50 Questions for Your Outline

I have been working on the outline for my WIP for the last month. 
Actually (*cough*cough*) it’s been…more than a month. 
Anyway, I’m using Tasha’s brilliant technique and I’m LOVING IT. Seriously. It has changed the way I think about EVERYTHING. (Ok. Maybe not everything. I hated pickled beets before. Hate them now. How can my husband even put those near his lips?!) 
But I’ll tell you what, I’m still struggling with this plotting beast, trying to make all these scenes and characters and THINGS combine into a satisfying story that makes sense? And keeps moving? And changes the main character? And is full of emotions and all the senses and… And! And! And!
Wow. It’s a lot, right?
So, I went through loads and loads of notes in my WorkshopJournal. I scanned a few articles online. I got some advice from other writers. And I put together this list of questions to ask myself about my outline.(These would also be excellent questions for a cruddy first draft.)
 

1: What is the conflict?
2: Can you deepen the conflict?
3: Can you suck other characters into the main character’s problems, thereby broadening the conflict?
 
4: How do you hook your readers on page one?
5: What are the mysteries in your story?
6: Do you have a foil character which exposes the main character’s flaws and/or strengths?
7: Does your main character start in a hole wanting something?
8: What is getting in her way?
9: Why does she want what she wants?
10: What is the inciting incident?
11: What are the sub-plots?
12: What character flaws are stopping the main character from getting what he wants?
13: What external forces are stopping the character from getting what he wants?
14: How does the main character try to fix her problems?
15: What are the consequences of her attempt?
16: How does she try to fix it the next time?
17: And then what are the consequences?
18: How does she attempt to fix the problem for the third time? Is her attempt an all or nothing goal?
19: What mistakes does your main character make?
20: What is the mood of your story?
21: What is your setting?
22: Is your setting unique?
23: Is there a way to push it, to make the setting different?
24: Do you have misdirection in your story? Any red herrings? Will your readers think they know what is going to happen? But then you trick them?
25: What are the surprises and twists in your story?
26: Does your story start with action?
27: What kind of plot does your story have?
28: Are each of your characters unique?
29: What makes them special?
30: What are your characters’ secrets?
31: Have you created a sympathetic main character? How?
32: What do your characters fear?
33: Is your story building up to something big? Can you make it bigger? 
34: Is every scene more exciting/interesting than the scene before?
35: Who/what is your antagonist?
36: Why is he/it doing what he’s/it is doing?
37: How can you make your main character’s voice unique?
38: Is the story constantly moving forward? How?
39: Does every character serve a purpose?
40: Do you have any characters you could combine in order to lessen the chance that you’re creating character soup?
41: How do the events affect and change the main character? 
42: What tools does your main character have to gain in order to win in the end?
43: How do you make the climax the big thing?
44: Do you have a ticking time bomb? If so, what is it? How does it escalate the tension? 
45: What are your characters’ back stories?
46: How do their back stories affect their actions?
47: What is the history of your setting?
48: How does it affect the story?
49:  What mistakes does your main character make? And what does he learn from them? 

50: What is your story’s theme?

What questions do you ask about your outline or first draft? 

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  Erin Shakespear writes middle grade fantasy full of quirky creatures, magic, and strange adventures. With six kids, her days are full of quirky creatures, magic, strange adventures, and…loads of diapers. She also likes to dabble at photography, sewing, jewelry-making, and pretending she’s a grand artist. She is the southern Utah coordinator for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.

In the Mind of an Outliner – Arcs and Structure

This is my third post about outlining. You can see the others here and here.

One of the challenges of the beat board, for me, is portability. I’d like to say that I can remember all the nuances of the characters, that they are all friends to me and I just converse with them, but that isn’t the case.

Carrying around a full size cork board doesn’t tend to work with my life, and I don’t always have the option of writing in the same location each time I do. I needed to take all the ideas I had and put them in a form that made sense, was portable, helped continue the story and lent itself to visualizing character arcs and overall structure as well as providing a way to see when and how the characters interacted and when they faded for too long.

Enter the word document.

Somehow, in all my technological training. I’ve never learned how to take a screen shot of a Word doc.

I lay out the characters across the top, give each column a color and mark ages or other qualifying information as I go. There are snippets of what will happen in the scene, along with notes to myself to remember while drafting (i.e. describe lushly, make this uber romantic, etc.).

