Tag Archives: Outlining

So Many Notes

I just finished my first full draft of Book 3 of Swords & Fire last night (yay!). This morning I’m making an edit triage doc, and I thought it might be fun to make a quick writing process post on how many notes I make while drafting. (Spoiler: A LOT.)

For this draft alone (and there will be many more drafts), not counting the two restarts I did along the way (one of them 60K words in to the draft), I had the following supplementary notes files:

Initial brainstorming doc (20 pages): Contained rambly brainstorming, basically talking to myself on paper, with sections titled things like “Maybethot” and “Ruminating.”

Initial outline (26 pages): Contained an outline, to do list, and schedule, but also quickly deteriorated into pages of notes on ideas for ways I might change the outline.

Revised outline brainstorming (5 pages): Starts with a weird little poem in which I tell myself to get my act together and figure out what this book is really about, then some more really deep thoughts about theme and character arcs (This came before the pivotal moment when I restarted at 70K words and was kind of a mid-book crisis on paper).

“Midway Notes” doc (19 pages): Lots of brainstorming (lists of scenes, talking to myself,  character arc notes, through line notes, scene ideas, you name it), mostly focused on rewriting the first third of the book.

Version 3 Outline (20 pages): More organized list of scenes and what needs to be in them, with a space at the end to make notes about edit ideas I didn’t have time for now but would have to get in a later pass.

That’s 90 pages of (single spaced) notes for a 386 page (double spaced) draft. And there will be many more pages of notes for revisions, oh yes, let me assure you. (Like this edit triage doc, which breaks up edits I definitely want to get in before handing in this draft to my editor on Friday versus edits that can wait until next round.)

In writing this book, I found it particularly useful to talk myself through important scenes on paper before I wrote them, so my notes will be like “OKAY. So she walks in thinking X, and then Y is there, and it’s like OH NO! And then maybe Z happens, AAAHHH! And then she’s like OH NO YOU DON’T and then BOOM! Everything is on fire.” (Not an actual quote from my notes or scene in the book, but you get the idea. I like capital letters.) Then I have the major beats of the scene clear in my head before I write, and my first pass at it is less flail-y. So a lot of the page counts on my notes are me thinking through scenes or plot arcs to myself like that.

This all ties into how I answer the classic “plotter or pantser” question. I’m a plotter, in the sense that I make these pages of notes and outlines, but I’m also flexible and constantly reworking the outline and changing my plans as I go.

Everyone’s process is different, and mine even changes from book to book. But that’s been mine for this draft, anyway! And remember, kids, if you have a mid-draft crisis, never be afraid to restart. For me, at least, it always leads to a better book.


Isolating Plot Arcs for the Win

People often ask if I’m a plotter or a pantser, and the truth is I plot like crazy in advance, but also am always rethinking and editing my outline as I go. As I’m working on Book 3 there are a couple of tricks I’ve found really useful for refining my outline in mid-draft, and I thought I’d share them with you.

Today’s technique: separately plotting individual arcs! This has been SO HELPFUL for me in identifying places where the story is weak and needs a bit more.

I was plunging into the second half of Book 3, and wanted to figure out what exact senes needed to occur to resolve the remaining plot. I had an outline, and I could tell something was wrong with pacing or stakes (or possibly both) in one large section of it. But I couldn’t figure out what.

So I pulled out each of the four major plot threads and made lists of the remaining scenes or moments in each thread, separate from the rest of the outline. This showed me the structure of each thread standing on its own, without all the other stuff cluttering it up.

And here’s what I found for one of them, generalized to avoid spoilers (each bullet point is a scene):

  • Yup, still bad.
  • That bad thing? STILL SO BAD.
  • Hey, that bad thing is still out there, in case you were wondering. Being bad and all.

I hadn’t noticed when it was all mixed in with other plot points and scenes, but I had this big dramatic plotline that just didn’t move at all for a long stretch despite having a feeling of urgency and a lot of emotional importance. I had scenes planned that would punch the sore spot, as it were, but they didn’t change anything or move the plot forward.

(As a side note, I think this particular structural pitfall is a REALLY common and seductive one for writers. We have a great idea for dramatically kicking off conflict and another great idea for dramatically resolving the conflict, but we are way more vague on what happens in between these two points.)

Once I spotted this problem, it wasn’t too hard to fix—I just had to think of what could change and what could be at stake in those middle scenes. But I couldn’t see it until I pulled it out from the rest of the outline and looked at it on its own.

