At today’s GFWW meeting, the question came up “do you outline?” It seems this answer is different for every writer. I may have a somewhat unique take on this topic, given my background in software, and hopefully others will find it useful. I call it “agile outlining”.
First, some boring background. I’ve been in the software industry for nearly thirty years. For most of that time, the primary method of planning development was “waterfall”, in which an entire product and its underlying code is meticulously planned beforehand. This works great for NASA where hardware specs are nailed down years in advance of launch; it works less well in the business world where internal and external influences lead to shifting requirements on a weekly, or sometimes, daily, basis. The original spec might have to be abandoned or the resulting product will fail to meet consumer demands. No matter which direction is taken, though, time is wasted on meaningless work.
Enter agile, an adaptive approach to planning. It starts with a vision, the product’s overall purpose, and drills down from there. The project is comprised of epics which define major pieces of the product, and each epic is compiled of stories, discrete jobs that can be completed in a short period of time. Stories are defined as needed, so the work being done is always timely and relevant.
I’ve found agile applies very much to writing a book. You have a vision – an idea, plot, milieu, or character – and use it when devising chapters and scenes to express that vision. Writing is also fluid, in that you can’t know exactly where a story will take you until it’s written. Plan too little, you might write yourself into a corner; plan too much, you’ll waste time on things you never use. Agile outlining is a compromise between the two.
I’ll use my own (unpublished and in revision) novel to explain how I applied these principles to developing story elements.
It was the juxtaposition of two ideas that defined my “vision” and helped me realize I had a great idea for a novel. Key was the idea of transformation, where the main character would start in one place and end up in another; I knew the beginning and ending. The path to get from one to the other was unclear.
The most important element to my story is the shifting relationship between the main character and his double, a nearly-identical parallel universe version of himself. I drew rough graphs of how elements of their relationship changed over time, like so:
When I structured the novel using the information in the two attached graphs (plus other undisclosed factors), I manufactured a chapter structure, giving each a rough purpose. For instance, the middle scene would show a maximum difference between the two while allowing each equal power.
Whatever scene I came up with had to meet those requirements. As I dreamed up chapters I found it easy to place them in their proper place and order; it was also mostly obvious when a scene just wouldn’t work. As I wrote the early scenes in order, I was able to prepare for the rest, being ready to write each successive chapter by the time I got there. I’ll end up replacing two (of around forty) chapters during revision, and dropping none.
I’m really pleased at how well the process worked. The graphs ensured I stayed on track with the vision, yet they never limited my day-to-day creativity. Granted, my graphs won’t work for everybody or every novel; my story is linear and limited in character scope. However, there’s no limit to how one might creatively plan out their novel in a similar fashion.
If you’re currently having success writing, there’s no reason to change. If you’re struggling to put together a coherent manuscript, perhaps it’ll help. Whatever you do, though, keep writing.
Question: do you outline? If so, how? If not, how do you stay on target?