Planning My Way To Q: a 3-Stage Experiment in the Creative Process

From an eye in the sky, we look down upon a road littered with letters; a metaphorical outline.

“I only write when inspiration strikes. Fortunately it strikes at nine every morning.” — William Faulkner

I haven’t finished a story in… years. Articles, sure. But a full-fledged short story—not since before the end of my undergrad. Even my final creative writing project was handed in as a less than final draft. I would sit down with the beginning of the story and a picture of several neat scenes in my head. I’d muddle through from the start, hoping I’d stumble my way into a setup that would allow those scenes to happen. In other words, I’d have a clear image of scene-Q, I’d formulate a quick, barebones outline to get started, write the first line… And lose my way on scene-D, long before I got anywhere near Q. I could see the parts, but when it came to writing the prose, I struggled to get myself to the finish.

In short: my writing process was not working for me.

That’s what the self-help Internet says is the biggest difference between the successes and the failures, the doers and the do not-ers, right? Finishing. Anyone can have an idea. You have to be able to do something with it—drive it to completion—to be a success. That final project I never finished in writing class? When I submitted the incomplete work I left a letter on top that said, “My creative process did not allow me to go further in the allocated time, and would you please consider what I have submitted so far?”

Since I started writing in high school, I’ve mostly used the brute force “sit down and write from beginning to end until it’s done” method, and that obviously hasn’t worked since high school (if it ever really worked then). Only now, years later—with the Adventures in Storytelling forge behind me—am I experimenting with that fickle, ineffable concept I pitched to my writing teacher so many years ago—the creative process; my creative process.

I have read a lot of articles and books on the writing process over the years (despite, embarrassingly, never really trying any of them). Recently, one from Medium—an article called “How To Write a Book: the 5 Draft Method”—reminded me that I love organization (as I’m sure James can attest to). My plans don’t always work, but my default is to define, group, stack. The article claimed all books must go through 5 different drafts, each one with a purpose and a defined goal towards creating your story.

I’m not ready for a book yet, but there was something in the pitch that struck me, so I started thinking, and from that inspiration I devised a 3-stage process to writing a first draft.

The 3-Stage Process

Stage 1: Framing Outline

First, James and I talk about a scene. I take my usual notes as we talk it out, but instead of tackling the prose as the very next thing, I reshape those notes into what I call a Framing Outline. This outline is fairly loose, meant to capture the broad strokes. What are the important events that take place? Who’s in the scene? Where is it happening? What are the big feels they need to feel; the important revelations that need to be revealed:

The party is in full swing! People dance, there’s music, so much chatter. Suddenly, as the opening description of the party begins to wind down, a crowd gathers in the middle of the giant tent as Raul and Augusto go mono-a-mono in a wrestling match! Charlotte, however, is less than amused. She sits alone at a table [strangely enough, still in the middle of the action; as if, even as she wants nothing to do with the party, she can’t resist being at its epicentre]. —from my Framing Outline.

This outline should be fairly short, and go from beginning, middle, to end of the section being written.

Stage 2: Intensive Outline

Next, using the Framing Outline as my guide, I craft an Intensive Outline meant to describe the nitty-gritty. Whereas in stage one I’d say something like, “Charlotte is frustrated with Raul”, the intensive outline walks through why she’s frustrated, what Raul did that made her frustrated, how she responds to this frustration. Get into her head a bit, see what she feels and move about the setting to see how the world reacts. The Intensive Outline is about finding the line that links big idea 1 to big idea 2 (getting from A to B to C to D to…). For all intents and purpose, this outline is almost the first draft, save for one key difference: I’m not writing it in pretty prose. It’s just me, talking to myself.

Part of my problem in finishing drafts and getting successfully from A to Q is that I haven’t thought about (i.e. planned) B, let alone C through P. Trying to work that out while also trying to write good prose—I’m setting myself up for failure. The Intensive Outline gives me space to work this out. To feel what’s happening and riff with myself without the worry of what it sounds like:

The party is in full swing! There’s a description of the tent…which is the same tent the Accord happened in [chance for imagery, duality of place? Think on it.] But now it’s been converted for a party. Whereas the ceremony was kept dark around the peripherals, the only light allowed being at the centre of attention, there are torches everywhere, and light is embracing the attendees. The delegation table that was prominent during the ceremony has been pushed to the far side from the door, and covered in food. Describe the food along the length of the table: a whole spit of pig, vegetables and fish; the delicacy of fruit, shipped in from far off lands (perhaps a comment that they can do this now, without fear of the caravans being raided; chance for joke?); and desserts—Lucinda’s direct influence. —from my Intensive Outline.

