Volunteer Andrea blogs about outlining, generating ideas and her penchant for stick figures.

At my monthly writer’s group meeting, a fellow writer mentioned that she was stumped in her novel writing. The words wouldn’t come even though she had some great writing successes early in the novel and sporadically since the beginning. She may have been stumped, but for twenty minutes my writer’s group peppered her with ideas about how to get the words restarted.

First, we talked about whether or not an outline was needed. Outlining isn’t just about I…A…1…a… like we might have learned in school. Outlining for fiction writing is about generating ideas and putting them in an order that helps the writer recognize and categorize the ideas before figuring out how to best convey the writer’s vision to the reader.

My outlining often happens only after I begin to panic about what will occur next in a story. I calm panic with brainstorming. I set aside pure brainstorming time where all I do is write down every idea that I have about what happens next in a story. I push into concepts that make me uncomfortable, and I keep asking “what else could happen?” and “why would that happen?” and “what might have caused that to happen?” and “who else was involved?” and “why were they involved?” I ask these questions over and over again. The results have always been surprising and rewarding. I can usually get past a major stump in less than thirty minutes.

The best part of idea generation (besides calming the panic) is that I have a dozen or more good ideas left over – character interactions and plot points that appeared when I was thinking around the edges of my story. I treasure the leftover ideas. The best of the leftovers help me get through other parts of my story. The mental space from which these leftover ideas sprouted remains fertile ground to continue to develop the rest of my story.

Pictures also help me move a story forward. Intern Emily talked about this in a post last week. I’m no artist. My representations of people are stick figures less fleshed out than xkcd comics. I move my stick figures and their stick surroundings across a page in a sad mockery of the graphic arts. Sometimes, I draw lines between the figures and note what their key relationship interaction is. But all this provides a visual representation of my thoughts that was lacking. Pictures, outlines and idea fragments cross-pollinate to get me over a writing stump and carry me through to the end of a story.