I plot out the whole book. There are chapters where characters aren’t present (see pink and yellow above) and that’s okay. But if I go several chapters without them being in a sideline, passing scene, etc. I am able to question the role they are serving at this point. I am sure that many writers have had the experience of writing a character in before realizing they aren’t serving a purpose besides existing. That sounds harsh, but taking the time to describe someone who isn’t really an anyone is time that takes away from the characters who are driving the story.

This is also the chance I get to figure out how many chapters are in the book, if all of them need to be close in word count or if there are some that need only a few pages. I try to be as specific as necessary for the ideas to be memorable when I come across them again.

And then? The whole document gets sent to my critique partners. You can see that I made comments while they were talking, but then I also copied and pasted comments they sent to me. I won’t fix them here – that’s not the point. This is a service document, intended to keep the ideas close so my snippets of writing time are spent writing, not trying to remember.

This document gets loaded onto my Google Drive the synced with my iPhone and iPad so there is never an excuse to not make progress. Even if I can’t be actively writing at a time, I can take out this document, think through scenes, solidify ideas, etc.

This is front loading a story with lots of work. I know this. But as a teacher, mom, wife, and all the other things, I realized I was doing more work trying to keep a story in my head than taking the time (several weeks) to really think through where I was going. Having a structured system lets me see the big picture and the small picture. This very logical approach allows me to tap into my emotions more, play with the lyrical nature of language while drafting instead of writing bare bones for fear I would forget what was coming next.

It is what lets the writing part flow.

How do you prepare before starting a new story? If you are a pantser, what do you do to keep everything sorted? 

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Tasha Seegmiller is a mom to three kids and high school English teacher. Her days involve running kids around town, Diet Coke, small amounts of chocolate (more when necessary) and conversations with herself. She writes Women’s Fiction, listens to lots of classical music and is an editor for the Women’s Fiction Writers Association quarterly newsletter.

In the Mind of an Outliner – Characterization

Once upon a time, I tried to be a pantser.

Once.

It was a mess. I just wrote scenes as they came to me and then tried to make it all work. It was a ginormous jumbled mess. I don’t know what I was thinking because I live a life of routines and schedules, but somehow thought I wouldn’t need to incorporate that same preference into my writing?

No, that wasn’t it. I was pantsing because I got caught up in the excitement of word count and percentage progress, and sucked in by the enthusiasm that was my first year of NaNoWriMo. I was really good at writing with literary abandon, but then end result took months and months to get to a somewhat consistent POV, story line, etc.

I’m starting this series of blog posts fully acknowledging that outlining doesn’t work with everyone’s brains, but also suggesting there may be something that shows up through these posts that could help out even the most discovering of pantsers.

My stories always start with a character. The premise of the book usually follows close after, but that initial character is who I focus on until the premise arrives. And when he/she knocks on the door of my brain, I answer with a legal notebook handy and we start a conversation.

This is my discovery process. I imagine what they would look like (enter Pinterest), likes, dislikes, and what their favorite color would be. That seems like a strange thing to consider, but I believe you can tell a lot about a person based on their favorite color (I love red and am quite an introvert – it’s funny how those two things mesh together sometimes).

As I plot out their lives, what made them them, I often have scenes drop by, like little packages for my mind.

I always accept those, and write that scene right then. The perk of allowing that freedom to wander a bit is that it is always nuzzled close to the character I was working on. I may use the scene in the book; it may just be the kind of information that allows me to weave a better back story.

And when I feel like I know who that character is, I start researching.

I need to research the setting, the nuances of place that will allow that character to thrive (or not). I study the intricacies of their interests, hobbies, etc. In preparation for the story I’m working on now, I looked into recipes that use flowers (yummy!), the behavior of all sorts of insects (um…), watched performances of young piano prodigies and emailed a friend about ideas of interior design. To get a wedding scene just right, I studied the protocol of a military wedding and the differences in tradition between the branches.

All of this shows up in the notebooks of character.

Once this has been done, I feel confident taking a walk with these characters. They rarely stay exactly how they were created – there are still times when in the middle of a story, they surprise me in some way. I think when our characters do that, they feel more real. The point is by the time I reach drafting phase, I know the people I’m working with.

Do you outline? What is your character creation process?

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Tasha Seegmiller is a mom to three kids and high school English teacher. Her days involve running kids around town, Diet Coke, small amounts of chocolate (more when necessary) and conversations with herself. She writes Women’s Fiction, listens to lots of classical music and is an editor for the Women’s Fiction Writers Association quarterly newsletter.