After weeks (or months) of planning and thinking and researching, my head is full of exciting but largely formless thoughts about what the book could include and where it could go. This is the point where I sit down and start outlining, a process that begins with a brainstorm.
The thoughts, like I said, are unformed, so the first step is to give them form. For me, that means writing them down–I think with my fingers, not my brain, so nothing is really “real” or even all that intelligible until I write it down. I start with three or so blank documents–Characters, Events, and Cool Stuff, for example–and then I start plucking ideas out of my head and turning them into something usable. Using Strawberry Fields as an example, I knew I needed a schizophrenic main character, so I wrote that down in the “Characters” document and then started describing him–how old is he, what kind of hallucinations does he experience, what does he want, and so on. While I’m thinking about it, I flip over to the “Cool Stuff” document and write more about his hallucinations, fleshing them out a bit. This suggests an interesting twist that could work well when his delusion conflicts with the real world, so I write about it in the “Events” document. This process goes on and on, which me codifying all of these pre-planned thoughts into a bunch of cool, cohesive elements that start combining to make a cool story.
The thing is, these elements aren’t really a story yet–they’re the building blocks of a story that hasn’t been built yet. Phase two of the outlining process is to open a fourth document and start putting them in order. In the case of Strawberry Fields, this required a lot of careful balancing to make sure that the paranoid delusions and the paranoid realities meshed in surprising yet inevitable ways; I want to pull the rug out from under the main character (and the reader) a number of times, but I want each new twist to advance the plot at the same time it’s resetting it. Halfway through this outlining process I realized that I was building a conspiracy thriller, and that realization helped suggest a lot of structural elements that would help make the story work more effectively (it also suggested a few genre norms that I could bend or break to help the story stay surprising). I took a short break to research conspiracy plots, altered my story a bit, and eventually completed a full chapter by chapter outline.
I started official writing on Strawberry Fields, using this completed outline, last week. The next installment in this little blog series will talk about how I use an outline to write, how I deviate from it, and how the story continues to grow as I write it.