This trick was also really useful for checking the through line of each separate plot, making sure that each action naturally set up the next one and that there was a compelling flow from beginning to end. It made it easier to make sure that the relevant characters for each thread were changing and having an inner or emotional arc that paralleled the plot arc. And it made it super easy to spot redundant scenes.

Once I’d cleaned up each separate arc, I could weave them back together into the outline, paying careful attention to the overall through line to make sure I had a coherent, smoothly flowing story and not a patchwork of unconnected pieces. I’m sure it still needs work, because this is an early draft, but wow, it’s a lot better than it was!

I’ve also sometimes done this for major characters, pulling out the scenes or moments that are important touchstones for them in their personal arc through the story, and I think it can be very helpful in making sure your characters have compelling and coherent personal arcs. It’s especially useful when you want to strengthen an important non-POV character like a BFF or love interest who you might otherwise wind up seeing only through the lens of how they fit into the main character’s story.

I think this can also be a really useful thing to do between drafts, when you’ve got the basic story down and are trying to figure out how to hone it into its sleekest, deadliest form! (Uh, well, maybe not deadly if you’re writing, say, a cozy romance? I dunno, I like stories with murder in them, what can I say.)

I hope that’s helpful if you’re struggling with structure! GO YE FORTH AND MAKE BULLET POINTS!

Don’t Drop That Line

You know what I wish I’d figured out earlier in my writing journey? The importance of through lines.

Take right now. I’m working on a revision of THE DEFIANT HEIR (Book 2 of Swords & Fire). I got about two-thirds done with a first draft, then realized I needed to go back and revise before I wrote the last third where everything comes together. Why? Because the Everything that needed to come together was pointing all over the place, like a pile of dropped sticks, rather than forming a bunch of lines converging inevitably toward the climax. And I had a whole section of the book that was kind of just sketched in, with caution tape strung around it saying “UNDER CONSTRUCTION.”

I didn’t have a clear through line.

A lot of definitions will describe the through line as a theme, idea, or goal that continues from the beginning to the end of a story. I personally find it more useful to think of the through line visually, as a pure structural element.

The scenes and events in a story are beads, and the through line is the thread that strings through them all to make a necklace. Without the through line, you just have a pile of beads. The through line is what makes it a story.

If your through line is working, every scene leads to the next in a natural progression of cause and effect. Your protagonist has a goal, and is driving the action toward that goal. The core conflict runs true at the heart of the story. There’s a clear emotional arc to the story, too, as well as a plot arc; everything bends toward the climax.

It’s all too easy to drop your through line. For instance, I know one way I often do it is when something unexpected happens to cause a plot turning point. That’s good! Yay surprises! But if now suddenly my characters are doing and feeling all new things that have nothing to do with everything they were doing and feeling before, it’s going to feel disjointed to the readers. Even if the new things are all exciting and cool, if we’ve dropped all the threads the readers were invested in and excited about, they may lose interest or feel lost. We need core elements of the story to continue, sticking with us through every zig and zag, propelling us through to the end.

Another common way to wind up with a dropped through line is when you have insufficient agency for your main character. They have to be the one threading that string through those beads. If they’re running around reacting to things that fate or the antagonist keeps throwing at them, without having driving goals of their own which they’re actively pursuing, there’s no clear thread to connect the events of the story and carry it forward…and the readers with it.

The through line gives the readers something to wonder about, to be excited about, to be emotionally invested in. It’s what keeps them turning pages to the end.

I don’t think you necessarily need to be able to define your through line in an explicit word or phrase or statement. Really, it’s a combination of things: core themes, your character’s emotional arc, the main plot arc, the central conflict, your character’s goal. It’s the heart AND the spine of the story.

But you should KNOW your through line. At a deep, instinctive level—and you should also be consciously aware of it. You should be able to trace its passage through your story.

In this particular revision, I realized I didn’t know my through line well enough. I had a bunch of events, and I saw how they lined up with cause and effect to create a story, but I needed to clarify my character’s motivation and goals and emotional arc to give those events life and purpose, and to bring them all together. Once I got a better understanding of my through line, suddenly all the pieces I’d been having trouble fleshing out or fully integrating came clear. A lot of the bits that were giving me trouble or that I didn’t have energy for suddenly seemed easy to tackle.

To map the path of your story, you need to know where it starts, and where it ends, and the lay of the land along the way. But just as much, you need to know who is walking that path, and why, and where they thought it was leading when they first set foot on it.

Your through line is Ariadne’s string, to guide your main character—and you, and your readers—through the Labyrinth. Lose it at your peril.