Outlining, Spreadsheets, Collage . . .

Discovery is the beginning of the process of writing story, the part where you’re figuring out what your story is about.  The major part of discovery is the discovery draft, writing the first versions of your scenes, but there are also things writers do to explore their stories that aren’t putting scenes on the page.  That’s what these discussions on the One Sentence Idea, the Central Conflict, and now Outlining (etcetera) are about:

Bob’s 2007 post on Outlining
Jenny’s 2007 post on Outlining
Jenny’s 2007 post on Collage

Jenny: Discovery is the time at the beginning of a book when you’re finding out things about your characters and your story world as you write. Just as there are many roads to Oz, there are many paths through the discovery process.

Many, many years ago, Bob and I were in the same zip code (Maui) discussing the possibility of collaborating. One of things we talked about was the discovery process, how we’d go about building a book idea together. Bob told me he outlined with spreadsheets before he started to write. My horror must have been palpable. I told him I needed to get most of a first draft done before I did any analytical thinking, so the only thing I did to organize during the discovery draft process was collage. I think he went and got another drink at that point. Two decades later, I am quite sure that Bob has not collaged and never will. But—and brace yourself for major Mayer I Told You So—I have learned that some brief forms of structure (BRIEF, Bob, BRIEF) can help enormously in the chaotic, creative phase of discovery drafting.

First, I’m not going to call it outlining because “outlining” to most people means “I, a b c, II, a b c” and I’m not doing that. That will kill a book during the discovery process. Instead, look at your story in its early drafts to see if there’s an inherent structure there. If it takes place over a week, maybe it’s a seven-day structure. If it’s a year, maybe it’s seasons.  If they’re putting on a play, maybe it’s casting-rehearsal-opening night-reviews. If they’re on a mission, it’s the mission plan. If there’s a structure inherent in the story, use it.

But there’s never an inherent structure in my discovery drafts—my discovery drafts aren’t even in chronological order—so I use acts. That is, I see my stories in parts. This is the story and then something happens and turns the story in a new direction and makes it new again, and then this is the new story, and then something happens . . . . Those of you who have survived my lectures before know these as Acts and Turning Points.

I tend to write in four acts, but that’s just me. You can have as many or as few as you want, knock yourself out. The big key to act progression is “Things Get Worse.”

So for Nita, my act outline is

  1. Nita’s trying to protect her island and then Nick shows up and she investigates because she thinks he’s behind the rise in crime, a shadowy figure she’s nicknamed Cthulhu, but she’s distracted because he’s very competent and very attractive (Romance Novel, remember?).
  2. Nita finds out the supernatural is real and joins forces with Nick to fight Cthulhu because she thinks she’s losing her mind and he’s been telling her the truth all along and helping her; also he’s protecting her while she freaks out, and she’s falling for him, so now she’s tentatively negotiating partnership.
  3. Nita has to handle everything alone when Nick is poisoned and reverts to the guy he was when he was alive who was a real bastard, but she protects him and struggles with him and they stick together as he cycles through past lives, and they battle Cthulhu together.
  4. Nita harrows hell to get back the man she loves and defeat Cthulhu.

Those are big general ideas, but they tell me where the focus should be in each act, and they escalate; they’re my guardrails as I put the story together.  Of course, as the story evolves, those guardrails move, but at least I’m not flailing around through the wilderness.

The next thing I did was look to see what the turning points were—think of turning points as the story saying “And now it’s a whole new ballgame”–so seven sentences instead of four.

Nita meets Nick, suspects him of being the problem on her island.
Turning Point: Nita sees Nick smite and realizes the supernatural is real.
Nita tentatively joins forces with Nick.
Turning Point: Nita takes over when Nick is poisoned because now she’s on her own.
Nita and Nick stick together in spite of his identity problems.
Turning Point: Nita takes the fight to Hell because she’s tired of this crap.
Nita harrows Hell to get Nick back and defeat Cthulhu.

You have no idea how many drafts I had to go through to get that (FIVE YEARS). Which is why, now that I’m looking at the mess that is Surprise Lily, I did a four act (four sentence) outline only 20,000 words in just to see if there was any plot there at all; there wasn’t, but at least I know it’s a mess.

Keep in mind, these act lists are all fluid; I expect them to change, so they don’t hamper me in any way.  But they do work with the one sentence idea to keep me focused in the rewrite. So yeah, outlining in moderation (seven sentences, nine if you want the inciting event and the climax, ten if you want the resolution, but that’s it, no nitty gritty detail, that’s for the collage).

And now about collage: There’s always a moment in discovery when I panic because the story is so thin, there’s no richness, no depth, no subtext, it’s all surface and usually 90% dialogue. That when I remember the advice of Ron Carlson, who said, “Don’t look down.” Of course, there’s nothing underneath your story yet, you’re walking on thin air because it’s the beginning, so keep going and the story will fill in under you, the “leap and the net will appear” theory of writing story. You can always go back and fix any gaps later. Don’t look down, you’ll start to second guess yourself and fall.

