Thursday, April 9, 2015

Xtreme Outlining - How do you measure it?

It's great when you have goals that involve word count, because word counts are easy. You get your software to count the words.  Voila.  Done. 

And before software, when we used typewriters, we counted words by page and by line. (This is why we used a monospaced font.)  So it was still pretty easy.

But it's a lot harder to measure progress on rewrites and outlines.  You can use time spent.  Or, I know someone who uses the concept of "antiwords" (which consume the word they come in contact with -- i.e. stuff you edit out).

Given that I have a specific rule in this challenge that I can't start writing until the Xtreme Outline is done... I really do need an explicit way of measuring when it's done.  And this week I figured it out.

The Four Stages of Story Development

My definition of an Xtreme Outline is that it's like a rough draft, so when I think about that, I do know when it's "done" -- when all the scenes and transitions are developed and beaten out.  But unlike with writing, that doesn't happen in anywhere near one pass.

So in looking at the work in progress, and all I've done so far, I came up with four stages of progression for each section of the outline.

Stage #1: Notes and Brainstorming

This stage really is just a mess of notes and lists and background and facts and ideas -- organized roughly by where you think it belongs in the story. Sort of.  It also includes backstory, and other off-screen explanations -- the sort of thing that isn't IN the outline, but until you see where you're going, you have to know. (As the story develops, those things will be cut and pasted into a "background" or "story bible" document, or maybe turned into foot notes at the end.)

Stage #2: Plot Structure

Set the ideas in general order, with a sense of story and drama flow, but still full of gaps and questions.  Identify the likely major plot turns.  If you are using a plot format, this is where you start pinning down events that fit your format.

Stage #3: The Unholy Mess

This involves pulling things apart and putting them together again multiple times to turn it from an outline to a story.  This is about dramatic flow, AND its about emotional trajectory.   A lot of this involves "dreaming" through the story -- letting it play out in my head to see if it works.  This not only finds blank spots I didn't realize I skipped over, it also finds false moments.  This character just came from this experience, why would she behave like THAT? What's she thinking?

Even though you are working on more specific things, this really is about roughly getting scenes in order and identifying what kind of things have to happen in each scene or sequence -- but not the actual moment-to-moment flow. 

Stage #4: Beating out the scenes across whole sequences

Normally you will save this for the writing.  This is the moment to moment flow.  In the previous section you might have noted that a certain scene is the best place for Bernice to tell Elliot about the dog, and also a certain fact will bring up the subject of the kumquats.  But in THIS section, you will actually think about the flow of the conversation. How are these characters going to start their conversation, how is that going to lead to the dog and how in the heck is that going to lead to the kumquats?

I think about that in Stage 3, but I find out what's wrong in Stage 4 -- I make it work in Stage 4.

But It Ain't Over Til It's Over

Even though a sequence may be "done" when it reaches Stage 4, it's not really done until the whole story has reached Stage 4, and it all works together.  The fact is, as you work on other sequences, you find that you have to make changes in finished sequences.

Which is much easier to do in an outline than in written text.  Which is why I'm trying this out.

Using This to Track Progress

I am dividing these stories into four acts, approximately, and measuring them by which stage each act is at.  Obviously, in one act, some scenes will be more complete than others.  So I'm suing the lowest level to measure the thing as a whole, and adding a "0.5" to indicate how much of the story has progressed beyond that point.  So....

Covet Thy Neighbor -- Where it was on Sunday:

Act 1 - Started at Level 3.5... now at 4 (done)
Act 2 - Started at Level 3... now at 3.5
Act 3 - Started at Level 1... now at 2
Act 4 - Started at Level 1... now at 1.5

So, four acts with four stages is a total of 16 stages to accomplish.  I have made it through 2.5 in the first half of this week, with about 5 more to go.  I think I'm on course to finish this and the partially done In Flight before the end of the month.

Maybe soon I'll talk a little more about the difference between these stages, with examples from the opening of Covet Thy Neighbor.  (In the meantime, here is a link to next Outlining Post: Artistry and Outlining.)

But for now, I need to get to bed.

See you in the funny papers.

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