hang in there. Your methods are instinctively right. The writer's journal has been a favorite tool of scribblers since the early 1800s. There's no better way to keep the pump primed on a daily basis. Learning to extract material from the daily welter is crucial. I tend to "index" my notes by using tags that are topical but also keyed to ongoing projects. Then I can batch together the notes and use them to outline and draft.

I'm wondering why you prefer the mystery genre. Preference, no doubt, and it's also a decent market to crack. Try approaching agents with samples of your work. You may find one who's willing to provide practical advice about pacing, characters, setting, and what will sell. Sue Grafton is quite successful, but she wrote seven novels before finally getting any published. She then wrote TV screenplays for 15 years and began to understand plot structure. She's thus a model also for patience and determination.

D

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tammycravit
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Sat Oct 31, 2009 6:31 pm Post

druid wrote:I'm wondering why you prefer the mystery genre.

I wonder that myself, sometimes. :D I think what fascinates me about mysteries -- as both a reader and a writer -- is the chance to explore the extremes of human behavior, what makes ordinary people do extraordinary (good or evil) things, and how people justify their own behavior. In my "day job", apart from the odd freelance newspaper or magazine article, I'm a paralegal working in the foster care system, so I get to see examples of ordinary people doing extraordinarily kind things and ordinary people committing unfathomable acts of cruelty and evil. Writing mysteries is a way to try to make sense of that.
druid wrote:Sue Grafton is quite successful, but she wrote seven novels before finally getting any published. She then wrote TV screenplays for 15 years and began to understand plot structure. She's thus a model also for patience and determination.

I had a chance to meet Sue a few years ago and to interview her for a newspaper article I wrote about the real-life events which inspired "Q is for Quarry", and which took place just a few miles up the road from where I live. She is both very dedicated to her craft, and incredibly gracious with her time and knowledge.

Thanks for the advice - it's always appreciated.

Warmly,
Tammy
Tammy Cravit, novelist and photojournalist
"Abuse of Discretion", Tessa Riley #1 (11/2011): Kindle, Smashwords
"Manifest Error", Tessa Riley #2, coming in early 2012
http://www.tammycravit.com/

Es
Esmeralda
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Sat Oct 31, 2009 11:41 pm Post

Perseverance, dedication -- and humility:

http://www.oprah.com/article/omagazine/ ... -writing/2

Mi
MicMac
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Mon Dec 07, 2009 4:08 pm Post

Hi there

Maybe you could take a look at this:
http://www.marinersoftware.com/sitepage.php?page=138

Mic

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John Dodds
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Sat Dec 12, 2009 9:24 am Post

How about skipping the outline and just going straight from the concept to the writing? Lots of authors do this. Some even actively loathe outlining. I hate it myself, and I've written two novels (one published), with a third on the way.

What I often do is:
a) Basic idea
b) A sense of the main conflicts and possible resolutions – these will probably change as the book progresses.
c) Names and brief descriptions of two or three main characters (the other characters, if you have any, will probably appear naturally, out of necessity).

Finally - just get on with it. If you worrygut about the outlining you'll never get the thing written!

Towards the END of the book, I write the outline in more detail. And at this stage, completing the very rough outline helps me decide exactly where the book is going at last.

Don't be afraid to let your subconscious do some work for you. Write a chapter or two from thin air and see how you get on!

Oh, and I highly recommend Mur Lafferty's excellent podcast, "I Should Be Writing" which addresses problems like this, and many others that us writers face.

dr
druid
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Sun Dec 13, 2009 5:27 pm Post

John Dodds wrote:Oh, and I highly recommend Mur Lafferty's excellent podcast, "I Should Be Writing" which addresses problems like this, and many others that us writers face.


Hmmm....including acceptable grammar? What WE writers face often depends on who we are. In my case, I use outlining extensively at every stage: gathering notes, writing character back stories, building a plot, and composing a draft. So it works for me, but I wouldn't prescribe it for others. If I just wrote on auto-pilot, I'd have to scrap all the tangents and digressions and start all over. My various outlines keep me on track, and also keep the book chapters in proportion. BTW, I find that Pages '09 is quite a good outliner, too, but I haven't tried exporting to Scrivener.

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Carradee
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Tue Dec 15, 2009 2:24 am Post

druid wrote:If I just wrote on auto-pilot, I'd have to scrap all the tangents and digressions and start all over.


See, that happens to me if I try outlining. That or I start writing and realize that the outline completely doesn't work and I freeze up because "Oh, noes! I's left the map and dunno where to go now!" Or "I maps everythings out and dunno who I'm writing about!!" (Yes, I had wine with dinner. A quarter glass. I'm little.)

Whereas if I just have a general idea of what I want to do with the story, I tend to find my digressions and yank them back on-track a lot sooner. Like when my story with a slave girl as the narrator started getting too horrific and gruesome, I knew that was not what the story was intended to convey, so I backed up to where it started going that way and considered who could be changed in the scene.