This outline is long. I’m basically mentioning everything that’s going to happen, so the page count will get up there. (In the end, it was about 30% longer than the First Draft.)

Stage 3: First Draft

After the Intensive Outline is complete, I start back at the top of the section again to finally start writing prose. Except now I don’t have to worry about how Charlotte gets from the entrance to the food table—I’ve already figured that out. I’ve thought out who she meets along the way, what tricks she’s going to play on Raul; there’s a path from B all the way to Q and beyond.

From the Framing Outline I know she has to spend time thinking about the sword. The Intensive Outline tells me where she is in the room, who’s around her, and (neatly!) what she’s thinking, feeling, experiencing as she contemplates the sword. The First Draft—that’s where I use my skill to convey all that came before with an economy of space, writerly wit, and pretty prose. Where the Intensive Outline concerns itself with telling, the First Draft takes those moments told and turns them into moments shown.

The large tent in the centre of camp, once a protective sentinel of the sacred ceremony, is now the willing participant in the evening’s debauchery. A series of competing, yet complementary, musical notes hang in the air above it, coiling together as they rise higher and higher above the camp; the leftover presence of the Monk’s magical channelling marking the edge of the music in ethereal, shifting lines of green, blue, and yellow shading as it passes higher and higher into the sky. On the ground, the many figures that make up the life force and energy of the camp flow back and forth in spurts from the tent, the rich, royal red of the thick fabric implying the steady beating heart of a living organism.

In the end, after going through the entire Intensive Outline, I have a rough draft. Its length will vary, i.e. be as long as the story needs it to be.

How Did It Go?

I’ve completed one section using this method and the results are … conflicted? To be honest, my feelings towards this method flipped back and forth. It took a long time, but I did write my section. Several key scenes didn’t form within the structure—but they did form. It’s hard to define whether it’s a success or not.little man lying on a question mark, contemplating.

The Good

I like plans and a regimented process. This method gave me that. I was able to start from something small and manageable, and piece by piece expand upon it until I had the larger, many-moving-parts of my actual draft.

The plan for the Intensive Outline was to give me space to plot without worrying about the sound of my prose—and it worked. The first section I wrote this way was a party scene. I’ve attempted several party scenes over the years and I don’t find them easy to write, but with the Intensive Outline sandbox I had a place to spitball things like what the party-goers look like, what they were doing, and how they’ll cross Charlotte’s path. The Intensive Outline doesn’t care if a joke sounds funny; the First Draft will figure that out. The Intensive Outline cares whether or not the joke is worth it. When it came time to write the prose, I could focus on conveying the joke, or the feeling, or the description because I already spent the time deciding it was important.

It was also helpful as a way to see my progression. By the end, I got a sense of how long it would take me to turn a page of the Intensive Outline into its Final Draft version, and I was able to predict when I would finish with accuracy. Even on days when I did very little, I could look at my three documents and say, “Yeah, I pushed it forward.” That’s a good feeling.

ctrl c + ctrl vThree words: cut and paste! Have you ever sat down to do your daily writing and just felt sluggish, uninspired, or completely drained before you’ve even started? (Me too.) By writing off the Intensive Outline, I instantly had a place to start and a few descriptive words I could build from, or in the case of dialogue, whole conversations. It’s helpful towards feeling progress, and I discovered that feeling like I’m progressing encouraged me to continue progressing.

A surprising (and delightful!) development I found during the Intensive Outline was that, as I plotted the action beats, I found my characters started speaking to me. I wasn’t telling them how to feel in response to an action, they were informing me. I started to see what was going on in their minds—and was already in the perfect space to take notes! Then, when I got to that section during the First Draft, I already knew why they were feeling. All I had to do was find the perfect way to convey it; a clenched fist, a wistful sigh, a furtive glance.

