Outlining

FwHnotesAt a loss for a better blog topic, I snapped a picture of these notes that I scrawled on my white board earlier today, and thought I’d babble a bit about outlining.

The legible version of these chicken scratches is:

Last ch: H in clinic
– fear breathing fail
read E’s notebook,
what’s w/ poetry?
college class, chapel name,
don’t feel unworthy.
Last stanza Donne?

That’s almost legible, right? By way of comparison, here’s the original outline for the last four chapters of my current work in progress:

16. Baby born
17. Showdown with N
17a. E on…
18. H on…

Not sure whether this puts me firmly on the outlining side of the sometimes contentious, often silly plotter vs. pantser debate. My outlining habits are less like the I-II-III-IV-a-b-c-d technique you might have learned in school, and a little more like Zen koans with lots of abbreviations. Sometimes I forget what the abbreviations mean. Outlines for me are guidelines, a way of tracking things that need to get done before the end of the book. They tend to change a lot by the time I get there. So, what I’ve actually ended up with is this:

16. Helen (that’s who H is, one of my narrators) confronts some bad guys.
16a. Estus (the other narrator, who writes in reports and diary entries and therefore doesn’t get numbered chapters) is present at the baby’s birth. This was originally a Helen chapter.
17. Showdown with N (abbreviation for the main bad guy). I’m still working on the details of this.
18. Helen in clinic. Insert the first six lines from the white board, which is the dialogue she has with Estus.
18a. Estus’ final remarks, probably involving the last stanza of a poem by John Donne.

So I start with a bare-bones framework and fill in details as I go. Usually I don’t know exactly how a chapter will go until I get there. Sometimes I know details for two chapters down the road before I know what happens in the next one – like figuring out chapter 18 before I write 17, as I have now.

Just one way of approaching writing. Do you outline, and how do you do it?

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