All hurt, no comfort (big_pink) wrote in spnroundtable,
All hurt, no comfort

Workshop: Finish That Epic!

Finish That Epic!: Using an Outline to Sustain a Novel-Length Fic

Ever started a big piece of fiction with the best of intentions and never got to that final ‘The End’? Worse yet, have you started to post a multi-chapter fic, and then run out of steam, disappointing the very readership you’re seeking to entertain?

If your goal is to finish a long piece of fiction, and you’ve been having trouble getting there, then you might want to keep reading. Or maybe you’re contemplating longfic for the first time – by all means, stick around. And if you’re an experienced writer who has finished long fics in the past and want to share your methods, please, join in at the comments stage. I could use the help.

This workshop proposes one method of getting yourself past the finish post, but it comes with a caveat: This is what works for me. I’m going to write it mercilessly in the first person and if you see something in here that you think might work for you, feel free to swipe it. I insist.

A couple of days ago, I posted a poll about abandoned WIPs with some interesting results (a synopsis appears at the end of this post). The first thing you should know if you have an unfinished fic is this: you’re not alone. A whopping 87% of writers out there have had trouble getting to the end, with varying degrees of associated guilt. We’ll get to the useful place of guilt in a little while, but the important thing to keep in mind is that completing long fiction takes time, energy and a whole lot of work.

One thing that I sensed from the poll results and comments was that most writers feel guilty as hell about not completing WIPs – fair enough, it’s an abuse of a reader’s trust. At the same time, simply berating yourself without examining what happened isn’t useful either, doesn’t actually result in…results.

The key to finishing what you start is motivation, that complex interrelationship between carrot and stick. If your goal is to complete and post a tightly written piece of long fiction, you’ll have to scour your soul to figure out what prods work for you, because God alone knows, it ain’t easy.

As readers, we all know the warning signs of a work that might see precious little ‘progress’. For example, I’m leery about starting any WIP that says, “Part 1/?” I mean, if the writer doesn’t know how many chapters it’s going to be, that tells me quite a bit about how much planning has gone into figuring out the exit strategy. Even if the story gets to a conclusion, it might not be pretty.

The goal isn’t merely to finish, then, it is to finish well.

Like the rest of you, I have a few of those unfinished stories hanging around, taking up room on my hard drive, sad pathetic things that they are. But before I started writing with an outline, I never completed a single novel-length piece of fiction (original or fanfic), not one. My abandoned WIPs were not great works of art waiting to happen; they were half-baked ideas that died a natural death and only by the grace of God did I avoid posting them anywhere.

If an idea isn’t going to work, if it’s going to flail about like a wounded bird, best to find out at the outline stage.

You’re probably saying to your screen right now, “But what about Author X? She never uses an outline, and look at all the novel-length fics she’s finished!” Well, that’s great for Author X. Maybe you’ve tried the same thing as Author X, maybe you’ve finished a multi-chapter fic that you’re really pleased with and that works (and if you have, join in the comments to let us know why that works for you). Regardless, I’m willing to bet that Author X still has an outline process, only manages to keep it all in her head at once instead of writing it down.

For the rest of you, I offer an alternative: Consider an outline.

In a minute, I’ll get to outlines, and how I use them, and you can weigh it out, see if altering what works for me will work for you. But right now, I’m going to introduce another unpopular notion: WORK ON ONE THING AT A TIME.

I know, I know. Some writers have about five WIPs on the go at once. Speaking for myself, once I’ve started posting, I don’t write anything else. I start one, I finish one. That’s how I finish one. Denying myself the pleasure of starting something new is a pretty big incentive to finish the Perfectly Good Fic in front of me.

Here’s the kicker: Great ideas are cheap; finished product is worth its weight in gold.

OMG, I feel your pain, really I do. What to do with all these great ideas? By all means, jot down notes on other stories as you go, but really – discipline. Murder those damn bunnies in their cute slumber. Because those little rabbits will kill your WIP before it’s done.

Wow. I’m a real beam of sunshine, aren’t I?

Let’s move on to happier things…

Outlining 101

Wait. Really. This is happier!

