I’m In Outline Hell!

My son takes after my caffeine habits

My son takes after my caffeine habits

I can’t outline. I give up. I have note cards and paper scraps everywhere: in my desk, on the baby changing table, on the back of book covers and stuffed between my couch cushions. I take these scraps and type them up and save them in nicer looking word documents where they die in my random desktop folders that I have astutely named, “writing”.

Talking about outlining is like talking about defecating: nobody wants to hear about it, but it’s unfortunately essential.

I have a Beginning, a Middle, and an End, and in my blissful ignorance and blind zeal, I figured I was done and the book would flow from my fingers like the perfectly formed goddess that sprung from the head of Zeus. But, characters have a life of their own, and I’m controlling. I’m not a gardener, I’m a brick-layer (dammit, Jim). Things are going to change during the writing process, so I adjusted my outline for these changes and I’m still not satisfied.

This 3-Act structure by Ian McCaig helped me a great deal, because it takes away the fun and makes the author own her characters and quit being a baby:

Act 1.

in the first few pages, the audience needs to know the answers to these questions:

~Who is the story about?

~What does he/she WANT?

~What are the obstacles?

Thinking of Star Wars: it’s a story about a boy who wants to save a princess from the Evil Empire.

So the next question is:

~What’s the plan?

Star Wars: Luke meets a Obi Wan who has the plan to go to Alderaan. BUT… the boy balks. the plan is outside his comfort zone.


~A bridge must be burned.

A point of no return. This can be a conscious choice or created from external pressures. In Star Wars, Luke’s aunt and uncle are killed by the empire. There is nothing left for him on Tatooine. He sets off with Obi Wan and his Plan.

Act 2.

Now “The Plan” is in action. Fun stuff, exciting stuff, happening stuff…. but, basically filler stuff.  Ian called this part of the story “smoke and mirrors“.  Entertaining (and important), but mostly prepping for the climax in Act 3. However, to keep the story going through all this filler stuff, there needs to be:

~ A “Flip” about halfway through act 2.

Something that alters the progress of the plan. Obi Wan dies. It doesn’t stop the plan, but requires special dealing with.

And you keep going…


Act 3.

~The highest high of the story.

Everything seems to be coming together the way it should. You THINK you are safe. Luke has saved the princess and successfully brought her to the rebel base.


Immediately following the highest high, comes:

~The lowest low.

There was a tracking device on the spaceship. Now EVERYONE is gonna die.

This was the point which Ian drove home: all the smoke and mirrors from act 2, all the filler stuff, the exciting stuff, was really only leading up to this moment. The lowest low, where we learn the whole point of the story. Where our hero has to come face to face with a decision:

~The choice between what our hero WANTS, and what our hero NEEDS.

Luke wants to save the princess. But what he needs, is to become a Jedi. (Which choice launches the next two movies in the trilogy).

It’s not super detailed, but it got me out the door. Now I just need to burn everything I’ve built to the ground and hope that all the work I did becomes useful some other time.

Further help:

Pixar Story Ideas

6 Steps for Writing a Book Synopsis 

A Comprehensive and Totally Universal Listing of Every Problem a Story Has Ever Had

Is the Horror Genre Dying?

Hear me out: There’s this great interview with Kazuo Ishiguro and Neil Gaiman making the rounds, so I’ll reproduce a part that was really interesting to me:

NG I loved the idea, because it seems to me that subject matter doesn’t determine genre. Genres only start existing when there’s enough of them to form a sort of critical mass in a bookshop, and even that can go away. A bookstore worker in America was telling me that he’d worked in Borders when they decided to get rid of their horror section, because people weren’t coming into it. So his job was to take the novels and decide which ones were going to go and live in Science Fiction and Fantasy and which ones were going to Thrillers.

KI Does that mean horror has disappeared as a genre?

NG It definitely faded away as a bookshop category, which then meant that a lot of people who had been making their living as horror writers had to decide what they were, because their sales were diminishing. In fact, a lot of novels that are currently being published as thrillers are books that probably would have been published as horror 20 years ago.

 KI I don’t have a problem with marketing categories, but I don’t think they’re helpful to anybody apart from publishers and bookshops.

The rest of the interview can be read here.

I guess this is particularly of interest to me since I like writing ponderous stories with horrific elements, and I seem to be getting attention for my horror writing, not my fantasy work. A while ago one of my stories was shortlisted for a horror magazine, so if I get published my first appearance in print will be in the horror genre. I don’t think this is a bad thing, but I’v seen publishers give advice to new writers about the market: once you get published, stick with that genre. Your job as a writer is to build a fan-base and you can only do that if you stay consistent.

That seems narrow, but what do I know? More and more I see Horror/ Sci-Fi as a category and I’m not sure that’s fair.