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Mar 27, 2009

Short Outline, Long Outline, Draft

My outlining will probably go through three stages.

(1) Short Outline -  basic story arc of the book

(2) Long Outline - list of scenes, with conflict-response for each scene

(3) Outline Draft - technically, a first draft, but so awful I can't stand to call it a draft, so I pretend it's just a really long outline

* * *

I think of the Short Outline as the infrastructure of my book. Here I decide the word count I'm aiming at, the number of chapters and the approximate number of words per chapter. I decide how many PoV characters there will be, and how many storylines. Although it will give me tremendous grief at some point in the writing of the novel, I stick to this infrastructure like a underground splinter cult fanatic clings to an uzi.

My word count, however, often suffers from bloat, perhaps brought on by adverb retention, but often as a result of overindulging in subplots.

For this novel, I have a central image/metaphor of a well. I envision the still circle of water reflecting the sky. I have four PoV characters. I'm aiming at 80,000 words, on the theory that if I go over, I'll still be under 100,000 words. Since all the PoV characters have equal weight, this allows 20,000 words for each character. I will split the characters' sections in two. So the structure will look like this:


Wife sky reflecting on water.

I know. I spend way too much time entertaining myself with this stuff. Does this contribute to a better novel? I have no idea. It's like bloomers on a baby doll. These are parts which might not show, but making them is half the fun of dressing the doll.

I've already encountered the first problem this set up has caused me. I need to make sure the timeline fits the order of the PoV sections in my outline. At first I thought it would be easy, but that was because I had the wrong date for an (actual) historical event which appears in my novel. 


I may have to shuffle my characters' sections around a bit.

* * *

The picture shows a craftsman cutting down the outline of a carving.


The Screaming Guppy said...

That's an interesting method. I almost always start with a basic outline, like your short one, of major events only.

Then I just go. Write write write. At some point, details become clearer, so I'll start making more detailed outlines from "this point to the end of the book" (with this point being where ever I am in the writing at the moment.

I never plot out word counts per chapter, however. I do try to keep a running count though, so I know I'm in a reasonable ballpark.'

Although it will give me tremendous grief at some point in the writing of the novel, I stick to this infrastructure like a underground splinter cult fanatic clings to an uzi. <-- LOL

I find being fluid helps me a lot. I follow my characters when it comes to the small stuff, and normally I'm happy with the results. At least until they decide they want their own book...

Thanks for sharing. It's fun to see how other people do things. :)

Michelle D. Argyle said...

Tara, it looks like you outline a lot like I do. And I love your mirror-water reflecting idea. I do stuff like this all the time. And here I thought I was nuts.

It did a similar sequence of characters for Monarch, but ended up having to shuffle them around. Each chapter is a different POV until the end where they merge.

scott g.f.bailey said...

Your method is similar but different from mine. I make a short outline (I absolutely must know the ending before I can write very much at all), then a long outline, then a synopsis. The synopsis of my last book had seven "acts" and while I wrote, I'd break the acts into scenes and write them, sometimes shuffling the order of the scenes around, adding more scenes as needed, etc. When I was on revision #3, I think, I broke the acts down into proper chapters based not on length so much but on what seemed to me to be logical breaks. My current rewrite is messing with my chaptering somewhat, but that's fine.

My next book has four major chapters, who interact with each other in a variety of ways. There's the A plot and the B plot, with 2 of the 4 characters being the major players in the A plot, the other 2 characters being the major players of the B plot. Also, each character has his/her own story arc independant of the others.

I think knowing these things helps by a) setting up a good, solid storytelling framework, and b) making it easier to write early chapters because you aren't finding your way through things and there will (or should be) less stuff to revise later, because you know what you're moving towards when you first put pen to paper on the actual first draft. Or that's what I tell myself.

Tara Maya said...

Screaming Guppy: I do also have an idea of the major events. At least, I do in this case.

Sometimes I do wish for more fluidity, but with too much openness, I feel like a fish without a fishbowl.

Lady Glamis: I thought I was the only weirdo too. I'm very curious to read how you handled it in Monarch.

Scott: A seven act structure does sound like something I would enjoy. Can I ask -- is your story based on Hamlet? If so, do you use the scenes and acts used by the Bard as a launching point for your own novel? (Or perhaps I've misunderstood your novel.)

Danyelle L. said...

I love the theme you've chosen and how you reflect that in the structure of the story.

I'm not much of an outliner. I've tried, but for me, they never work because the characters hijack the story and ignore my pleadings to stay on course. >.<

I'm generally able to see about one scene ahead of where I'm at if I'm lucky. I would love to be an outliner, it makes sense and seems like it would be easier, but I don't think I ever finished a story until I let go of them.