Outlining is laborious but – dare I say it? – an enormously creative process, even more fun than writing. Outlining doesn’t limit creativity and spontaneity. It is meant to guide the writing, and ensures that even if you’re posting chapters as you go (as opposed to finishing the whole thing before you start posting), the finished result stands as a unified whole. It shouldn’t feel piecemeal, even if it’s written piecemeal.

The following steps, though they look sequential, actually keep cycling through each other. So, for example, I almost always continue to do research all the way through writing a fic.

Step One: The Big Idea

I start with a ‘lightbulb’ sentence.

Sometimes, it’s something I’m reading that leads to the Big Idea. I was in the middle of reading The Golden Spruce (about BC logging history) when the main idea for Red came to me; it was the reason I thought of the plot in the first place. The lightbulb sentence was this: Little Red Riding Hood, except with the Winchesters.

Then, I talk about it with some intelligent person in the know, usually one of my trusty betas, lemmypie and/or sasquashme.

Big Pink: I was thinking of LRRH.
Beta: Yeah? What’s the connection?
Big Pink: Well, it has a woodcutter, right, kinda like a hunter? And a big bad wolf, and a little girl who’s deviating from the path. And a grandma! Except she’s wise!
Beta: So what?

And on it goes (although I should stress that the ‘So what?’ question is a vitally important one to answer). Eventually, I get to the point where I’m thinking about Washington State, loggers, treeplanters, and a Big Bad Wolf that wants to eat Dean whole.

In essence, I start talking through my story before I’ve written anything.

Step Two: Research

I usually research the hell out of what I’m writing. I do this for a lot of reasons, but the two that most benefit the fic are: knowing what details to add to create verisimilitude, and having access to anecdotal information that will feed the narrative.

Again, using Red as an example, most of the things that happened to Dean while he was logging were taken directly from research about the history of the forestry industry in the Pacific Northwest, including that whole business with the ‘pig’s ear’. I’d have difficultly making that kind of stuff up.

The more research I do, the more life is stirred into my primordial story soup.

Step Three: Articulate the Story

After talking to the betas again, I usually develop a rambling document called ‘What’s Really Going On’. All the stuff in here, which is a prose-y walk through of the story, is meant to solidify the whole narrative and background in my mind: who the bad guy is and how to get rid of him, what the character arcs are that I want to flesh out, who the OCs are (and often character sketches), how the story ends, the themes, etc. Just because it appears here doesn’t mean that I’ll use it and doesn’t mean that I’ll ever tell the reader. This is a document for me. During the course of the actual writing of the fic, I’m adjusting and tinkering with this document, which is about to turn into our Outline.

Step Four: Outlining

Wow. You mean we’re not doing this already? No, sorry, not quite.

Once finished the groundwork, I look at my What’s Going On doc and start to chunk it out into segments, inserting scenes as they come to me. For example (again with Red), I knew very early on that I wanted the scene of a shattered13-year-old Dean unable to speak in a phone booth.

The chunks start to look like chapters. I tease out scenes from these chunks. I start to assign points of view, see if I’ve got a balance, throughlines and tempo. I sometimes sketch flow charts for the action (particularly if I’m weaving together more than one timeline). I see if a chapter has too much going on, or not enough. I usually try not to have more than 4-5 scenes per chapter. (Note: I write hellishly long chapters, sometimes upwards of 11-12,000 words, which is longer than is probably wise and far longer than a publisher would want). I revise. I research. My outlines are often ten single-spaced pages of text.

Here’s a quick sample of an outlined chapter from Red:

Chapter One:
Sam POV: Present day, in a diner in Walla Walla. Treeplanters talking: the forest, treeplanters disappearing, protesters blockading. Sam notices that Dean looks like he’s taken a sudden chill. “In the car,” Dean tells him.

Dean POV: 1996, in Tacoma, getting a job with the loggers, leaving Dad and Sam.

Sam POV: In the car, Dean tells Sam about ten years ago, Sam doesn’t really remember. Dean says that there was a wolf before, not a werewolf, something else, mentions past experiences, but Sam knows that Dean is holding back something – what he always does, what Dean has done to keep Sam safe and protected. Dean says that there was something hunting kids in the area, fifteen years before, too.

