Last week Bree talked about how plotting can help organize your thoughts into something you can run with, something that won’t leave you stuck with writer’s block as often as writing by the seat of your pants. I definitely think that’s true, but as a plotter I still get stuck an awful lot. I get stuck so often that when I went to LTUE last month and saw a class called “Obsessive Outlining” taught by M. A. Nichols in the program, I jumped at the chance to see what I could learn there.
I’m so glad I went.
Maybe it’s just because I’m an obsessive person when it comes to finding the right way to do things, but this class made so much sense to me! Before, I would plot as much as I thought I could, coming up with a basic outline and saying what had to happen where. I tried hard to get my thoughts in order before I started writing, but it never got me very far. I would write a story out to the end, wonder what was wrong, finally identify the problems, rewrite, make new problems, and start all over again, keeping only a little of what I had from the previous draft. So many words down the drain! But since Nichols started using this process, she says she’s had to cut out fewer and fewer words from her manuscripts, which sounds like a dream come true.
So, how does this “obsessive outlining” process work?
It starts in your head. Ideas always do, of course, so why start the lesson here? Nichols says she spends a lot of time fleshing things out in her head and writing down everything she thinks of, even if it feels like it won’t work. It might seem hard at first, but brainstorming exercises your brain, so the more you do it, the better you’ll get at it. You should definitely NOT rush this part of the process. Think about what the world is like. Who are the important characters? How do they progress? What is the main plot?
After you’ve separated out the key elements of your story, pick your plot structure and plug your ideas in. There will be gaps, but you can fill those in as you go. Nichols recommends using a spreadsheet for this part to keep everything separate and organized.
Make a spreadsheet for each of your characters as well, typing up summaries for scenes that need to happen to complete their arc.
Next, you’ll move on to a word document, where you’ll color code and paste everything you’ve written on every sheet. Keep each color separate and in order. Keeping them in order, start to merge them with the key points of the main plot. What pieces can be put together to make a scene pull more weight? Are there scenes that can all happen in the same place, or with the same characters? As you group points together, leave spaces between the scenes so they’re easy to differentiate. For now, keep the color code!
This part is also a good place to use some leftover brainstorming ideas you might not have found a place for yet, though not using all of them is expected. Some of your ideas may have to change, or may not make the cut after all, but deleting something at this point is much easier than deleting pages of stuff you don’t need later.
From here you can see how the pacing of your story is going to turn out. Thanks to the color code, problems are easier to spot. You might notice you have a lot of character arc scenes without much of the main plot to them, or that a certain character that should be present hasn’t been for a few scenes too many. Read through it and see if the story works as a whole. You can fix most problems you encounter now instead of fretting about how to do it later.
Once you’re sure of where everything needs to end up, you can remove the color code, but don’t start writing your first chapter yet. Look at each scene and write down more details about them. Who is your POV character? What needs to be accomplished in the scene? What are your character’s feeling, and what are their motivations? Take time to add in ideas for foreshadowing and any other details you need to understand the scene.
Now that your scenes are fleshed out, your plot should be just about finalized, and you can finally get to writing.
Don’t worry about what needs to come next--it’s already written out for you, and you already know it’s going to work!
I hope you find this detailed way of outlining as helpful as I did. If you do, I hope you’ll send a “thank you” to M. A. Nichols for making such a detailed process for obsessive people like me to follow.
Rachel White has lived in Utah all her life, and has been writing fiction nearly as long. “Starsworn” is her debut published work, but as long as her husband, three children, and over-anxious dog cooperate, there will certainly be more to come. Be sure to watch for "Shattered Snow," her first audiobook narration project, coming soon!
We're all writers, we're all moms, writing our way through the "brambles" of life and our stories.