The reluctant outliner

Outlining, after having written 150 pages of mess. All this will amount to a novel some day, but now, it’s a snarl of words in my computer and notebook.

And in my head.

I sometimes write an outline when I have something to write that needs a clear, simple structure. But with my fiction, which can be (and usually is) a mess, I tend to write an outline when I’m near the end of a draft, and stuck, not sure what happens, or needs to happen next.

Today, stuck, resuming after an uncomfortably long break, my smart husband suggested I write an outline, figure out what I have, and where I need more stuff.

It sounded quite unappealing. No romance, no forward motion.

But once I got started, it was welcome, easy, comforting busy-work. “I’m doing something in aid of my novel!” I thought. It’s not the exhilarating fall of writing new stuff, but feels productive. Like something a grown up would do. Like someone who Writes Novels would do.

Here’s how I do it:
1. Make sure all the handwritten notes are typed up into the computer file. (I write new matter on paper, with a fountain pen. It’s much more fun for me. And I usually write down scenes and new stuff as they occur to me, trying to put them in an order that makes sense, but not always in a linear or chronological way.)
2. Open the computer file, and start looking at it, page by page, but from a bird’s eye view (anyone who has a better way to put this without using a cliche, please share!).
3. With paper and pen next to the computer, write an outline, scene by scene. Mostly focus on plot (what happens) but sometimes on themes or other important things to note, things to pick up on later.

It takes a long time, but in the past, I have found it very useful. Sometimes the outline ends up being like a stage manager’s “bible” with set, costume, prop notes, and actor’s motivations, etc. Often, that’s how I find big gaps, things that need to be rearranged, or just taken out. I hope this will be true this time around.

At least it feels like I’m doing something.

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4 responses to “The reluctant outliner

  1. OMG. I am in the same boat. I did about 50,000 words of mess. When I finally did the outline, the thing got so much better (even if it’s still poorly told, it’s less poorly told). Next time, I’m starting with the outline. Truth be told, I consulted http://www.how-to-write-a-book-now.com for help.

  2. Billy L., good for you! The write the junk then do an outline process sounds like it’s accidental, and maybe it is, but for me, it has happened for at least 2 novels thusfar. I will be eager to hear how your process goes next time with outline first.

    Is that a real website? Can you learn how to write a book from a website? ;)

  3. Ha. Yes, it’s a real website and… I found it somewhat useful for organizing my thoughts. At this point, I’m just a rank amateur slinging words onto the page, but it’s enjoyable for me. I feel compelled to write about mid80s teenage hijinx, I’ve got the time right now, and I’m doing it. To what end, who knows…

  4. Hi Billy, to what end, we will find out. Looking forward to the eventual whatever it is. And, “I’m just a rank amateur slinging words onto the page,” aren’t we all????

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