Of all the discoveries I made during this experiment, I’m most excited by the last one. The first time a character looked up out of the page and said, “I think I’m feeling abandoned and let down here. I’ll be processing that for the first few minutes, so I won’t be able to talk”—I felt like a true writer.

The Bad

Let’s start out small: tenses. The Intensive Outline was written in present tense, whereas the story is in past. Not a big deal, but when you’re reading notes to yourself about what’s happening in one tense and then jump over to the actual prose being told in another—there’s some bleedthrough. Not a big deal, but it’s one more step to go through before I would consider a First Draft done, so it adds more work to the completion of a section.

A clock spiraling inward upon itself, down and down as time sweeps by, lost in a vortexal abyss...It takes a long time; particularly the Intensive Outline. While I was writing the outlines—which I was not letting James see—there were several conversations where a long pause would fill the space between us and he’d slowly ask, “So… Do I get to read anything from you yet?” As much as I felt like I was making progress (which I was), knowing he was waiting and not seeing anything made me question whether I was at all. If I wasn’t writing a story with a partner I may not have felt this way, but it’s hard to say. Some days I was ecstatic with the process, and others I felt like I was slogging through the mud for no reason. Do I really need two outlines? Is this actually helping my prose writing? Could I have not gotten to the same place without spending weeks on the Intensive Outline?

Finally, I come to what was the strongest argument as to why this process might be a bust. The whole point of the Intensive Outline was that it gave me a space to figure out what the heck was going on, so that I wasn’t slowed and/or stopped while trying to write the scene’s prose. The First Draft section will go up soon and you’ll be able to follow Charlotte around the party, and when you do, pay attention to a scene where she wanders over to the sword, elevated high on its dais, and finds herself suddenly in an important conversation with Count Vilnius. This is a pivotal interaction between these two characters, and as I sat there preparing to write the scene I was completely stuck on what to say or should happen because it never ended up in the either of the outlines.

Two complete outlines, and I had absolutely no idea this moment was going to happen until I started writing the prose.

During the Intensive Outline I wrote: “Amidst the uproarious party, [the sword] stands alone” and “Charlotte needs to contemplate the sword.” That’s it. I thought she was going to do it at the table, so when she stood up and walked to the foot of the dais (Wait, the sword is on dais now? That’s new, what does the dais look like… Did I describe it in the last section…) I actually stopped typing and said aloud, “Well shit. What happens now?” I could clearly see this was the better way to tell this scene, but I didn’t have the help of my Intensive Outline on what to do with the prose. I quit writing for the day and sent a message to Future-Luke that he’d have to figure it out. And when he finally did—whoa, there’s Vilnius, and he’s demanding attention. Also very important. Also never in the Intensive Outline. Oh, bother.

Though never as pronounced as with the sword and Vilnius, this continued to happen throughout the First Draft. Despite all the time I put into the Intensive Outline to pave the path for the prose, I still found myself plotting scenes as I was trying to write prose.

In the end, I really like that scene between Charlotte and Vilnius. Surprise though it may have been, I pulled it off without the Intensive Outline. Which begs the question—did I need the the Intensive Outline at all…?

Conclusion: Does the Process Work?

In short: it worked—I finished the section. But I’ve finished a section before, without an Intensive Outline. I enjoyed writing this section more than I’ve enjoyed writing something in a long while. Can I attribute that success to this process—or more to my continued practice of writing every day? Would I have gotten to the same place regardless? The only answer I can give is: I don’t know.

This method certainly isn’t for everyone. As James said when I first explained my experiment to him, “I could never write like that.” And he couldn’t; and that’s a good thing. He has his own process that works for him. He’ll continue to improve and find his rhythm. And that, really, is what this experiment was all about—helping myself find a rhythm. I now write everyday in the morning, before I go to work (or eat breakfast on weekends), and I’m watching my daily wordcount sore. So I’m going to try this process once more to see how it works a second time. After that, I’ll try a paired down method with only one outline, and see what happens. Getting to what works for me will take time, but that’s why they call it a process, right?

In the meantime, I want to hear from you: what’s your process? How do you make it work? Are you free-wheeling and structureless, or focused and organized? Something in between? Let us know in the comments!

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