Outlining and Using [insert placeholder here] to write faster

Last year around this time (was it really last year?) I was spazzing out on my writing. It felt like it was taking me forever to do things. And then, I got the revelation to trust my words. I decided to hold off on any new short story writing while I worked on Willow. It’s been a year, and I’m now halfway through. I’ve been workshopping Willow to a new writer’s group I’ve been attending, and that has been super effective.

Well, a couple of months ago, I was asked to submit a short story to an anthology that had the deadline of April 1. It just so happened that I had a story idea I thought would fit perfectly with the anthology’s theme. The only thing was, it wasn’t written out. All I had was a scene and a vague idea of the format I wanted to use, and that was it.

Usually, when I do a story, I write it out first, sit on it a bit while I research, write a second draft, sit on it while I do more research, then fine tune fine tune fine tune until I reach a point where I get sick enough of the story to stop working on it and send it to beta readers. This time,I decided to try something new.

Instead of writing out the story and figuring out what needed to be done, I would outline, research and finally write the story. In that order.

This was inspired by Writing Excuses podcast, specifically the episode where Mary Robinette Kowal showed her writing process, from Brainstorming to outlining to writing. This is similar to Randy Ingermanson’s Snowflake Method, another style of outlining, but up to this point, I haven’t really tried it, mainly because I’m an organic writer, someone who likes to figure out the style of the story as I write. For the outlining style, basically, I wrote out the main idea of my story, then expanded it to a synopsis, then expanded that to a scene-by-scene outline. I used the outline to figure out what to research, then adjusted the outline to add in what I learned from my research. I then wrote the story, fine-tuned the outline from what I wrote, then used that to fine-tune the story, sent it to beta readers, got their feedback, did a final draft, then I was done.

I also tried another new writerly thing I’ve grown enamored over, which was mainly stepping up my use of placeholders. I’ve always been a writer who would sit and stare as I turn a phrase over and over in my head to get it just right. Thus, while I write really good stories, my writing tends to be very, very slow.

Within the past few months however, I’ve been using placeholders more and more, particularly while working on my novel. I find if I get stuck on something, if I don’t figure it out within a few minutes, it’s better to make a note about it and move on with editing. 9 times out of ten, when I come back to that note, I know what I want to say; sometimes, even in the process of making that note to myself.

I’m starting to use tricks, like for instance, instead of stopping my writing and searching for a character’s name, I type @@CHARACTER NAME HERE and continue writing the story. When I come back to it the next day, I search for all the @@ and plug the information in. It’s enough to get me back into the story. I also use the “Insert Annotation feature” in Word to write notes to myself, such as what feeling I want to invoke in a scene,  or “I want something that tastes like the color blue here. What tastes like blue?” If I’m not happy with a word, I highlight it in yellow. Then if a better word comes along, I can plug it in.

I know, I know, every writer knows about placeholders . Even I was using placeholders to a degree. But forcing myself to put them in if I was just diddling with a passage, in allowing myself to say, it’s okay to come back to it, just keep moving with the editing, it’s increased my writing speed. In some cases, in the course of rewriting, I may do away with the sentence altogether, which means that placeholder is no longer needed. I feel like suddenly, I have REVISION SUPERPOWERS!

I finished this short story in two months.  And I didn’t start the actual writing of the story until the second month.

I’m floored by how quickly I was able to churn this story out. Normally it would take me up to six months to do a short story. Granted, this was a 5000 word short story. I haven’t seen what would happen if I did this with a longer story. What I can say is that outlining gave me the ability to gauge what I could put into the story to approximate the world count. I’m going to try it again with another short story that has a word count of 7500 and see if I can get the same results.

I’m also trying to incorporate this into Willow. I already have an outline, and the book written. Bust instead of going back and rewriting previous chapters as I edit, I just make notes in them for me to come back to later. It makes me wince, knowing that I’ll have to do another revision pass, but at the same time, I’m making my notes more detailed, so that all I need to do is plug in those revisions in the next pass. I’m also having my book beta read, which means that those notes will tighten up the story enough that after that next revision pass, the book will be the best I could make it.

I don’t think I’ll do every story this way. I’ve got another story that I’ve written out the normal organic way, and I’m having just as much fun working on that. But I have to admit, outlining really works. I like to think it’s helping me grow as a writer. And if not [INSERT SOME METAPHOR HERE].

Edit: And whaddya know…the story sold! Look for more information soon about it.

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One Response

  1. […] think this whole year, writing-wise, was learning how to write more productively and more quickly. I’m also learning the hard way to get the words on the page and not worry about making them […]

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