(Note: this originally appeared to members of my Patreon in October)
One of the most well-read posts on my website is the post I titled “How I outline a novel” which I then updated several years later, which was mostly a summary of how I approached writing my first novel Crystal Rain. Some (cough) years later now, I mentioned that I’d written a twenty one thousand word outline for the latest novel to someone, and they looked somewhat stunned.
In my thirteenth year of writing novels I’m writing my thirteenth novel. Slowly I’ve started writing more and more detailed outlines and have surrendered to the fact that I work best off detailed outlines.
But in that process I’ve learned everything I thought I knew about outlining and that kept me from doing it consisted of misperceptions and hang ups from school.
In grade school, I was often forced to outline an essay before writing it. I really, really hated this. I cannot emphasize how much. For me, a well read kid who could dash off a three page paper quickly after dinner, it was often quicker for me to write the paper and then create the outline afterward. I also had a moment of cross-cultural drama. The academic system I came from perceived essays as a journey toward a final understanding that you bring the reader along with. A reflection of how you got from point A to point B, or maybe back to A. An introduction, a thesis of sorts, and an intellectual journey to a final point. In the US in college, it relied a lot more on ‘thesis, point 1, point 2, point 3, conclusion.’ None of my favorite essays used that structure.
Additionally, as an English major, I encountered very little material talking about outlines in fiction. The impression was that most Great Writers chipped away at the statue, uncovering their subject from underneath.
If only I’d actually taken more arts courses, I would known that Great Masters often did studies and test drawings and prep work to a great degree. They didn’t just all sit before a canvas and then, suddenly, ART!
My first outline was roughly a few thousand words of collating my existing notes about the novel I wanted to write, and writing up a rough idea of the structure and the larger ‘movements’ of the novel. I divided the novel into various parts, and then started writing.
The outline was created more as I went along, on a piece of software called Omnioutliner. Different point of view characters were tagged by different colors in the software. OO let me create columns, so I also added word counts of each chapter as I went along as well. That let me do two things: see the rhythm of point of view switches visually with colors, and word counts let me see the length of reading time of each chapter.
Each chapter had a line summarizing it, and if I clicked, I could access a longer paragraph description. As the complex novel grew, the outline grew. I could quickly refer to the outline as I went along and needed to remember something for the current chapter.
You can see what that looked like here.
As I wrote more novels, I wrote slightly longer outlines. The outline for Ragamuffin was slightly more than the three thousand word outline for Crystal Rain. Sly Mongoose had a similar length outline. But in those books, I ran into structural problems and issues later in the book where I painted myself into corners and had to rewrite, backtrack, toss out major sections, and more, all because of problems I hadn’t foreseen.
When I wrote my first Halo novel, I had to write a more detailed outline as the property owners kept asking more questions, the sorts of questions I would have to answer as I wrote. Every time I replied and folded in those answers the outline grew. At nine thousand words, when I started that novel I felt I had a fairly good idea of what the novel was before I started it.
I took that knowledge into writing Arctic Rising, developing a similarly long outline. When it came time to write Hurricane Fever, I then also sat down and invested three weeks in sketching out the book. By now I’d moved from using Omni Outliner to just using Scrivener. My outline for Hurricane Fever was almost fifteen thousand words!
And now I have a twenty one thousand word outline. A friend of mine joked that at this pace, in another ten years, I’ll just be back to writing the novel out in one go! And that may happen, one thing I’ve embraced is that I can change as a creator. I may come all the way back around to no draft in a full circle.
That being said, I had a tremendous amount of fun outlining a novel in twenty one thousand words.
For one thing, it’s a two week period where I just took all the notes and dreams I’d written down for the novel and created a mission statement. What is this book about? What’s important about it? Why am I writing it? Once I did that, I was able to filter out the ideas that didn’t really need to be in the book, even if they were cool.