Just adding to the entire "depends entirely on the writer" caveat.
Wanna hydroplane?
--My brother (while driving)

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druid
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Tue Dec 15, 2009 4:49 am Post

I should have added in that post that I don't follow outlines rigidly. Writing a book is much like a trip. You plan an itinerary, make some reservations, but then along the way a surprise occurs and you go off track and wander a while. Sometimes those forays change the basic plan or introduce new characters and sub-plots. But for the most part I need a plan, the more so if it's a short piece of writing.

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John Dodds
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Tue Dec 15, 2009 8:37 am Post

Druid, I know full well it should have been WE writers! I was writing fast, like speech. This is a friendly forum, not a critique group for individual postings.

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Hugh
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Tue Dec 15, 2009 12:44 pm Post

What I'd really like to know from non-outliners is: Doesn't seat-of-the-pantsing take longer and require more effort?

OK, that may be impossible to tell, and may not even be an issue if you're writing purely for your own pleasure and not the bank manager's. I can also see why it may be ultimately more creative in certain senses if you can follow your instincts as you write rather than a pre-decided structure. But doesn't it become frustrating when you have to lop limbs off your story when they fail to work? And difficult if you're trying to create a tautly plotted mystery or thriller? Don't you regret the wasted hours?

I came up through a system where there simply wasn't time to re-write scripts multiple times from top to bottom if there was going to be something for the audience to watch, so outlining was essential. I agree that any outline should be, as they say in Pirates of Caribbean of the Pirates' Code, "more of a guideline, less of a code". But you still need that guideline.

H
'Listen, some quiet night, when you've shirked your work that day. Do you hear
that distant, almost inaudible clicking sound? That's one of your
competitors, working away in the night in
Paris or London or Erie, PA.'

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Jaysen
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Tue Dec 15, 2009 1:05 pm Post

I write "technical stuff" for work which is outlined. By committee. Sure I start the process with my draft and I fill in the nice wording, but at the end of the day it is sticking to the outline that matters. My limited schooling used outlines the same way. You submitted it, someone reviewed it, and if you veered from it at all you failed. All this to show that I am a bit biased in my view of outlines.

I do agree that outlines speed up output†, but they really limit creativity for me. I also feel that outlines promote the "method" approaches that some here seem to really dislike.

As is well known in these parts, I don't really write for a living. I do enjoy when a piece that I write, be it for work or some other purpose, hits home. Very satisfying.

† Now that I think about it, I may not be including the time to develop the outline…
Jaysen

I have a wife and 2 kids that I can only attribute to a wiggle, a giggle, and the realization that she was out of my league so I might as well be happy with her as a friend. 26 years marriage later, I can't imagine life without her. -Me 10/7/09

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PJS
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Tue Dec 15, 2009 4:01 pm Post

I spent many years -- too many surely, but there were children to feed and house and clothe and educate -- writing TV news and documentaries; after that, several more years writing commercials and political speeches and corporate reports. The point: I wrote to specific and occasionally incapacitating outlines for a very long time.

Now that I've only myself to maintain, I write any way a damn please. And I find John Dodds' suggestions right on the mark, exactly the way I now work.

Note please that John does say

John Dodds wrote:Towards the END of the book, I write the outline in more detail. And at this stage, completing the very rough outline helps me decide exactly where the book is going at last.


which I also heartily endorse.

I remember being taught to write in school, early teen years. We had to write an outline and turn that in for grading before we were allowed to write the essay. Essays constructed in that manner were clear and grammatical and incredibly dull. Predictable. I decided that the secret to writing a good essay -- one which I liked, regardless of instructors' opinion -- was to write the essay first, then the outline.

That said, I don't (very often) write with no objective in mind, no plot, no attitude. But I'm free to follow bright new stars which appear, or to plunge into unknown forests, without worrying about a map. If I don't get where I thought I was going, I'll probably wind up somewhere else. And that is often an improvement.

And to answer Hugh's question:

Hugh wrote:But doesn't it become frustrating when you have to lop limbs off your story when they fail to work?


Lopping off unneeded limbs is nowhere near as frustrating as having to construct, support, justify -- and KEEP -- mandated limbs which are intrusive, ugly, or just plain unwelcome.

ps
You can't conquer stupid — or cure it — with more stupid.

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kewms
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Tue Dec 15, 2009 5:38 pm Post

Hugh wrote:What I'd really like to know from non-outliners is: Doesn't seat-of-the-pantsing take longer and require more effort?

OK, that may be impossible to tell, and may not even be an issue if you're writing purely for your own pleasure and not the bank manager's. I can also see why it may be ultimately more creative in certain senses if you can follow your instincts as you write rather than a pre-decided structure. But doesn't it become frustrating when you have to lop limbs off your story when they fail to work? And difficult if you're trying to create a tautly plotted mystery or thriller? Don't you regret the wasted hours?


You're missing something, which is that a method that doesn't work, doesn't work. In my experience, trying to write from an outline wastes just as many hours as writing without one and doing the inevitable pruning and rearranging. Only with an outline, a lot of those hours are spent staring out the window and deleting 1-2 page false starts. With the organic method, the "lost" hours are at least spent *writing.* Net time is the same, but frustration is much lower.

Katherine

PS Since this is the Scrivener forum, I should also point out that Scrivener's tools for shuffling chunks around make the pruning and rearranging much more enjoyable. :D
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