But still I panic. Flailing around out there in the create-o-sphere gets too terrifying, so I collage.

People always sneer when I say “Collage to find your story.” Then some of them try it and come back converts because collage and assemblage (gathering up a bunch of stuff that feels like your story and putting it together) gives you a different instinctive path into story. The old collage post has instructions, so I’m skipping that part, but I would like to put in a vote for computer collage which seems to be a gateway into the hard stuff with paper and scissors. My go-to programs for that are Curio (mind-mapping software that’s great for planning, too) and Acorn (simple image program with great documentation), both for the Mac. An even simpler approach: pin stuff to a bulletin board, real or virtual, as you find it. I know a writer who put a box in her desk drawer and dropped things into it, so whenever she needed a focus check she just opened the drawer and looked in it: a shell, a ticket stub, a pearl, a silver scarf, and several other things capturing the feel of the book for her. Because sometimes it helps if it’s not all in your head.

There are two big benefits to collage for me.

One is that it gets my brain off words and onto images, so I’m thinking about the story in a fresh way. I’m looking at pictures of people to capture the right attitudes of characters’ personalities, I’m looking at settings for the right feel for the story, the society, the terrain, I’m looking at objects that evoke the time, the place, the mood, the conflict. I am not writing any damn words, so the visual part of my brain takes over with no preconceptions or rules and says, “Oh, yeah, that belongs in the story.”

The second is that it solves my focus problem. I am a detail person, I will drown the story in detail if left to myself, this conversation, this small conflict, this Macguffin, this subplot, this minor character, this food, this piece of clothing. That means my first drafts, my discovery drafts, are a freaking mess. The collage is, if you will, the One Sentence Idea in a Big Picture. I can look at a successful collage (one that feels right for the story I’m writing) and instantly focus on what the book is about.

That doesn’t mean I make a collage and it stays the same throughout the process. I routinely rip things off (or delete them on the computer) move them around, add new things, constantly updating my visual as the story evolves. It’s not an artwork, it’s a notepad of images, evocative and grounding, becoming more complex as the story becomes more complex and vice versa; the collage inspires the story. I highly recommend collage.

Bob: In the last post I mentioned I don’t outline plot any more. I outline character. What outline there is grows out of research. I just finished Hell of a Town and was getting worried what the next book in the series would be. Then my wife put on a show the other night (she always has the remote when we pile into bed every evening with Cool Gus and Scout— actually both dogs have an amazing capability of stepping on the remote and getting the TV to do things we didn’t know it could do).

Where was I? Cinderblocks? Oh yeah. The other night she put on the Epstein Story. Horrible. Ding. Light bulb.

I’m going to beat this to death, but trust your subconscious. In Hell of a Town, I had to pick seven victims for this ritualistic killing labyrinth. I ended up with one of them being a girl around 12. HOLD ON! That doesn’t necessarily mean I killed her. Or does it? Have to read the book. Why did I make one of the victims a 12-year-old girl? Consciously because that means the killers are really, really, bad people. But now it clicked. Prior to the start of this book, she was involved in something like the Epstein’s ring. So I went back and I just added one line of dialogue where she tells another character that she isn’t afraid of the dark—she’s afraid of the monsters who come in the dark. I don’t touch that again, but those monsters are the antagonist in the next book.

Which will be titled NO QUARTER (are you noticing song titles as book titles?). Why? Because we know song titles. All right, so you’re not a Led Zeppelin fan? How about second book: Lawyers, Guns and Money? And then Walk on the Wild Side.

So right now, because it’s a series, I know where my surviving characters are. I know there’s a big bad monster like Epstein. And. Got to pick a start point—how far after end of last book? No clue right now because my brain is fried. So. No outline like I used to do.

My version of Jenny’s collage is my binders. I still use them. The only thing I’ve done roughly the same for every book is my Story Grid which is an Excel Spreadsheet which is explained in HWSW. It’s something I fill out as I write to keep track of the details of the story. Because. Cinderblocks.

My story bible is in Excel. I downloaded Scrivener but then I’d have to read instructions and I’m a guy and we don’t do that. My story bible is an Excel document with 13 different sheets:

One for each of the five books in the series with every scene in each book on a line; one for the protagonist (his timeline, quirks, history, etc); one for his family; one for the people in the diner he frequents every morning; one for other supporting characters; one for ‘Bad Guys’; one for locations; one for historical timeline in which the story is taking place; and one for flashbacks that were written in each book to keep track of backstory. Gotta love them flashbacks!

