As I said in our last exciting episode, there are two kinds of novel outlines writers do: the sort meant to sell a manuscript to a publisher, and the sort meant to help the writer write the book. This post is about the second kind.
The first and possibly most important thing to know about the planning-and-guidance sort of outline is this: It is entirely optional, and may be subject to change at any time at the writer’s whim. (Or, as my friend Lois Bujold puts it, “The writer should always reserve the right to have a better idea.”)
Alow me to repeat: Outlining is optional. It works for some writers, but not for others, and for still others, it is actively harmful. If it helps you, do it; if you try it and find out that it doesn’t help you, for goodness’ sake don’t feel guilty because you “aren’t doing it right.” There is no One True Way. And if you fall into the last category, that of writers whose work is actively harmed by outlining, feel free to sneer openly at anyone who tries to tell you that you should do so, and to ignore anyone who demands that you outline.
There; now that we have that settled…
When writers outline as a planning tool, all bets are off. There are no rules for doing this other than “if it helps YOU, do it that way.” Some writers do detailed outlines in advance (sometimes the “outline” ends up being longer than the actual book, because the writer includes all the background and backstory and worldbuilding details that never make it into the finished manuscript). Some write several chapters and only sit down to outline the rest of the book when they hit the “first veil” – that first sticky spot where things have to start invisibly coming together in the writer’s head, behind the scenes. Some do a sketchy outline as prewriting, then a more detailed one after they’ve written a third to half the book. Still others don’t outline until they have a first draft – they use outlining as a revision tool. Some do any and all of the above, as the situation demands.
What a working/planning outline looks like also varies from writer to writer. Mine usually look a lot like my submission outlines, only longer – they’re just narrative summaries of what I think is going to happen, set down as if I were telling the story to someone: “Kim finds out that Richard’s looking for this set of magical doohickies. The doohickies have been split up; he’s got one, and thinks he knows where the next one is. They head to the country house…”
(To be quite honest, that’s what my outlines look like AFTER I’ve written the story. Before hand, it’s more like “Kim suspects Richard’s looking for a Pegasus, but they leave for Egypt before she can be sure, and…” I can’t follow a working outline to save my life.)
Anyway… Some writers do a chapter breakdown; some do a scene-by-scene breakdown; some just do key points. Some use the sort of outline we all learned in school, with points I.A.1.a staggered with increasing indentations down the page. Some get specialized programs for writing (which can be fun if you can afford them and don’t take them too seriously); some use spreadsheets; some use diagrams (like Nicky Browne’s circle diagram [scroll down a ways to find it], or the “Big W” diagram, where you draw a big W on a brown paper bag and start with the opening “status quo” at the top of the first leg, put the first big crisis at the first bottom point, the mid-book turning point at the top of the middle, the darkest moment at the second bottom point, and the ultimate resolution at the top of the last leg, and then fill in steps up and down to get from each point to the next one). I like Post-It Notes and flow charts, which I later resolve into narrative summaries.
The point is, there isn’t a wrong way to do this, and the web is full of suggestions for things to try. If people have questions or want more detail on specific methods, please ask; otherwise I’ll go on to something else next.