day sixteen: backwards outlining and knowing your plot arc

I write because I do not know what I think until I read what I say — Flannery O'Connor

When I taught high school English, backwards outlining was one of the tools I would use for the writing process. 

This is a good practice for one who may not know exactly how you got to the final sentence of your work. You may think it's done — and beautiful, even — because you finished. There are 50,000+ words sitting behind you and chapter one made its way to chapter two and before you knew it, pages were turned and characters were developed. It makes sense to trust the plot arc you've created.

I know the tendency to trust our final thoughts. I do it often when I'm writing a blog post because I feel the need to write and don't necessarily know what I will be writing. It's not until I finish that final sentence and I'm able to step back and realize oh. That's what I meant. 

This doesn't work when I'm writing a book. 

When I first started writing SOMEWHERE BETWEEN WATER & SKY, there were a few moments I wondered if the flow of narrative worked. I knew where I wanted the story to go, but I didn't know if I was meandering my way to the finish line or working at lightning speed. I wanted to be somewhere in the middle: short, suspenseful scenes pushing the story forward mixed with longer narrative scenes developing character. Most novels average around 30 chapters, and so I wrote out on a sheet of paper the numbers 1-30 and started writing what I had vs. what I thought needed to happen. 

1. LA / bus
2. Jessa + Ren
3. Bathtub + Jessa's phone call
4. Sunset Cliffs + building
5. Father + Kevin

That's where I stopped.

I wasn't far enough into the story to know. I'm a plot pantser. Meaning, I allow my characters to structure my novel for me as I write. So instead of outlining first, I outlined after. 

It's hard. 

Outlining after you've finished writing something forces you to see the holes you can't see when you're writing furiously or reading back over your words. It demands for you to pay attention to inconsistencies, disorganization, and messy plot structure. A sticky scene giving you grief suddenly looks a lot better when you change it to a different area of the novel. The delay of a certain character doesn't seem as worrisome when you compare it to the development of relationships without him present. Cardboard characters turn dynamic. Loose plot tightens with intention. 

And your writing shines.

Backwards outlining isn't for everyone — but it helps. Any time an activity reminds us of our plot arc and why we're writing this story it's a good thing. We grow from it.  If you're struggling with your manuscript, try this. It creates a layer of revision within your process and just may be the exercise you need to get unstuck.


Need more inspiration? Introducing Hustle & Flow: a weekly letter with artistic visioning for the everyday creative. I would love it if you signed up, and I won't ever spam you. Promise. 

You'll get hints and anecdotes about getting unstuck and living your most artistic life within the midst of your every day poetics. AND, if you sign up during October, you'll get some special extras dealing with indie-publishing.

Posted on October 16, 2014 and filed under indie publishing, writing.