What happens when you spend all that time making an outline and then toss it aside when you’re in the heat of a first draft? You go Rogue. It happens with just about every book I’ve ever written. At some point, I make a change and the next thing I know I’m going off outline. Swinging the machete and clearing a new path. Most of the time I circle back and find the trail again. With my latest Work In Progress I may have ventured too far from the path as set forth in the outline.
I scrapped many scenes in a few chapters and then ditched an entire chapter. At this point, I’m having to completely wing the final act. I mean the story is pretty much the same, it’s the way things happen that has changed. Just enough turmoil to make staying on the outline impossible. But that’s OK.
Novel outlines are not like blueprints for buildings. If you suddenly decide to knock out a wall here and add a new room there, it’s not going to cause the builder any headaches. You just press on and make sure your story has a proper resolution. After you’ve written a few novels, like at least five or six, you begin to develop a second sense about what needs to happen and can often pants your way out of the sticks and back to camp without being on the established path. Can I use any more metaphors here?
So you can see I have about 20 thousand words on this novella. I might have another 10 to 15 thousand left to write. It’s much shorter than a regular novel.
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.
I confess that I haven’t been writing much these past few weeks. I wrote the first quarter of my WIP and then started looking back on it and wondering if I had the right pieces in the right place. I’ve been floundering around in what spare time I have, trying to get all the parts in place for my first turning point. I only outlined a few chapters into the second part of the novel and have not given any thought as to just exactly how I was going to end it.
If you are a pantser (someone who writes by the seat of their pants, i.e. as they go along) you are probably saying so what? Just keep writing and it will all fall in place as you go. Well, not for me. I’m too anal I guess. I have to have a pretty decent outline before I can write. Otherwise I start wallowing in the mire and my productivity, as measured in word count, falls like mercury in an antarctic thermometer.
I started reading Larry Brooks’ latest book, Story Physics and re-reading his last book, Story Engineering (which is marked up and worn from use) in an effort to figure out the important elements of my story and get them into an outline form. From there, I can usually knock out a pretty decent story beat sheet or outline of each scene per chapter. This is where I’m at right now on The Rising. Thinking hard about plot and character arc and writing single sentence scene descriptions and then a chapter description that summarizes the action.
This novel has not been easy to get my mind around. It started off as just a short novella about a trial and has since been expanded into the second book in my Space Opera series. Now the original idea is but a central plot point, but there are many more things going on than just a trial. Many of the characters and situations that were explored in Starforgers are moved forward in this sequel. It’s not just another shoot ’em up Space Western. My main character has more change forced on her and she is getting older and accepting more responsibilities. Going from a Squadron Commander to a starship Captain in training. Not to mention still having to deal with the consequences of her actions in book one.
Then I have a cast of bad guy characters whom my hero would normally be fighting, but because the main plot line is more inward than outward looking, the hero doesn’t engage with the villains directly. But they still have to be plotting against the good guys, even though they are also looking more inward in their plot line. Typical Space Opera in many regards, but also a bit different in presentation.
I have just three books in each trilogy of the Star Saga to show my main character’s arc. So the reader can expect some change in every book. The hero changes, the bad guys change and so does the whole geopolitical environment. The whole story arc of the saga marches onward over time. I hope this results in a series that readers will enjoy reading and that won’t bore them. Only time will tell about that.
My current plans are to finish book 2 and then spend next year completing book three. After the first trilogy is complete, I plan on taking some time off to write a different novel. It might be SF, might be something completely different. But I need to get my mind off this series before coming back for the middle trilogy.
Having just completed the first rough draft of an outline for Starforgers, the prequel to Starstrikers, I thought I’d share how I outline a new novel. This is by no means the only way to outline a novel. A quick internet search will net you all kinds of great articles on how different folks do essentially the same thing.
The first thing I do is think about the story I want to tell. Who are the main characters, what problem are they trying to solve and where is the novel set? These are best mulled over in my head and occasionally in notes that I scribble to myself. The process for discovering exactly what the novel will be about may take months or even years. In the case for Starforgers, it has taken me literally decades to work out the story.
Starforgers has been part of a three book trilogy that I originally came up with in the early 1980’s while still in high school. I even have several chapters written and a rough outline written several years ago. But over time, the story has changed in my head and new concepts and characters have been dreamed up. So it was necessary to work out the overall plot again before setting down to outline.
The next thing I do is find out who my main characters are, figure out their Goals, Motivations and Conflict lock. Who is the hero, who is the villain, what sub-plots will I be including, what secondary characters will be included and why? These are all things that I have to work out in advance, so that when I start laying down the foundation of the outline, I know why my main characters are doing what I’m having them do in the plot. For a SF novel there’s a whole other can of worms called World Building that I will not be covering in this post.
The tool that I use for outlining is not unique to any one computer platform. It’s the lonely spreadsheet. It usually starts out in Open Office and then gets ported to Google Docs so I can access it anywhere and from any internet enabled device. The reason I use a spreadsheet is because I find it easy to manipulate blocks of text in chronological order in a spreadsheet. The first pass through the novel, I skip a line and then add a brief description of a scene. Eventually these bullet lines become chapters or at least scenes. Sometimes I will note the day or time the events are to happen. Usually I will have a column for noting the steps of the Hero’s Journey. This helps me see the overall structure of the novel.
After I have all the major scenes written down in chronological order, I then go back and break out each scene with the major points of action that need to happen. Again, adding lines to the spreadsheet. You have to set aside some time to do this properly and it’s important not to go too crazy and completely write your novel in the spreadsheet. But the more bullet lines you can add to a scene, the easier the scene will be to compose when you actually start writing your novel. I find that I usually don’t get writer’s block if my story is mapped out in enough detail.
While I’m writing, I will discover new connections and possibly change the order of scenes and that’s perfectly okay. But I find that my mind won’t see those invisible connections unless I think about them in before hand. The time spent constructing a detailed outline is recouped during the writing phase by letting me focus on the words while following the plot that I have already worked out. It’s like building a model from instructions. If you didn’t follow the step by step instructions, you might leave out that critical piece that holds together the wings so that they fold like they are supposed to in the real carrier based airplane that you are modeling. (No, I never did that, I always followed the directions, I swear!)
When I’m deep in the first draft, I often find that I spend a few days during the week thinking about the upcoming chapters and then adding things to the outline. So when I sit down to write, the words just keep flowing until I finish the chapter. Stalling out while writing your first draft can be fatal. I had a major stall out while writing Trymia and it took months to get my head back into that novel. Not recommended. I eventually had to re-read what I had written before the stall out, and then blindly follow my outline until I was back in control again.
I have heard outlining described as a blueprint for your novel to follow. The trouble with that analogy is that blueprints are not supposed to change as you build a structure. That’s not to say they don’t, but generally speaking they should not change. Novels are more organic and writing in general less structured. I have found that if I can make the process more structured, it tends to go faster and then I can maintain my output and that, brings more books to my readers in a more timely fashion.