Outlining is an essential step in writing your novel that should not be skipped or skimped on. This is where the story comes together and the plot is figured out. For me, my story is fleshed out when I outline. It’s the first time that I have to think about what I want to say and how to say it. Before I start outlining I think long and hard about what the book will be about. Since I’m currently writing a nine part series I have to give some thought as to where this book fits into that larger story. This novel is also the third book of a trilogy. Knowing this before I start my outline lets me understand that this novel must wrap up all the plot points that I have explored in books 1 and 2. This is the last time I will write about these characters and so I have to end it in a satisfactory manner for the reader. I also have to bridge this trilogy to the next trilogy in some meaningful way. Set the stage if you will, for what will come next.
Before I even start outlining a novel, I figure out the theme. Themes are important and they keep you on track as you work out your plot. The theme of this book is Redemption. The main character and even some of the supporting characters will explore this theme during the course of this novel. Theme is something that I constantly refer back to as I outline the novel to ensure that I’m staying on point. You want the theme to be reflected in the story, not spelled out explicitly. It’s a fine line sometimes.
I do all of my outlining directly in the program that I use to write with which for me is Plume Creator. Plume has an excellent outline feature and I use it to build up my novel. I start by creating a new book and then I add a bunch of chapter folders. I start off with 12 and then add as necessary. I then go into each chapter and add about four scenes and number them 1-4. After I have scenes in my chapters I go back and write a chapter summery for each chapter in the Synopsis area. I try and get at least three or four sentences down that explain what needs to happen in the chapter. This part is rough and not very detailed. It’s also subject to many changes as I massage the plot along, chapter by chapter. Sometimes I move chapters around, delete them, create them and generally tweak the outline until I get an overall plot mapped out. I’m not concerned with scenes at this point, just the major plot points.
I use Larry Brooks’ format for novel structure. This means you have mile posts in the novel that must be there in order to have a good story. Some of these are: Inciting Incident, First Turning Point, Second Turning Point, etc., all of them can be created in the project tree as badges attached to the scene in which they occur. You might not know exactly which scene has your Inciting Incident, but you know it had better be in the first couple chapters.
Next I take a deeper dive into the outline by breaking down each chapter’s action into scenes. I may need more than four in a chapter and if so I create them. There is no magic formula to determine how many scenes go in a chapter or how many chapters make up your novel. At this point I’m thinking more about applying the story element badges to the scenes. I’m also making sure my main character is driving the action and that he or she has a growth arc. Sometimes in a novel I have lots of subplots going on and my main character slips into the background. This is the stage where I make sure that the hero drives the action and that he/she changes as a result of the story.
Subplots are thought out during this scene level outlining. Sometimes I create new characters here, other times I bring back familiar characters from previous books. Again, this is the final book in a trilogy so I’m paying attention to each subplot and making sure it has a final resolution. This phase of the outline takes much longer than the first phase. I love this phase of writing because this is where the book begins to come together and I start to get excited about writing it. This is also where I tend to generate ideas for each scene that I don’t want to forget. So I write these ideas into the notes file that is attached to each scene in Plume. The more details that I can provide now, the less time I will spend thinking up stuff when I get down to writing.
Any new characters that I dream up must be added to my cast list in Plume. Again, the more details I can generate about new characters now, the less time I will waste when I start writing. I have a very large cast in this trilogy and each character has a description in the Mise en scene area. I also add new locations and any special objects like starships. All of this detailed planning takes time. Especially when I only get an hour a day to mess with it. But the time is well spent early rather than later. Fortunately I know this universe really well by now and I can create things at a decent clip. New characters are not as frequent this late in the story so this phase should go faster for me this time.
My novel outlines are never set in stone and if while writing the novel I decide to change things up I do. Some of the best connections I make come while actually writing and I need to be flexible enough to alter the story as needed to accommodate unforeseen changes. The last novel I wrote went completely off outline in the final third. But what I wound up with was infinitely better than what I had originally outlined. Sometimes that happens, other times I stick to the original outline all the way to the end. The novels I write the fastest don’t deviate much from the outline.
It takes me about one or two months to polish my outline and about that long to write the first draft. Last year I wrote a novel and a novella in the same calendar year. This year I’d like to do the same so I can move on and write something completely different next year. We’ll see if I can pull off writing two novels in a year for a second year in a row.