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Writing Excuses 7.50: Outlining the Mary Way

Writing Excuses 7.50: Outlining the Mary Way


Key Points: Think of the outline as a roadmap, that helps you determine the overall shape of the novel. Think of writing as a series of layers, including thumbnail sketch, rough sketch (synopsis), and underpainting (outline). On top of all that is the painting, the actual writing of the novel.Bullet point, sentence, paragraph -- break it apart and flesh it out. Look for the scenes you need to get from point B to point E, the consequences or scene-sequel. Check that each scene advances the plot, develops character and setting. Add specificity as needed. Chapters, and pacing, are the last step in the process. Use chapter breaks to build tension and keep the reader going. If you have multiple POV, add another pass after the scene breakdown. Who has the most at stake in any particular scene? Adjust motivations or add stakes to shift POV if necessary. If when you are writing, you want to change, take a look at the outline and see what else needs to shift. Then if it works, make the changes in the outline and do it! Doing this pre-work takes time, but then the writing goes quickly. Feel free to make adjustments.

[Mary] Season Seven, Episode 50.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Outlining the Mary Way.
[Howard] 15 minutes long.
[Mary] Because you're in a hurry.
[Dan] And we're not that smart.
[Brandon] I'm Brandon.
[Dan] I'm Dan.
[Mary] I'm Mary.
[Howard] I actually think Mary is that smart.
[Brandon] Yeah.
[Howard] I'm Howard.

[Brandon] We did this with Dan's kind of seven point thing. Mary actually has a distinctive way of outlining. We get so many questions about outlining. We thought we would... You've heard mine over and over again. Let's talk about Mary's method.
[Mary] So, my method is significantly more free-form than Dan's. His is very much a way of looking at structuring the story. Mine is more of an approach that is like thinking of the outline as a roadmap. It helps you determine the overall shape of the novel, but it doesn't lock you into the structure if you stumble on something more interesting. So that's the first thing that I think of. The second thing is that I approach writing as a series of layers, the same way I draw. So I have my thumbnail sketch, which we brainstormed when we were working on...
[Brandon] Yes.
[Mary] So then I do... After my thumbnails, then I do my rough sketch, which is my outline.
[Brandon] Okay. How long is that?
[Mary] No. Actually, no. I'm sorry. My rough sketch is my synopsis.
[Brandon] Okay. So that's like a one page, 1 1/2 page thing?
[Mary] One page. Yeah. Then I do my outline. Depending on the thing... If I'm doing a novel, the outline can be like 10 pages.
[Brandon] Okay. Does it go that long, usually?
[Mary] It seems too.
[Brandon] Okay.

[Howard] Sorry. Let me clarify just a little bit. The thumbnail... At the thumbnail point, do you have beginning, middle, and end?
[Brandon] No, she pitched those to us two, three weeks ago.
[Mary] Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Sometimes I'm like... I usually try to have thumbnail in my... A beginning, middle, and end in my thumbnails, but I don't always. Sometimes I don't know my ending until I...
[Howard] But when we finished the cast about the moon... Sailing around to the moon, did that take us to the point where you would then write your synopsis-ish rough sketch?
[Mary] Yes. From there I would write my synopsis, which is my rough sketch. After my rough sketch, then I do the outline, which I think of as kind of the underpainting.
[Brandon] Uh-huh.
[Mary] Then I do the painting itself, which is writing the novel.
[Brandon] Do you have like some things from your outline, that you can tell us? Like in an average outline of yours, do you have any like... What are we looking at? Are we looking at paragraphs? Are we looking at bullet points? Are we looking at...
[Mary] Both. There are sometimes where my outline will be... Will have a scene including dialogue. But it's a very, very rough scene. There are other times where it will have things like, "Jane and Vincent discover a plot." Or... The one that I just did is, "In which Jane establishes a method of glamour that will become an important plot point later. Establish pickpocket. Establish illuminated manuscripts."
[Brandon] Right. Okay.
[Mary] I have no idea how those play out yet.
[Brandon] Right. Right.
[Mary] But these are things that I know that need to happen. So from there, once I have my general shape, from there I flesh it out. So after I've got my synopsis, I break my synopsis apart. So that I take each sentence and turn it into a scene. At this point, it's just... It's still in bullet point form. Some of those scenes, I'll come back and combine later. Some of those will get rolled together and actually be one scene. If I'm looking at it and there is a scene that I'm excited about, I will jot it down now fully, as we're talking. Others, I just... I just leave.
[Brandon] Right.

