Outlining Your Books

I recently responded to an online post that asked whether writers of historical fiction outline their work before actually sitting down to write. This was intriguing to me for several reasons.

Who Needs An Outline?

First, I have written more than 650 non-fiction articles in my career, for major publications including Forbes, Better Homes & Gardens, Money, and dozens of others. For five years I was a weekly columnist for a major newspaper and I’ve been a columnist for several magazines. I can honestly say that I rarely outlined during that part of my career.

Oh, I did jot down notes of items I wanted to include, but if the truth be told they were more like words and incomplete phrases. I knew from an early age that a story needs a beginning, middle and end.

I also think being a public school teacher for many years helped my writing. I understood at an intrinsic level how to explain something in a sequential manner. My training as a biologist also helped because science is a strict mistress and if you want to understand scientific concepts you usually have to proceed sequentially.

When I was in my mid-twenties a contaminated food source made me desperately ill for two months and I had to take off from work, including a part-time job as a reporter for a local newspaper (probably the best writing lessons I ever learned came from that job). After about four weeks, I could not take the boredom any longer, and sat down at a used gray, upright Underwood typewriter to pen a novel, my first.

I was cocky enough to know that I did not need an outline. I had learned the discipline of churning out readable words to meet a 5:00 PM typesetting deadline (yes, Virginia, our newspaper still typeset in those days!). The important thing, I knew in my wide and deep experience as a novelist, was to have a solid concept, the heart and soul of my story. With that the pages would fly from the typewriter.

And, they did! In a few short months I had completed what was undoubtedly the absolutely worst piece of drek (that’s crap in Yiddish) that had ever been spewed forth by that, or any other, Underwood. It wandered, it sidetracked, it leaped across time and space, it had logical gaps. It was awful. Thank God it never saw the light of day. To this day it sits in one of my filing cabinets and on days when I need cheering up, I take it out, read a few pages, cringe, and put it back, knowing how far I’ve come.

Yes, I Outline!

Fast forward 40 years and if there is one thing I’ve learned from my novel writing it is to outline. I am an inveterate, careful, even meticulous outliner. Like the teacher I have always been, allow me to elaborate. It might help those of you who are new to the game of penning novel.

Of course, I always start with a concept, a story core that will be the backbone of the novel. Once that is set in my mind, usually after days of rumination in the shower, while exercising or as I fall asleep, I commit it to an electronic file. In one case, my novel titled The Underground I actually woke up at 3:00 AM having had a particularly vivid dream. I went downstairs and typed up the story and by 7:00 AM I had it fleshed out and a broad outline of the first few chapters. Amazing, yes, but that has only happened to me once.

For another of my books, Sargent Mountain I wrote ten chapters before stopping and fully outlining it.

Here is what is more usual. I start with that story concept and write a paragraph or two about it. As characters develop and more plot lines emerge in my mind’s eye, I add that, until I have a page or two of typed text.

Next I start outlining characters. Now at this point I should say that I have been using the word processing program Scrivener for the past couple of years, which to me is a great program for writers. One of its many features is that it includes a template for characters, so that I can flesh out my character’s physical description, quirks, motivation, relationship to other characters, etc. Very helpful.

Developing my characters means that I am beginning to be immersed in the novel, which also means I get more ideas about plot and story arc. That, in turn, means I am continually revisiting my original 1-2 pages of narrative, expanding, revising, eliminating. This two-way iterative process often takes weeks.

I am someone who benefits from what is known as “simmering.” I like to step back and let things simmer in my mind for days, thickening the stew, so to speak. After each of these simmering periods I revisit the outline and find new and interesting plot twists to add. So far, so good.

The Final Push

Now I’m ready to complete my outline, although this next part I consider the most difficult. I now parse the story into discreet chapters.

This process again takes weeks. With the outline in one window, I slice and dice the action in a chapter-by-chapter outline in a second window on my computer. I might end up initially with 15 or 20 chapters, but by time I am done, I’ve usually added a few more.

I could say that now I am ready to actually write the novel. However, what more likely has happened by now is that I have already started Chapter One, at least a few paragraphs of it. I like to know that I have tackled the opening, which for me is hardest to nail down. In some cases I’ll write a few thousand words, much of which will eventually be revised or even cut, but at least I’m over the psychological barrier of getting started and since I still have outlining to do, I have the satisfying illusion that I’m ahead of the game.

Once the chapter outline is done, I have a solid framework from which to write. When I start a new chapter I simply cut and paste the outline for that chapter into the new chapter file, so that it is always there for me to reference as I write.

Another major advantage of outlining is that writer’s block is reduced to a minor annoyance. Can’t get motivated? Look at your outline and it will tell you what to do next. Of course that presumes that you’ll be able to put butt to seat and type. When I’m blocked by not knowing how to start a particular scene, I can leave it and go on to another scene in my outline that I am juiced about writing.

Naturally, as I get enmeshed in the story, I see new plot lines, new areas of conflict, and new directions to propel the narrative forward. My characters begin showing me their true colors, and scenes that I had clearly mapped out can morph into something entirely different. Instead of resolving a scene with lots of conflict, I may now decide to postpone resolution for a chapter or two. A love affair that I intended to wrap up in one chapter now stretches over two or three. As it turns out, perhaps 75-90% of the time my basic outline holds.

A couple of there things to point out. As I outline I may need to draw a character map to get the relationships straight in my head. Or, in the case of my Ancient Egypt novels, The First Pharaoh and The Dagger of Isis, I might need to create a map or two to keep the action locales straight in my head.

Since I sometimes write historical fiction, I also get sidetracked frequently as I outline by the need to research this or that to see if it is historically accurate. Another thing I love about Scrivener is that it allows me to simply drag and top an Internet reference into a research folder on my desktop so I can call it up instantly as needed.

That is how I outline. Anal? yes; helpful? another yes; indispensable? a perfect trifecta for me. If you would like to share your views on outlining or your methods for doing so (or avoiding doing so), please feel free to add your comments. In any case, I hope this has helped and best of luck with your writing!

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