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Outlining A Novel

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.

Starforgers Outline CU

Outline for Starforgers done in spreadsheet format.

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.


Outline for Null_Pointer done in Omni Outliner

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.

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