[Mary] From there, what I look at is the scenes that I need to get from point B to point E.
[Brandon] Okay.
[Mary] I look for my holes.
[Brandon] Okay.
[Mary] I also look for the scene-sequel thing. I look for the consequences to the scene.
[Brandon] Right.
[Mary] So if I've had this scene, then I need to make sure that there is a consequence to it, that it continues to flow. Then I stop and I check my work. I look at all of the scenes to make sure that they will advance the plot, they will develop the character and the setting. I roll anything together. I will also at this point often go back and look for adding specificity. So I will look to see whether or not I need to say, "Okay, well, this is going to happen at the Palazzo and it's going to be midday. Sometimes I'll leave these alone. Sometimes I feel like I need them. Then once I've done that, then I start... Once I've done that, then I start diving into the story. But what I don't do, what you haven't heard me talk about is that at this point, I'm not breaking it apart into chapters. Because for me, chapters are a form of pacing.
[Brandon] Okay.

[Mary] That is the very last thing I do. Because a chapter...
[Brandon] Okay.
[Mary] A chapter... If you think about it in terms of the stage...
[Brandon] Yeah.
[Mary] A chapter is how you can build tension, by deciding whether you want to end at a cliffhanger...
[Brandon] Right.
[Mary] Saying, "Mr. Vincent entered with a gun." That's still mid-scene. If I stop my chapter there, and then pick it up in the next chapter, I can build tension and keep people going. So I decide my...

[Howard] This... Sorry. This explains why the scribbles of notes that I do talking about... Notes to myself saying, "Okay, in the next three weeks of comics, these are the things I'm going to cover." When I block them out in those notes, I will say, "Okay, this is a Sunday strip. This is three days of weeklies, and this is three days of weeklies." Well, a week of scripts for me is a structure that is primarily for pacing. But the ideas that I am having are structures for story, for getting from point A to point B. The point that I'm making is that by the time I get around to scripting those, I have always deviated from the daily structure. It's gone long or it's gone short, or I've stuck something else in it. Now you have finally explained to me why, for 10 years, I've yet to get that right. I mean, it doesn't matter that I don't get it right, because I can still script, but... It's because I'm trying to map story structure onto pacing structure, but they are two different things.
[Mary] They're very different things.
[Brandon] Very interesting. Mary, have you ever...
[Howard] It's just like the stupid puppetry episode.
[Mary] [laughter]
[Howard] Mary starts to talk, I learn something new. She sounds smart. I go home and rethink the way I write everything.

[Brandon] Mary, have you ever written something so long form that you have multiple groups doing different things in different places? How does that affect your chapter and pacing? Do you write them chronologically, like, you're like, "All right, I'm going to jump to this group now, and this group now..." Or...
[Mary] Yeah. What I do there is... What I just described is the way I would approach a single POV. If I'm doing a multiple POV, I still do that same breakdown, but then I do another pass where I... So I still do the same breakdown, where I'm figuring out what happens and the order in which it happens. Then I do another breakdown where I decide whose POV I'm in for each of those. And then, what I look at is who has the most at stake in any given scene, and that's the person who I give the POV to. If, when I go back and look at that, I'm finding that it's POV heavy to one person, I go back and adjust the motivations of the characters in scenes, or add something that will give that character something at stake so that I can have them have POV. Because I need to bring them back in for the reader.

[Brandon] Yeah. You need to balance it. I see what you're doing there. That's good. We'll stop and have Dan do our book of the week. He was going to do The Dragon Factory.
[Dan] The Dragon Factory by Jonathan Maberry. This is the second in the Joe Ledger series. I think we've talked about the first one, which is Patient Zero. This is a series of action horror. The first one, Patient Zero, is about zombies. Dragon Factory is about a group of very, very scary geneticists who have created a series of plagues that they're about to unleash upon the world and are enforcing them with some very scary engineered monsters that they have. So Joe Ledger and his team of hard-core military combat commando guys need to go take them out. Really exciting, kind of riproaring adventure action horror story. I loved the whole series, and Dragon Factory is one of the best.
[Howard] Jonathan Maberry is very, very versatile. We had him on the show when we recorded last year at DragonCon and he talked about range and versatility. So, well worth your time to go to, start a 30 day free trial membership, and you can pick up The Dragon Factory for free and Patient Zero for 30% off.