Secondly, there was no pressure. It was a blue sky period where I brainstormed all the things I could based on my core ideas and research. I mulled things over and tried things in the outline that would have taken weeks to try out in a first draft in just hours. I could write sloppy and fast, jot down impressions, ways I want a reader to feel, things I’m trying to do as a writer. This is a meta document. It doesn’t have to read clean for a reader, it’s just for me. It’s a half fevered dream of what the novel might be.
That for me was how I could write twenty one thousand words about the novel. Getting past the idea and pressure of what an outline is supposed to be. My outline isn’t a formal structure, a document that I’ll prepare like a business plan for potential funding. It’s a letter to myself, as I’ll be writing the book, that’s about what the book IS.
Yes, I’ve taken all these impressions, ideas, lectures, chapter descriptions, bits of dialogue, bits of world building, and put them all in a single document in Scrivener that I’m working off to write the novel. But they’re for me.
One of the bits is a fake screed I wrote by a minor prophet. Will it make it into the book? I don’t know, but it sets up a scene where I introduce an idea about that religion. I hope I can make it into a piece of dialogue or narrative, but the idea is that I’m trying to convey to my future self what I want out of that chapter. Sometimes a chapter note is ‘the reader should feel gut punched by this character’s action here, because it should be at odds with what we think of them’ or something like that.
The outline is almost a stream of consciousness document, at first. I write it in notepad, pieces of paper, text documents, and more. This year, I moved all of that into Omni Outliner, returning to an old friend. I then spent a week organizing it all into what I thought the structure of the novel was turning into. I created chapters, fiddled around, and then just kept fiddling until I felt everything was organized on a chapter by chapter level.
Something I learned, and this happens overtime I take all my notes and the outline and try to make it a chapter by chapter document, was that even though I though I had the entire novel in my head, once I structured it I realized I had some big gaps that needed filling.
So then I spent time inventing chapters and events that weren’t there.
That is how I got to twenty one thousand words of outline.
I often get asked if the outline reduces my enthusiasm for writing the book itself. No, if it did, I wouldn’t outline. A tool is only good if it works. The outline, seeing my excitement in letters to myself about the characters, their deeds and struggles, gets me excited to now narrow down and depict them. I have created a pencil outline, now I am going to put down the paint and bring this ghostly image to vibrant life.
Will I struggle some days with my writing? Yes. That happens with or without an outline to me. That’s part of what Maureen McHugh calls the Dark night of the soul part of writing. Outlines actually help me get through that section quicker because I tell myself ‘I was excited as hell when I outlined this, trust past me, past me’s enthusiasm is evident in the outline notes.’
I also get asked about getting better ideas, and whether an outline isn’t like a straitjacket.
Again, if I didn’t enjoy it I wouldn’t do it. Like the doctor that tells a patient if it hurts, stop poking it, I don’t want to do something that hems me in. The outline, when I create it, is the best possible idea I have for the book. I think, “this is the minimum amount of awesome the book can be.” But if a better idea comes up as I write the book, yes, I’ll absolutely go there.
But here’s the kicker, I workshop that better idea in the outline. In other words, and this does happen, if I get an idea I love while writing, I stop, go into the outline, and begin changing the outline to see if that idea works and what consequences it has down the line. With an outline in place, I can hold the idea up to it and see if it’s a good idea for the whole book.
I once went into my outline with what I thought was a brilliant idea for the book. As I opened the chapter notes, I saw a parentheses with a note that included something to the effect of ‘you could do BRILLIANT IDEA! but this would negate what you want to do for the character arc and require a total rewrite for the last half of the book and then you negate all these other cool ideas.’ Yeah, I’d forgotten I’d already had a great idea, considered it, and discarded it.
And sometimes, I’ve gone through, made updates to the outline, and folded in a whole new idea. The outline is not a hard and fast set of brick walls, it’s a living document, a conversation I have with myself about the novel.
And as I get further along the writing path, I’m having longer and more detailed conversations with myself about the novel before setting out to write it.