Oh yeah, I think I’ve figured out why Jenny collages the story and I Excel the details. She can tell me I’m full of it, but I suspect it’s because I’m a big picture person and she’s a detail person. I need my Excel for the details; I’ve got the big picture in my head. She needs the collage for the big picture. She’s got the details, although I just realized she’s cheating because the collage also has details. Hmm. So much for that moment of enlightenment.

Since HWSW I also realized you can color code the cells and/or the font in Excel. I’m at the bleeding edge of technology.

In re-reading HWSW a couple of things pop up for expansion. Book dissection: there’s a lot of good writing on cable TV now. Analyze anything you read or watch for the idea, for how the characters are introduced. Nothing is done by chance. That’s why binging a series a second time can be eye-opening for writers, because you know what’s going to happen, you can see how the writers of the show mined their own writing.

The antagonist: we must either meet the antagonist directly (although we probably don’t know they are the antagonist) or a minion of the antagonist, or the presence of the antagonist pretty early on. That’s to establish conflict. What do I mean by presence? The very first page of Hell of a Town, Will Kane is running along Hell Gate in Queens and sees a body. That’s the presence of the antagonist.

I also like to have a ‘secret’ antagonist. What that means is there’s a character who seems secondary but is actually bad and pops up in the climactic scene. In fact, sometimes that character is the true antagonist in that they’ve been the deus ex machina controlling things.

One big difference between Jenny and me is that I write mostly series and she writes standalones. So, I’ll try to discuss series for those who are interested over the course of this blog.

Jenny: Hey, you.  Reading your post now.

Bob: Same.

[Time passes.]

Bob: Just read Jenny’s post and I think we agree. So we’re done.

Jenny: I think we do agree.  This is going to be a really boring blog.

Bob: Really– the key is to understand how your mind creates. Mine is much more organic now. I trust the story will come.

Jenny: Well, spreadsheets.  I’m never going to do spreadsheets, although I will meet you halfway with tables and charts.  I love tables and charts.

Bob: I need to see everything on one page. The entire story, scene by scene.

Jenny: You’re reading the spreadsheet, not so much seeing . . .  No, wait, you’re color coding?  Because that’s seeing and it really does help a lot.

Bob: Well, I’m not as big on a format for story such as acts and turning points. It’s more going for a ride and then throwing some stuff into the engine and seeing what happens.

Jenny: This is disturbing.  You’re flying by the seat of your pants and I’m using an act map?  We really have switched brains.

Bob: I find its more interesting to not know what’s coming. When I outlined, my stories became full of foreshadowing. My wife calls it “Bring the boat”. The first book I had published, Eyes of the Hammer, I knew eventually my characters would need a boat. So I had them load a boat on the bottom of a chopper. BUT– with what the characters knew at that point of the story, there was no reason they would load a boat. So. I try not to bring the boat any more. Characters have to make do with what they have.

However– the key is I know I can go back while writing the book and add a reason to bring a boat.

Jenny: Exactly.  It’s not brain surgery, we can always fix it. I think in discovery draft/the first draft, I definitely go by the seat of my pants.   But then I need some kind of plan to organize what I’ve got.

Bob: One thing that drives me crazy when working with people at our retreats is when I make a suggestion reference changing plot and they go “But that’s not what happened!” What happened can always change. You’re the God of your story.

Jenny: So they’re drawing from real life?

Bob: Often. But also, they don’t want to let go of what they’ve written– as if they’re using a chisel and stone instead of Word.

Jenny: Oh.  I have no frame of reference for that.  I rewrite obsessively.

Bob: I go back to the start of the book roughly ever fifty pages or so and start over. Smoothing the rough edges, looking for nuggets I can use.

Jenny: You know, maybe in the early stages, discovery draft, but then once you want other people to read it, you have to step back and look at it as a whole.

I’m still mind boggled by anybody saying, “But that’s the way I wrote it so I can’t change it.”  Huh?

 Bob: I don’t let other people read a draft. They read when I think I’m done. The book is organic and letting others read it interferes with that growth.

Jenny: I have to be pretty far along, but I’ve thrown stuff up on the blog and had people weigh in on it.  It’s interesting. But yes, in general, don’t let other people into your discovery drafts.  Don’t show them what you’re writing until you know what it is.

Bob: That would confuse me. It’s like trying to read part of a novel in a writing group. If they don’t have the entire thing, I think their input is limited.

Jenny: They can say “this doesn’t make sense” or “I didn’t like the character when she did this.”  That kind of thing. It can be helpful.  Especially since I’ve been training the Argh People for many, many years.

Bob: I think that would drive me crazy.

Jenny: But I do agree that the early stuff, the discovery stuff has to be just you.  Writer based draft until it’s the way you want it, then reader-based draft.

Bob: I think a big part is I’ve written so many manuscripts, over 80, and made so many mistakes, that I can feel when I’m screwing up. I get in a real bad mood. I’ve learned to trust that it will come, but it’s not fun.