[Brandon] There you go. Mary, did we get through your... What you wanted to do? Let's talk about how you would approach doing it for your story.
[Howard] Where's the part where you spend 20 years developing a language?
[Brandon, Dan] [laughter]
[Mary] Oh, well, that's all my pre-work.
[Howard] Okay.
[Brandon] That's right. You can crib that from Tolkien
[Dan] Okay. I actually... Before we get specific, I have one... I have a question again about the process here. You talked about the outline as an underpainting. We always get a lot of questions about very specific process notes. So, what I want to know is, when you have that written out, say in a document on your computer, does the book go in over that document and you're like, "Okay, this scene that is bullet points, I'm going to expand it?" Or do you write it out in a separate document altogether?
[Mary] I actually write it in the same document.
[Dan] So very slowly, that outline document will be converted into a final draft.

[Mary] Right. But I also keep a clean copy of the outline document as well. So that I have a quick reference back to the things.
[Howard] It's a separate layer in Photoshop.
[Brandon, Dan] [laughter]
[Mary] Yeah. Basically it is.
[Howard] You've painted over the top of it. I mean, that's how, when people do digital painting, that's how the underpainting works. You don't destroy it, you work over the top of it so you can always keep an eye on it. Sometimes, you make vanish all the stuff on top so you can remember what that underpainting looked like.
[Mary] Yeah. So I do write over it. In part, that is because when I finish a scene, it keeps me from say starting into the next thing based on how I'm feeling in that moment. It allows me to go, "Oh, no, no, no. What needs to happen next is..." If the thing I'm feeling in the moment is more interesting, then I can check it against my work and where I'm planning for things to go and see whether or not it is in fact more interesting, or if it's going to be an unnecessary detour.
[Dan] Cool.

[Brandon] So can we take your thumbnail of the moon story to the next, which is the rough sketch?
[Mary] Yeah. So I actually started doing that during our break. So, because this is intended to be a short story, the rough sketch is going to remain very, very short. So...
[Brandon] So you're shooting for what, about half a page, maybe?
[Mary] Actually, for a short story, I will often just stay with a paragraph.
[Brandon] Okay.
[Mary] Although... Actually that's not true. There's a couple of things in here that I would break apart if I were doing this. So here's my thumbnail. "On a tidally locked world, an explorer sails over the curve of the world and sees the moon for the first time." Okay, that's my first scene. So...

[Brandon] Would you add to your thumbnail anything about character?
[Mary] Yeah. Yeah. So at this point, I would already start... Because that's going to affect everything else, character motivations. So at this point, what I would say... I would make a decision... Up to this point, I've been saying he, but I actually I do like the idea of it being a woman, so I would come up with a name right now.
[Brandon] Right.
[Mary] And... I'm not going to in the moment. Because that's too much...
[Dan] Howardina?
[Howard] We don't want to lock that in.
[Mary] But...
[Dan] You don't like Howardina?
[Howard] No.
[Brandon] [laugh]
[Howard] Vetoed.
[Dan] Howardella?
[Brandon] Vetoed? That's a terrible name.
[Mary] [laughter]
[Howard] V-e-t-o-a-d. Actually part amphibian.
[Dan] It's pronounced vee-toad.
[Brandon] All right.
[Mary] So, moving on.
[Brandon] Moving on.

[Mary] So that's one thing that I would... I would take the "On a tidally locked world, an explorer sails over the curve of the world for the first time, and sees the moon for the first time." I would change that, because I can't start with "on a tidally locked world" because she doesn't know that.
[Brandon] Right! Right, yeah.
[Mary] So I would say...
[Brandon] The explorer sees the moon for the first or... Name sees the moon for the first time, but thinks it's land.
[Mary] Yeah. So sees light... Is on the boat, they're sailing at night, someone calls her up on deck and says, "I think we're approaching land. We can see the glow on the horizon."
[Brandon] Okay.
[Mary] So that's probably where I would start. I would end with the question of her thinking, "That doesn't look like any light I've ever seen."
[Brandon] Right.
[Mary] So I would start by raising the question...
[Random] Okay.

