Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor
Vision@sff.net

It's Just a Phase 

By
Lazette Gifford
2003, Lazette Gifford 

've been writing books for a long time.  Really.  I have over sixty completed novels (twelve sold), and I'm uncertain how many shorter works I've written.  Some stories are better than others, of course, but I feel that I've learned something from each one.  I'm willing to experiment with everything from computer set ups to notebooks and pens, as well as the nuts and bolts of actually creating a story.

I've also tried several different types of outlining.  I've even written without a net -- no outline at all -- and enjoyed it a great deal.  And I've written with very detailed outlines (like the type I'll describe here) and loved it just as much. 

Recently I started a new type of outlining I've called the 'Phase System'. It helped me write a 101,000 word book in ten days.  Because of the amount of detail in the phase-outline, I wrote 10,000 words a day without ever having to pause or fret over 'does this work' or 'what comes next'?   

The phase-outline for that particular novel ran about 14,000 words long.  I can see many of you wincing.  An outline that long?  Isn't that a waste of time and energy?  It depends on what you get out of it in the end.  Every one of those 14,000 words gained me about eight words in the novel draft.  The two weeks I spent writing out the phase-outline cut the time I wrote the novel from about fifty-five days (at an average of two thousand words a day -- about where I write under normal circumstances) to eleven days. Even adding the fourteen days it took to write the outline, that's still forty days less than it would have taken me normally. 

Yes, I write quickly anyway, and fifty-five days is not a bad length of time to write a novel... except it would have taken me longer.  Without the detailed phase-outline, I would have hit difficult spots that required me to sit back and think the actions out a little more carefully.  I would have had to backtrack the story now and then.  I know this because I've faced that sort of problem with other novels, both 'flying without a net' ones and ones using shorter outlines. 

So, do you want an outline that will take you straight through the story without worry?  Never mind the speed at which you write it -- that doesn't matter. This is about organization and plotting. 

I have used very loose outlines for stories. Those are the kinds where you jot down a line or two for each chapter, and the novel often veers off at about half way through the first chapter... but it doesn't matter.  You have some idea of where you want to go.  The outline, in this case, was just a goad to get you moving. 

However, unlike a 'normal outline,' a phase-outline won't be discarded as soon as the story starts.  You'll do all veering off course and reworking of the story in the outline phase. 

Okay, so what exactly is this method? 

Phases are written out as key phrases that will bring the next set of lines -- the next action -- into focus. This is not a scene-by-scene outline, but something worked out in much shorter sections.  A phase can be clues to dialogue, if that's what the section's focus is centered around, or it might be a little bit of description, or a set of actions... anything that will make the story move another few hundred words.  Usually a 'phase' will only run from twenty to fifty words in the outline.  For instance, as an example from Gathering (Book 7 of the Dark Staff series -- and this is first draft with only a little touch up): 

1. Tristan in the room aboard the ship, resting, thinking about going home, feeling the world changing.  It feels like traveling between realities, without any of the work. (28 words) 

These few words translated to this: 

Going somewhere else... 

Tristan rested on the soft bed, feeling out the ship around him and the power beyond it.  The metal shell moved through the same space where he and Abby had traveled so often before.  Each time they had slipped from one reality to another, leaving friends behind. 

Their quest had come at such a cost to them that sometimes he wondered if the Goddess really understood the needs of flesh and blood, whether human or elf.  He wondered what she expected, in the end. Did she understand what she asked of her son, and what he paid that she could never give back? 

Or could she?  They were going... home this time. 

He pushed that thought away as quickly as it came. 

He could feel the magic brushing against the craft, whispering through the walls and calling to him with a seductive offer of power that he knew, from experience, he could not wholly control.  Dangerous power, a dangerous passage... he had never fully understood this place that stood between realities. 

The one thing he did know, however, was that this was far less work.  He could rest this time, he and Abby both, before they... 

He shivered a little. 

Tristan? 

Abby, somewhere else on the ship, had felt his worry surge up through the crowns. 

I'm all right. (222 words) 

 Or from later in the book (Phases 196 and 197): 

 196. Voices call him back.  Mother -- What the hell is that?  Get your bows ready!  Praise Gods for her.  She never wavered, never panicked.  Kills the creature.  Lehan?  Open the door.  Takes a moment, and then the door flies open and he is knocked back. (46 words) 

197. Wounded!  Not bad.  Bad enough to put you down!  You knocked me down.  Didn't have to kick the door open. What was that?  Anyone know?  No one does.  Others take bows and torches to scout the trail near the village, but not far before light. (46 words) 

Lehan closed his eyes, trying to get his wits back, trying to think of something helpful he could do.  The world wanted to slip away from him.  He held on, even if his mind wasn't working quite well.  He needed calm.  He needed to do this right, because he wasn't going to get yet another chance --

And then he heard sounds that gave him hope:  Voices, and one in particular that won a smile from him even now. 

"What the hell is that!" Elliora shouted.  "Give me that bow!" 

Gods praise his mother.  She never wavered, never panicked.  He heard the creature shouting but the bow twanged a moment later.  It bellowed again, and another twang.  He heard it fall, slide down, and hit the ground outside. 

Safe. 

"Lehan, I assume you're in there?" 

"Yes," he said, almost breathless. 

She tried the door.  "Put the bar up.  Let me in." 

He had to put the sword down, and he fell against the door, managing to do little more than gasp at the pain.  Getting the bar up proved far more difficult than it had been to put it down... but it finally slid off and clattered on the floor. 