Thanks for sharing. It's always fascinating to see how others to it. :)

Traci said...

Very interesting! I like your way of organizing everything.

I am planning out my Keats novel right now...boy it's tough. I have a huge piece of paper with dates of events for the main characters. A page of fashion terms, food, etc. It's never ending.

Anita said...

You are very organized...I can't help but think it will make it easier to reach The End.

SunTiger said...

So organized. Maybe that's why you're successful.

Sara Raasch said...

I like your methods! So much more organized than I am. I've only recently discovered the joy of outlines, but still prefer a bit of "fly by the seat of my pants" in writing. Though I do think the little things, like the mirror POV's you had going on, become cool talking points when people discuss your work. It'd be a fun question for a reading group: what image was Tara Maya's book based on?

Ban said...

first research now outlines ... you're hitting everything aren't you ;) if there's anything i enjoy more then research it's working on an outline, which is odd 'cause i HATED them while in school - always wrote them AFTER the report. i am no where near as structured as you (word count... umm?) i usually start with the short outline but as scenes come to me and i flesh them out, i keep them organized in a binder, this way, if i need to move a scene, i simply pull the page out and put it where it needs to go. when i'm ready for some 'actual' writing i pull out my binder and work on the scenes - connecting them together.

PurpleClover said...

Wow I wish I was this organized. Then maybe I wouldn't have moments of total loss when I can't remember what comes next!

I have an outline...but its not as thorough!. Thanks for the tips though!

Tara Maya said...


My characters do steal the story from me. Probably the biggest difference (for me) between having an outline and not is that in an outlined story, I know where the characters end up -- but sometimes the characters take the story into their own hands and change how they get there.


It sounds like you're still in the research stage, as am I. But your story sounds really good!

Anita and SunTiger and PurpleClover,

I used to be a "pantser" too. I cn only hope organization will help. The jury is still out.


*wise nod* Yes... yes... must have grist for the future book clubs reading my novel... *grin*


That's an interesting method. So you don't know what order the scenes will be in? Sometimes, when I have multiple storylines, I'll write all the scenes for one PoV character at a time, then figure out how to intertwine them with the other characters' scenes later.

Ban said...

that's an interesting method too. (intertwining the POVs later - i can see how you would be able to do that - you've got such a handle on your stories.)
actually i start out with the scenes in the order i BELIEVE they should go in but they don't always stay there esp. those that involve character developement or dialog. sometimes it just makes more sense, as i write, to have a conversation later in the story or some background info a bit sooner.

Tara Maya said...

During revisions, scenes change places often, and what a headache it is too! I have to make sure I have all the minor details mentioned in the scene consistent with the new order. (If I mentioned a pregnant cat in one scene and kittens in another, I have to make sure the kittens don't come before the pregnant cat!)

Davin Malasarn said...

I really enjoy reading about other people's process. Thanks a lot for this post! On my first book, I worked very differently. I don't like to know how my book is going to end. I feel like it makes me manipulate too much. I start with multiple vomit drafts and only after I've "discovered" the ending will I then outline. I'll take everything I wrote and trying to find the story and structure it based on that. Then, I'll do the simple outline, the more extensive scene-be-scene outline, and then new drafts.

Anonymous said...

I love reading about how other writers structure their outlines and drafts. I must confess, I never outline until I reach the last fourth of a book. Once I feel the culmination start, I figure out what else needs to be included and decide the number of chapters I'll need to finish.

I don't outline before that point, because it's a waste of time for me. I never have a complete picture of the book until I get to know the characters. I start with a few scenes and a few characters, then build from there.

scott g.f.bailey said...

"A seven act structure does sound like something I would enjoy. Can I ask -- is your story based on Hamlet? If so, do you use the scenes and acts used by the Bard as a launching point for your own novel? (Or perhaps I've misunderstood your novel.)"

Yes, my story is a longer tale that incorporates Shakespeare's "Hamlet." The seven-act structure is sort of two acts that happen before "Hamlet" and then the five acts of Shakespeare's play. Though during revisions, the non-"Hamlet" bits have grown in length (and depth, I hope) while the "Hamlet" bits have shrunk and been over-written by new ideas for these characters. So I'm at, maybe, around 50% of Shakespeare's story remaining in my version. I have a scene with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern drinking with Polonius and Horatio. They sing a bawdy song together. So while I used the Bard's play as a sort of outline when writing the first draft, he's no longer allowed to get a word in while I'm working on the story; I've given him the sack.