Thursday, July 3, 2008

Outlining a Book

Tip of the Day: When you get revision notes from an agent, editor, critique partner or whoever, don’t start in on them right away. Give them a couple of days to sink in. Things somehow always become clearer with a little time.

I don’t outline when I write. At least, I haven’t until now. I’ve always just sat down and started writing so I guess that makes me a “plunger”. Sure, if I see something coming ahead in my book that I don’t want to forget I type up some notes in a blank document and name it something clever like RandomNotes.doc. (Now I have like, thirty of these files but whatever.) My notes are never really in any particular order though. Outlining sounds so hard—like you have to know what you are doing overall throughout the entire book. When I think of outlining I think of thesis statements and roman numerals. Yuck.

But now I HAVE to outline. I’ve actually been working on one for the last two weeks and it’s a bit tough. I didn’t know how to structure it—chapter by chapter? Bullet points? Paragraphs? So I started googling and of course found nothing. I thought maybe someone would have posted an outline of their book online but duh, then they’d be giving away their book for free. So no luck there.

I had to start doing it and see what happened. So I just put chapter 1 and wrote several paragraphs about what happened in that chapter. Then chapter 2 and so on. I don’t know if I’ve done it correctly. I don’t know if this is what editors expect when they ask for an outline. It reads ok to me though so I’m just going to go with it.

Then just now I decided to google again, this time using “writing a fiction novel outline” as the search term and would you believe I got hits this time? Wish I would have used a better search term the first time. I don’t know whether to say yay or damn. Yay if I’ve done it right and damn if I didn’t. I check out a few links and here is one:

This is one posted at This is a big “oh crap” if this is what I’m supposed to be doing. Because here they just want you talking about characters and their relationships and obstacles in the novel. It doesn’t look like a straight through outline to me.

Here’s another one. Ok, not so bad. She does mention the chapter-by-chapter thing. Only she says a few sentences for each and mine are more like half a page per chap. But this is the closest to a yay we got.

Now this one just hurts my head. Snowflakes? Really? A) I’m not a fan of snow and B) it sounds like you need to be good with math (was an English major for a reason here) when they mention fractals. Blech. Going further down that page the author talks about the 10 steps of designing your novel. And no offense to the creator but if I had read this before I wrote my first book I may have quit. Talk about overwhelming.

I guess when it comes down to it you just have to do what feels right to you. Like this snowflake method above is right for that author but totally wrong for me. The chapter by chapter synopsis style thing worked ok for me so that’s what I’m going to go with. And cross my fingers that the editor likes it of course.

What about you all? Do you outline your books? And if so, what method works for you?

Kristina, Miss Soon-to-Pub


Tabitha said...

I definitely outline, and I use a chapter by chapter method.

I hate the snowflake method. It seems restrictive and overly complicated. Even for me, who can't do anything unless there's a plan in place first. :S

Ghost Girl (aka, Mary Ann) said...

I've done both, Tina. My first YA was an organic experience with no outline. My second, however, was much more complex so I started with an outline. Even that was fairly organic, shifting, evolving as I wrote the book.

Are you writing your outline after you finished the novel? To give your editor something to go by?

Just curious. I know some editors ask for outlines in a query (not a synopsis). I'd definitely keel over with that whole snowflake deal!

Kristina Springer said...

It's after the book has been written-- to show how I'm going to revise things.

Sheri Perl-Oshins said...

Great blog btw - I too am a plunger. What I find is I write until I can't and then I simmer. Then I am struck with an idea and I write again until I can't. Which maybe is why I have not yet finished my MG fantasy novel. I do know the ending and have an idea of how my MC will get there, but no hard outline per se.

What I do, do is this... I have a notebook where I keep notes like your files. In the front of the notebook, I have a heading - foreshadowing and other things to tie up - great title right?... Anyway, I write the page number and the sentence or situation whenever I think this is a loose end or foreshadowing, so I don't leave it dangling at the end.

Then I have another section titled Characters - Brilliant title, right?... here I write the page number and the characters as they are introduced, this way I can keep track of them, see when they came on the scene and how long it's been since they've had "screen time," etc.

But if I had to write an outline because an editor requested one, I would probably wet my pants and then clear my head and do what you did. I suppose I would try to capture the mini arcs of each chapter - why was this chapter necessary, why did it move the story forward? This is the crux of each chapter. Was there conflict for the MC and how did she/he react to it... I guess this is the route of an outline - again though - coming from a plunger that is...

Anonymous said...

I'm glad I found this blog... and this post, um, seems meant especially for me to happen upon this morning.

I, too, am writing an outline for a novel because I have to. My MG novel was accepted based on a summary and a few chapters and now I have to turn in an outline by July 15. I'd rather just keep writing, but I went back and I've been working on this outline for a month. Yes, a whole month.

I now see that I have been going completely overboard. I am going to scare my editor if I turn it in this way! I've basically been summarizing the whole entire plot, chapter by chapter, and just finding my way through the story that way. It just seemed like the only way to know how the book ends, if that makes any sense. But I don't know if another human being should even read this.

A 30-page chapter-by-chapter "outline" for a tween novel is insane, right?