Jenny: I’m blind to a lot of my mistakes, so I really rely on beta readers, but I use act analysis, too.  Character arc analysis.  Anything that’s a framework. Writing in general makes me crazy.

So that’s the whole Heart of the Story section.  Where we agreed on everything.  Oh, well.

Bob: Actually, I think it shows we have almost completely different processes in some areas.

Jenny: Such as? You’re using fewer analytical tools, I’m using more.  You’re doing more intuitive plotting, I’m doing less. I think we’re meeting in the middle.

Bob: You want a structure for the story after you have a draft done. You need input from Beta readers.   I figure I’ve got the structure in the first draft. I listen to feedback after I think I’ve got a solid draft. I’ve got a Beta who hates one of my main female characters. And that’s fine. Because she’s who she is because of backstory that reader hasn’t been exposed to yet.

Jenny: Huh.  So you think your first draft has the structure automatically in it?  That is, you’re a natural storyteller, so the structure is just present in the way you tell it? (None of that is criticism, I’m just curious.)

There are always people who get tripped by something in a beta.  I had a long-time reader once who was so infuriated with a minor scene in Wild Ride that she hasn’t spoken to me since.

Bob: Yeah.  Because I think story has become more fluid. I’ve read and watched so many things in the past several years that broke all “rules”. Bottom line: is the reader engaged and do I keep them engaged? So yeah, I have an inciting incident, escalating conflict, a moment of crisis, a climax and a resolution in the first draft.

Jenny: I’ve had this conversation with Krissie (Anne Stuart).  She’s somebody else who just has an instinctive feel for plotting.  Like you, born to be a writer.  I wasn’t, so I need all the help I can get.

Bob: I can plot almost anything. My weakness has always been character and point of view.

Jenny: I can do character in my sleep.  I can’t plot my way out of a paper bag.

Bob: I don’t think being able to instinctively plot makes you a writer, any more than writing compelling characters does. The key is to focus on the weak part.

Or get help for it. That’s where a beta reader who is strong in that area can help.

Jenny: I should have said storyteller, not writer. An instinctive sense of story. I think in scenes and conversations, not in action and plots.

Bob: Yeah– I drive my wife crazy by predicting where a movie will go. The fun part is when I’m wrong because the writers throw a curve in. Breaking Bad was constantly throwing curves.

Jenny: We’re in the weeds again here, off topic.  And my brain is tapioca.  Is there anything else or are we done?

Bob: I think it’s good.

Jenny: Great.  Good night, Bob.

Bob: Good night.





7 thoughts on “Outlining, Spreadsheets, Collage . . .

  1. Okay, I’m able to comment, but I still had to use a WordPress login to be able to do so. I have two of them, it appears, and this is the one that has my stone heart as an avatar, so I’m content.

    This is cool stuff. I tried doing a couple of physical collages many years ago when I read stuff Jenny had written (post HWSW) and, even though I consider myself to be artistic and visual and messy, I hated it. I’m definitely going to try a digital collage, and I like the idea of putting collage-type stuff in a box and taking out things for a focus check (although, that’s both cool and creepy). I’m an Excel addict and everything in my life is in an Excel worksheet. Or in Evernote. I can see doing Bob’s worksheet later in the process — doing what Bob is doing would pull me right out of the story. I usually have several Word files open and I will pop over to one of the notes files to drop in backstory or descriptions or names, then pop back to my current writing file. An Excel file would be more organized that three files of notes.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ll ask Mollie what’s going on there. You shouldn’t have to log into WordPress to comment.

      Digital collage has a lot going for it. One of the pluses is that you can make things transparent and overlap images to make new images. Plus your image collection is everything on the net, so that’s good.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. If I still had access to Adobe Illustrator, that could be useful on a per-project basis. Unfortunately, when I transferred everything to my new Mac a couple of years ago, something go messed up. I don’t have disks because I got it through a friend’s group license and it was very long ago. And I refuse to pay subscriptions to use software I will never be able to own. C’est la vie!


    2. I was also surprised to hate college when I tried it! Many roads to Oz. I did make a Pinterest board instead, and that was…ok… Maybe I should print those pinned images and try again?

      But what I’ve always found more useful is to do a “soundtrack”/playlist. Used to use WinAmp, then iTunes, now Spotify. Definitely helps with the mood. It’s interesting–I think of myself as more “artistic” than “musical,” but maybe that’s why music works better–different part of my brain?

      I know Jenny did a soundtrack for Nita– she posted the titles and I made a Spotify playlist out of it. I think another Argher made the updated version when Jenny redid the list. Well-trained indeed! 😄


  2. Not really a writer, except for technical/business stuff at work. But, I love reading the blog. It always captures my interest and the “voices” are calming.

    Comment test. 🙂


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