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Building the Ride: Outlining My New Novel

I love outlining. I love it, love it, love it. It just might be my favorite part of the book-writing process. Outlining is a time where you're free to explore and try out new ideas and let the story wander in any direction you please. It's playful, with lots of false starts and dead ends, none of which cost me much time. It also ends up generating some of those best eureka moments, when the whole story falls into place. I remember being in a muggy hotel room in Belize City late at night when I finally cracked the finale of Geek Mafia: Black Hat Blues. More than once I've gotten up from a half asleep state and stumbled into my office to get down some chapter ideas before they vanished. I've got a box full of notebooks in my hall closet filled with these hand-written brainstorming sessions and notes.

This morning I took another run at the outline for my new novel, the one about sex tapes that will be set in Austin. My usual method is to start writing down one sentence story beats, numbering as I go, until I hit a brick wall and don't know what happens next. Then I put it down for a few days and do other stuff and come back to a new, blank page or screen and start over from the beginning. The set-up is usually the easy part, but it can take some real momentum to get over that initial hump and into the real story. This morning I crested that hump, cruised on through the first act, and hit another wall. This is not unusual. But the nice thing about outlining is that it forces me to face these walls and break them down. So I sat there, sipped lukewarm coffee, and worked away at the new wall.

Helpfully, I'd already spent some quality time figuring out who my characters are, what they're trying to accomplish, and where all the points of conflict are. Those notes gave me all I needed to formulate a plan for the second act, and given the noire nature of my plot, I had a lot of rich and intricate ideas. I stopped there, knowing I've got a way to move forward.

Since this is my seventh time at the plate outlining a novel, I've got a pretty good feel for what works for me and what doesn't. I'm comfortable with my classic tricks and routines. So of course I'm going to try something new this time around, right? This time I'm going to play with note cards. People talk about this technique all the time, especially when writing scripts. I'm going to try it now for this second act. I want it to be fast-paced (as all my stuff tends to be) and full of twists and turns (again, de rigeur for me), but with six characters interacting at cross purposes, I thought this would be a great time to try the old note card trick and see how it goes. 

My plan is to make a set of cards for each character and his or her possible actions and reactions on this particular day in the story. The story is from our hero's POV, but I need to keep track of what everyone is doing, even if he's not aware. I might color code them by both character and whether or not they happen on the page or in the background. We'll see. As I wrote above, outlining is all about building structure through experimentation, and I'm flying a little blind here. I'll let you know how it goes next week.

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