He hadn't time to step back before the door flew open and knocked him down. (215) 

"You're wounded!" 

He had not seen his mother worried like that before.  She tossed the bow aside and dropped to her knees, her face pale in the torchlight the others had brought to the open door. 

"It's not that bad," Lehan insisted, though his voice slurred a little more than he would have liked just then.  He didn't want to be weak in view of the townspeople.  He had never trusted them much. 

"It's bad enough to put you down," she said, shaking her head and gently pulling at the bloody cloth at his shoulder. 

"You --" He stopped and caught his breath.  "You put me down, mother.  You could have given me a chance to back away before you kicked the door open." 

"Ah."  She took cloth someone offered with a nod of thanks.  "My apologies.  I panicked.  What was that creature?" 

"I have no idea.  But Liora met me on the trail and warned me that something was wrong."  He kept the other part to himself just then, but he thought his mother could see more in his eyes.  "If she hadn't I wouldn't have been on guard and gotten away from it." 

"Have any of you ever seen or heard of such a creature?" Elliora asked, looking out toward the door. 

No one had, and they didn't sound any happier about it, either.  A few had taken out their bows and looked worriedly toward the dark hills.  Lehan saw them as his mother helped him up. (250) 

You'll note (in all but the PDA version of this issue) that the color changed when I went to a new phase. This is to help with the word-counting part of the write.  I look at what I think the novel's length should be and try to work within those parameters. For instance, a young adult mystery might only run 60,000 words.  If I have 300 phases written out, then I only need 200 words per phase. 

On the other hand, if I'm writing a space opera, I know that I'll likely need the final word count to be at least 125,000 words.  If I've only written out 300 phases, that would mean about 417 words per phase.  In a case like that, I would likely go back through the phases and start looking for areas to expand.  If I can add another 100 phases, then I only need 312 or so words per phase.  If I can get the number of phases up to 500, then I only need 250 words per phase. 

I also use the automatic numbering system in Microsoft Word to see how many phases I have. As I add a phase in earlier, it will automatically renumber the rest. 

Phases rarely ever come out at the exact word count assigned to them.  If you assign a lower word count than you expect to do, you're more likely to go over what you need, and that's good from a morale point of view.  It will help you move on to the next phase.  I've had 200 word phases go to over 1000 words, and I've had some come in at less than 100 words.  Don't make your story fit to the phase word count, though it if is short you might consider adding some details.  However, the phases are just a guideline to help your novel reach the length it needs to be at the end.  Generally, you want a lower approximate word count for each phase than you end up writing.  You might even just write a short first draft and expect to develop it into a longer one in the rewrite rather than through the phases. 

When you write out a phase, get key words and actions into the line. Then let your mind flow to where the character/story would go next. Write it out.  If it doesn't work, erase it and try again.  If you have a snippet of dialogue, drop it into the phase and copy it out again when you get to that part of the story.  The same with descriptions, ideas... get them in there, and work with them. 

Since I'm not worried about grammar, perfection of prose, or any other 'story' related problems, I can work my way through the story line in detail, but without obsessing about the mechanics of what I'm writing. When I work in phases like this, all I'm concerned about is the story's movement forward, and the crisis points.  It helps, in fact, to write down what you think will be the turning points of the story before you start the outline.  Yes, think that far ahead.  Where does the story start?  What major conflict do you imagine?  Where will it end?  These are things anyone starting a novel should at least consider in passing before they start.  They don't have to be set-in-stone answers.  Endings, for instance, are notoriously flexible.  You might have started off with an 'everyone dies' scenario in mind, but a study of the market shows those types of stories are very hard to sell.  Readers invest time in characters, and they often feel short-changed and annoyed when they die at the end.  So, as you near the last section, you might find yourself modifying that original ending. 

Do this sort of modifying, and any other, in the phase-outline.  Don't start writing your story until you have the outline entirely worked out -- and then fly with it.  Once you start writing, don't stop and second-guess your outline.  You might rewrite sections of it during novel editing, but right now you have this story to write, not the one your mind starts playing with as soon as you commit to writing. 

You might -- as I have from time to time -- find that some phases need to be cut, or others need to be added in.  Do it.  Don't worry about it.  What looks clear-cut during the outlining phases sometimes shows a few holes later.  Adding and subtracting is fine in limitation.  Just don't rewrite what you have. 

I also divide the phases up by days to give myself a set number to do.  I list everything out in a Microsoft Excel worksheet (see below).  I've always worked well with goals (which is why phases and their word count numbers work so well for me), so I decide how many phases I want to do on any given day.  Ten phases of 200 words each is 2000 words.  It can go very quickly that way.  Don't overload yourself, though.  I've found that nothing will make a story feel like work faster than telling yourself you have to go write a certain number of words when you don't want to.  If you don't make your goal one day, there's always the next.  

Day phase need  did  difference
1 1 200 221 21
. . . . .
. . . . .
15 196 200 215 15
. 197 200 250 50

 

Always remember that writing a book is not a race.  If the writing happens to fly, that's great.  If the story needs more time, there's nothing wrong with that, either.  While the phase-outline might help you write a novel faster, its real purpose is to keep you on track with the story. 

If you have had trouble sticking to a story, or making it all the way to the end, this might help.  Try it, adapt it to your own style of work, and see what happens.  A couple years ago I never wrote with an outline.  Today I find myself as anxious to start a new outline as I am to start a new book.  You never know when you might find something new that works for you.