by Mike Fleming, @hiveword
I enjoy mountain biking. It’s simultaneously exciting and great exercise. When I’m not worrying about breaking bones or dying it’s actually very peaceful and I get a lot of great ideas. While the trail in the image is not very picturesque it’s in my backyard so I ride it often. If you’ll notice, though, the trail just seems to drop off. Does it keep on going or is it a three foot drop off? 50 feet? Are there a bunch of rocks there? A nest of ticks? (I hate ticks!)
Cliffhangers are great for readers but for writers? Not so much.
Fortunately, on this trail I know where I’m going and what to expect when I get there. So, I know that I can pedal my bike as fast as I want and just fly along this section without worry. It’s a beautiful thing.
It’s the same way with writing. Knowing where you’re going makes the whole process more efficient. More productive. Plus, you’ll spend much less time doing rework and untangling messes you’ve gotten yourself into.
Don’t believe me? How about James Patterson? He releases up to nine books a year. How does he do it? Organization and outlining the story first is what allows him to pump out novels quickly. (Well, having co-writers certainly helps, too.) Outlining is an efficient way to capture and revise a story at a time when changes are less costly in terms of time and rework.
Many writers worry that outlining takes the art out of writing. I’ve never understood that. Specifying the story in the form of an outline or bullet points is itself a creative process. Then, the real art, perhaps, is actually writing the story using the framework provided by the outline. There’s still a lot of room for the muse to shine during both phases.
How about some concrete examples? P. Bradley Robb outlined (ha!) the reasons why writers should outline their stories first:
1. Establish clear motives
2. Separate major plot from minor plot
3. Spot plot inconsistencies before they pop up
4. Enhance foreshadowing
5. Keep your story on track
In the article he elaborates on each point but you can see at a glance that there are some obvious benefits to planning your story.
Why not try outlining your next project to see if it works for you? There are many different ways to do it:
1. A traditional outline (Look, Roman numerals!)
2. Index cards
4. Custom novel writing software
Really, there’s no wrong way -- it’s up to your personal preferences and what works for you. The first three are common and well-understood but all four have their strengths and weaknesses.
As the creator of my own novel writing software, Hiveword, I’m particularly partial to applications tailored to the purpose. With Hiveword, for example, you don’t deal with an outline in the traditional sense but rather work with the components of a novel. You deal with scenes, characters, settings, and plotlines -- concepts that translate directly to writing a novel. For each scene you’d write a few sentences or a larger summary to describe the scene. Then when you’re done you effectively have an abridged story from which to build. Plus, you know where and when everything is at a glance.
Unlike a spreadsheet, however, Hiveword understands what you’re trying to do and can thus present your work in a sensible way and make it both easy to manipulate and visualize. Add a character to a scene with a click. Sort your scenes by drag and drop. See how your subplots weave in and out of your story. Have a look at the screenshots and you’ll see what I mean.
If you’ve never planned your story before perhaps now is the time to give it a try with whichever approach you think would work best. I’d love to hear from you about how it worked out or tips and tricks you use for planning your novel.