sign up for news and inspiration
  • connect
"Just be who you are, calm and clear and bright." - Richard Bach, Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah

FAQ: Outlining and “Prewriting”

What is your “prewriting” process like? Do you outline?

“Outline” may feel like a dirty word, but I think you’ll find it’s a very necessary step in the process of writing a novel. My friend Nova answered this question on Formspring awhile back, and it turns out she and I have the same M.O. First we write–that initial burst of feverish getting-it-down–and then, once the story is crying out for some order, we go back and build the structure.

Initially, though, it’s a very open-ended, right-brained process. My “prewriting” phase involves a lot of scribbled exploration of the possibilities (“yay, a premise! now what if she does this? then what will happen?”) and initial research–on human cloning, witchcraft in folklore, Spiritualism, or what have you. The research component is crucial, because that early reading often triggers Very Important Ideas (as opposed to nice little details I might slip in here or there, if I can–though I’ll get plenty of those as well). I’ll write more about research in a future post, and for a peek at my Mary Modern “prewriting,” see here and here.

This “tank-filling” phase generally lasts for at least a few months before I actually begin writing the first draft, and by that point the story has taken a more definite shape. I like to think that holding off writing until I have some semblance of a plot in mind means I’m not throwing out dozens of pages in the editing process.

So I write and write, and eventually I start feeling the pull to order. My novels tend to jump back and forth in time (oh, all right, they ALL do! I’m incapable of writing a chronological narrative!), which means I’m putting a plot together like it’s a jigsaw puzzle. Dozens of threads (anything from major character arcs to something as seemingly minor as a chewed-up old sofa) need to be followed and developed and ultimately tied up. The outline, however you choose to format it, will help you to juggle all that, so that the balls are still in your hands at the end of the act. Speaking of jigsaw plots, awhile back Unclutterer posted J.K. Rowling’s handwritten outline (chapter by chapter, character by character) of one of the Harry Potter novels. You really can’t spend too much time getting all your ideas in order!

That said, there’s another kind of outline you write for your editor/publisher’s benefit. When I submitted the first 90 pages of Petty Magic to Shaye Areheart, she asked that I submit a “chapter flow”–a prose-y sort of outline.

chapter flow capture

I got an offer based on the sense and tidiness of this “chapter flow.” I knew how Eve’s story was going to end, although I hadn’t quite plotted out all the twists and turns that had to happen to get her there–but that was okay. My publishers just wanted to make sure they weren’t giving me money to write a novel I had no clue how to finish!

3 Comments to FAQ: Outlining and “Prewriting”

  1. April 30, 2012 at 9:12 am | Permalink

    Thank you for that glimpse into your “pre-writing” process. It’s really insightful. I too start out this way, especially when I’m struck with a premise and just want to see where it goes. It’s sort of like free-playing with clay.

  2. April 30, 2012 at 10:39 am | Permalink

    HA! You said “balls are still in your hands.”
    Just because I’m 29 going on 14 doesn’t mean this wasn’t a cool post, though. 😉

  3. Kate's Gravatar Kate
    May 1, 2012 at 11:03 pm | Permalink

    I feel writers should always have the ending in mind even if how they get there is fuzzy.

Leave a Reply

You can use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

Hi! I'm Camille. I only write stories that could never ever happen in real life, though I do believe in real-life magic. If we were in the same room I'd fix you a cup of tea, but for now we'll have to settle for a virtual connection. I'm really glad you're here.