How do ideas become books? Part 2 Thinking with a pen

Last week I talked about bunnies

No, not that type of bunnies!

I mean story ideas and how I go from the first tiny twitch of a bunny’s tail to an idea I feel ready to start outlining. This week, what happens next.

Before I start anything that you could call outlining I like to do around a month of brainstorming. I’m usually busy finishing something else at the time, but I will set myself a task of 15 minutes a day to brainstorm on the idea in development, usually with pen and paper. That seems to work better at that stage and it’s easy to do almost anywhere. I’ll make myself do it even on days I think I have no new ideas for the story. Once I sit down and start writing something, anything, a list of characters, a list of scenes, a note of what I’ll probably have to research for, then ideas start to come through. Like they’re coming out of the pen I’m using! Or—my theory—that once the current things I have in my head are safely on paper and I don’t need to keep turning them over and over, then new ideas some rushing in to fill the space.

This is such a fun phase of the planning. Everything is in flux. People die and come back to life. They change their names and nationalities, their sex and their jobs. I can write a load of stuff one day and the next day come along and decide, no, that’s not the way it’ll happen, and make notes of a whole different way of doing things instead.

So after a month of that I’ve usually got a good handle on the characters, and a lot of material for the plot, but it needs to be ordered and developed. I need to start actual outlining. After writing several novels now I’ve come to realise that what I need to hang my plot on is the emotional journey of the characters through the story. Where do they start, how do they change through the story and where do they end up? In a romance of course the emotional journey is bound up with the story of the developing relationship.

The actual events of the plot have to both illustrate and support this journey and help to move it along. So I can take my big jumble of scenes and decide where in the journey they fit. Which scenes best illustrate the stage a character is at on the journey at any given time? Do the actions they take in that scene need to be at a particular stage of their journey? There are things a character will do near the end of a story that they wouldn’t have done near the start. Gradually I start to get the scenes and events arranged along the emotional journey. It’s rather like threading lots of different coloured beads on a string. I’m looking for just the right arrangement.

In practical terms I do my outline in various ways. I love to do note cards – one per scene/event per card and then arrange and rearrange until I find the ideal order. Or sometimes I’ll have it all neatly typed up and printed out. Or one I’m working on is in a binder and is mostly hand written pages with a section for each Part of the story. (I often end up with the story split in Parts in the planning, though they aren’t marked in the final version. A part is just a sequence of scenes that has its own little story within the story, and I have a varying number of them depending on the story.)

But this outline is never—for example—chiselled onto large stones and never touched again once I start writing the book. It continually changes while I write, being tweaked, having details firmed up as I get closer to writing that part. My ending tends to be pretty light on detail until I’m approaching the writing of it when it all becomes clear to me. (Though I always know the basic shape of it. I have to know the ending, otherwise how would I know what the story is about and where the characters are going?) There’s always change as I draft. I can think I know all about the characters before I start, but they only come to life once they start to walk and talk. And anything that’s alive can’t be completely controlled! Characters can balk at doing things I have planned and want to do things a different way. And they’re usually right.

This is all metaphorical of course. It’s my unconscious again, as I talked about in the bunnies post. It knows the character better than my conscious mind does. It can hold every bit of information not just about them, but about how all that information relates to other characters and to the world around them. Eventually my mind will click onto why the character appears to be mulishly digging in their heels and refusing to do something. Then I have to change my plans for them and make them handle it a different way.

I love outlining. It’s such a creative part of the writing process when I’m abuzz with ideas giving birth to other ideas. And since my outlining isn’t over until I finish the draft, then I keep on buzzing as I write. I never understand it when people say that outlining takes the creativity and fun out of the writing part. Not for me it doesn’t. They’re different phases of figuring out the story, that’s all. Only the writing makes the story real. If I was an architect I wouldn’t draw up a blueprint and say “that’s it then, nothing more needs to be done.” I want to see the building! Nothing can live in a blueprint and nothing can live in an outline. Characters and stories need to speak and walk and breathe to be real. Getting my outline together just makes me ever more keen to write the story and bring all those people to life.

3 thoughts on “How do ideas become books? Part 2 Thinking with a pen

  1. “I never understand it when people say that outlining takes the creativity and fun out of the writing part.”

    My problem with outlines is that going back to write the actual story seems like rewriting it. I don’t want to write just a summary or some notes about a scene or chapter – I want to write the scene or chapter! Going back over an outline – well, it just seems very academic to me. Like reading notes before taking an exam. But we each have to figure out what works best for us – as my mother used to say: Each to his own, said the man as he kissed the cow. 😉

    1. Wouldn’t do if we were all the same. 🙂 Yes, I see that lots of people feel like if they’ve thought about and made notes about a scene already they’ve already, well if not written it, at least told it. They have to discover it through the writing.

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