Dean POV: 1992, Seattle. In a diner, nice woman, knows that kid’s on the streets, but he’s different. Kids have been disappearing over the winter, nice waitress says to watch himself. Man approaches him. We slowly understand that this is younger Dean. Ends when the wolf sits down to join him.

Sam POV: They decide to go to the area (around Aberdeen) and Dean will join loggers, Sam the treeplanters.


I eventually hit critical mass with the research and outlining and talking about it. This is the point when I have to write. It’s when I can’t bear doing any more research or plotting, or talking about it.

Step Five: Writing

Although I outline the entire story before I start to write, I write and post chapter by chapter. That’s because expectant readers are my hot button motivator. If I know people are waiting for it, I start to feel ‘useful guilt’, although I never say “I’ll post every Monday morning”. I can’t commit to that kind of pressure and know that it would just make me unhappy about the whole process. I might go two weeks or so without posting, but hardly ever much more than that. I have, on occasion, written the first two or three chapters before starting to post, just to make sure the story is on solid legs.

I usually write straight through a chapter, scene by scene. I don’t wait for the muse to strike. I don’t have a muse. If I waited around for the muse, I’d never get anything done. I grab writing time wherever I can find it: waiting to pick up a kid from swimming lessons, after the kids go to bed but before I watch my usual 10 o’clock dramas. After groceries, before I have to be at my next thing. Because I’m busy, I have to be efficient and focused.

One important thing that helps me is that I’m not a perfectionist. I turn out a barely-decent first draft to my two betas and they will usually give me a Big Picture edit – is it balanced? Am I on the right track with the plot? Is it boring? Are all the scenes necessary? Can I combine anything? Are the character motivations convincing?

Usually, a chapter will go through several drafts. As I’m editing, I’m going back to that outline – are any of the changes in the developing chapter effecting how I’m going to write later chapters? I change the outline as I’m going, constantly tinkering with it. New things may be coming up – if a good idea occurs to me (or one of the betas points out an opportunity that I’m not taking), I can usually revise the outline to incorporate it.

So, using the example above (Chapter One of Red), when it came time to write the 1992 scene, I decided to write it from an outsider POV and to cut it short before the Wolf came into the scene (he got bumped to the next chapter). Those kinds of edits are entirely possible, even when I’m using a detailed outline. I went back to my outline, and started to plug in the waitress’s POV as well, adjusting when the Wolf made his appearance in the diner.

I use the outline to GUIDE the writing, not strangle it.

Sometimes, a chapter only goes through two drafts before I feel good about posting it (by ‘draft’ I mean a chapter with substantive changes that I send to the betas). Sometimes, I go through many, many more drafts than that (I think my record is seven). Whole scenes can be cut or changed, or the POV can be altered. It’s not always fun, being in the trenches with your laptop and your Big Idea. You have to just gut it out, write through the painful parts.

What helps when I’m mired is to have my eye on a scene that I really, really want to write. Say I’m stuck in chapter 4 with never ending edits, stuff that’s not working, betas telling me, “I just don’t FEEL it, Pink.” It’s not a nice place to be. But if I can look at my outline and say to myself, “If I can get through this chapter, next chapter I get to write that great scene where Dean beheads Monsterzilla with an Olfa mat-cutter and sobs uncontrollably in Sam’s lap because he misses his dad,” (or equivalent) – well. ‘Nuff said.

An outline can help you see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Also, the betas are my sounding board. Inevitably, a story will get into a jam: an unanticipated plot problem will come up and I won’t know the way out. Because I have two people really invested in the story, who know it inside and out, I have someone to bounce ideas against, someone who will walk it through with me. I’d love to see one of these workshops about the different ways writers use betas, and the different ways betas work. It’s a tricky business, betaing, but for me, this relationship is one of the most rewarding aspects of writing.

Step Six: Post Chapter, Revise Outline, Do All Over Again

Pretty self-explanatory, eh? You’ll be at the end of your big fic in no time! The beauty of using a good outline is that you end up with a piece of writing that’s unified, refers to itself, doesn’t have wasted scenes, and has a plot that will hold water (if you’re lucky). Most of all, you’ll have a finished novel. Go ahead, you can call it that.