[Mary] Then I've also got that escaping... So I would then have to have... The next thing that I've got is the coastal city he visits, or she visits, is completely different culturally. So that I would have to break apart.
[Brandon] Yeah. Into what type of culture...
[Mary] What type of culture?
[Brandon] Where's the conflict there?
[Mary] How were they received upon landing? Do I want to show the landing scene? So this is where I start breaking it apart.
[Brandon] Right. You're going to go scene by scene.
[Mary] Uh-huh.
[Brandon] A sentence maybe for each scene...
[Mary] Right.
[Brandon] Okay. Excellent. So, maybe what we should do is have you actually do this?
[Mary] Yup. And let people see it.

[Brandon] And let people see it. If we can, post it in the liner notes, or things like that. This is a really interesting method of outlining. It's actually somewhat close to the way Kevin J. Anderson has said that he outlines, because he likes to paint that undersketch and then actually bring it out. So in a given book, you will basically have all of your scenes before you start? At least a line or two about each and every scene? Which is very different. You're actually more of a one drafter than I am. You're more of an outliner than I am. That's nice, because I've always been the outliner on the show, but I'm only like a few shades more outlining... Like I call myself a fairly hard-core outliner? Really what I am is a hard-core world builder. A lot of world building notes ahead of time. My outline's three pages for a book, not 10 pages, and I write long books.
[Mary] Yes.
[Brandon] So while I do outline, I'm not nearly this extensive. So I think you need to take the seat of hard-core outliner.
[Mary] [laugh]
[Brandon] And I need to move toward the more centrist. Then Dan and Howard can be these crazy seat-of-the-pantsers.

[Mary] Yeah. Here's the thing that I... That will often make other writers hate me. I do a lot of my work, my pre-work... This takes a lot of time. It will take me a while to come up with that. But then when I actually sit down to write the novel, because I know where I'm going, I wrote Without a Summer in 39 days.
[Brandon] Right. I have done that before. Steelheart, which I just sold, I actually was trying to sell to Hollywood before, trying to get a Hollywood movie moving to see if I could use that and leverage kind of a one-two punch where the book and the film come out at the same time. To do that, I wrote out one of yours, exactly like this. There was at least a line for each chapter, usually it was actually a paragraph for each chapter, and so it was a much longer outline. When I actually wrote the book, I stuck to that almost 100%. There was little things I changed, but paragraph by paragraph, you could follow that and say, "Wow. There's this chapter, there's this chapter, there's this chapter." It worked really well for that book.

[Mary] Now I will say that I also feel very free to go back and make adjustments. Like actually in Without a Summer, I had a scene that I had already written and I realized that I needed more conflict. So I looked at it and I thought, "Well, what can I do that's going to advance my plot and build character and establish the world a little bit more?" I decided that they needed to rescue a coldmonger, which is a magic form.
[Brandon] Right.
[Mary] So I went and I added that into the outline. Then I looked at the outline and I'm like, "Okay. Once I add him in, he's going to need to reappear. There's going to need to be consequences from that."
[Brandon] Right.
[Mary] So I adjusted the outline forward, kept writing for a little bit, and then went back and wrote that scene.

[Brandon] Okay. All right. Well, that was very well done. Thank you very much, Mary. Our writing prompt this week... Let's force you... Oh. Howard. Go ahead.
[Howard] Oh. Sorry. I was... I wasn't going to do anything having to do with the outlining.
[Brandon] No, that's okay.
[Howard] I was going to go terminological. Give us a magic system in which the thumbnail, the underpainting, and the imagery that goes on top of it are somehow magical.
[Brandon] Okay. Magical underpainting.
[Howard] Maybe you're using paint, maybe you're drawing in the air, I don't know. But take that layered concept and turn it into magic.
[Brandon] All right. Thanks for listening. This has been Writing Excuses. You're out of excuses, now go write.

[Brandon] Hi, all. This is Brandon. I hope you enjoyed today's episode. I just wanted to give you a special reminder. Audible has my novella, Legion, up for free in audiobook. So since they're a sponsor of the podcast, I thought I'd give an extra shout out. They actually have, if you go to, they have Legion up there. You... there's no trial, there's no strings attached, you just get it for free. So I hope you guys go give it a listen if you haven't already. You can go to to download it and give it a try.

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