What Other Writers Do: The Pre-Workshop Poll

There’s a lot of expertise in this fandom, and the poll posted a few days ago was really just a tool to get at some of it. Note: the exact numbers shift as more people take the poll. Numbers here are as of 5:30 on Tuesday, March 25, 2008.

First of all, most writer-respondents (more than 87%) have incomplete stories. Some are truly abandoned; others are still in play, and may yet see the finish line. About two-thirds of us have posted these unfinished stories.

The poll also revealed some really interesting reasons why people stopped writing, including falling out of love with a fandom, and getting ‘jossed’ or ‘kripked’. Writers said that these situations made the fic they were working on boring or even (if I read between the lines) emotionally difficult to muster the ‘oomph’ to complete. The wind gets knocked out of your sails. In defense of my working methodology, a great outline should position a story (your story) outside of ‘canon’ – and the outline should describe a compelling, original story that you want to tell, regardless of what happens in fandom or on-screen.

Almost half of you mentioned that real life commitments got in the way (42%). Real life is only controllable to a point – though I always look at what I have coming up if I’m contemplating a new long fic and ask myself the question: Do I have time to write this?

At almost 45%, another big story-stopper was the Bright New Shiny Fic. You know, the cute blonde that’s 20 years younger than the fic you’re married to and that has none of the baggage. As I mentioned above, denying myself the pleasure of starting something new is a hell of a motivator to finish what I’ve got going. What can I say? I’d have made a good monk.

On the positive side, those writers who finish multi-chapter fics overwhelmingly mentioned that ‘getting to the end’ was a satisfaction in and of itself, that a story ‘needs to be told’. Other motivations included not wanting to disappoint readers. This one seems to work for a lot of us.

Self-confidence is a huge reason to finish. You finish one, you know you have it in you.

Two words mentioned in terms of bringing a story home were ‘momentum’ and ‘commitment’; if the owners of those want to speak more about them in the comments, I’d be grateful, because I think they’re really important. When I start a story, I try to post fairly regularly, which is a commitment that feeds the momentum. I never start posting a fic until I have a detailed outline complete and steady; I commit to the idea that I will finish this fic, no matter what.

I also think, as kimonkey7 mentioned, that ‘sheer force of will’ is not to be discounted. Sometimes, it really feels like that’s the only thing keeping you going.

About one in ten writers owned ‘not getting good feedback’ as being an underlying reason to stop writing. The obverse – getting good feedback – can be a motivator for me, but usually, I’m so far along in the story by the time I’m posting that the fic has gained enough steam to sustain itself. Critical comments can inform the process, sure, and might even impact the outline if I think the criticism is valid. But if you’re writing a fic that has a very low readership, well, that’s a tough one. Tackle it with your beta. That afore-mentioned motivator of ‘seeing a story though’ could be an end to itself, especially in those circumstances.

To sum up:

Finish what you start (especially if you’re posting as you go). The confidence boost in seeing it through will do you wonders.
One thing at a time. Shiny new plot bunnies will kill a WIP deader than dead.
Outline, outline, outline. Keeps things tight, on time, and on topic. It becomes the Bible when the going gets tough.
Perfect isn’t perfect. Your fic (and mine) will never be perfect. Ever. But it will be better than perfect – it will be finished.
Write through the pain, always. It won’t always be fun, either. But stopping in the middle is more painful than getting through it.
Keep your eyes on the prize. That dangling carrot, be it a yummy scene, or simply getting it done/making the pain stop, should be right in front of you.

Most importantly, find your motivation. Gutting out the long haul is tough, and figuring out what gas will keep the engine going – getting to that ‘great scene’, not letting people down, the satisfaction of looking at a whole piece of work – is a big part of the journey.


Thanks, everyone. clex_monkie89’s workshop on Boytalk, Banter and Americanisms was a tough act to follow. I hope you’ll find something in here to help you with that next Big Thing. I’ll be moderating ensuing discussion for the next couple of days. Feel free to jump in on other people’s comments if you see something about which you’d like to offer advice or experience – as I said, there’s a wealth of expertise among the writers here and sharing what works is the entire point.

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