How I Outline My Novels (Part Two)

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When I started writing about my outlining process, I didn’t expect to get this long… so check out Part One for the first half of my process.

Step 5: Piecing It Together

Once I have everything that I want to happen on the book broken down in threads, it’s time to weave them together. I copy-paste what I wrote in step four on a new document titled “outline” and then I proceed to arrange them. The loose structure comes handy, but this is all just so much detailed that it merely becomes a guide. Here I make decision of what moments I tackle first.

Here is where the color coding becomes super useful as I can get an idea of how much time I dedicate to individual threads visually. Moreover, I can also see if there are really long sections that are only devoted to a single aspect of the book and therefore bring the pace down. For books with more than one point of view, as were many of my novels, I try to see if I’m neglecting a particular characters story for a large chunk of the book (I always was). I also start thinking about chapters, though my main concern is getting the pacing right and making the progression right. The last thing I want is my tense battle scene getting dragged down because I didn’t know where to put the funny misunderstanding.

This is what the entire outline for my fourth novel looked like:

1 weaving2 weavingweaving 34 weaving5 weaving

Also note that I was terrible at picking colors that looked good together. Ugh. So yeah, somehow I managed to turn this mess into a 120k-word novel. I still can’t believe it if I being honest. (And yes, those light blues are for the same character as the example in Step 4).

This step is probably the shortest, at less than an hour, but it also requires a lot of reflection. Here is the moment where I commit to an outline. Obviously some things will have to be reworked because stories evolve, but after I have this, the changes I make are minor. So I might add or cut a chapter, change a plot point, but my novel is actually recognizable from this outline, which is something that I can’t say about the word vomit document.

Tips & Tricks for This Step

  • Stories come with natural structures for me (as a consequence of consuming so many), and I tried to respect those. But I try to mind tone a lot. Sometimes a sudden change in tone can be really effect, but other times it sucks the tension and destroys the momentum.
  • I try to enjoy this step because, after how trying the other one can, it is so gratifying to watch it all come together!
  • Colors! Have I mentioned the pretty colors?

 

Step 6: Chapter Chopping

As I mentioned before, I love Scrivener and I came up with this whole process while using it. So this steps relies heavily on its corkboard feature.

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By this point I know exactly the events that mark the switch between parts. What this step is all about is figuring out chapter breaks. A lot people don’t figure those out until they’re editing, but I like to have them outlined because they help me understand my story better. So what I do in this step is use the split view to briefly summarise what happens in each chapter in the corkboard while referring back to my outline. Like this:

splitview.png

I don’t copy-paste at all because this is my chance to make a sort of second draft for my outline. I’ve always caught issues and had to readjust my plan in this step. Always.

With my previous novels, it was easier to figure out when I need to put the chapter breaks because I had multiple points of view. Each break marked a change in perspective (with very few, deliberate exceptions). Either that section further one particular character’s arc specifically or I went with the character that had to most to gain or lose in a given scene. Here is where the color-coding became pretty damn useful. In my WIP, however, there is only one perspective, so the breaks can become pretty arbitrary if not done well. I’m currently in the process of figuring this out so I have no advice but to try looking for the natural breaks provided by changes in setting or tone.

Tips & Tricks for This Step

  • I start at the beginning and follow through to the end. After having built my outline using the individual threads, this allows me to get an even better sense of how the story is going to flow.
  • I also leave a few notes for my future-self regarding the tone I want for most moments. Some are quite obvious, but other times it really helps.
  • I rarely consult the original outline while writing. What I fall back on are these notes, so I (try to) make them tidy.
  • I try to be mindful of chapter length so I don’t end up with 4k word chapters next 500 word ones. Guess what, this still ends up happening sometimes.

Step 7: Five Chapters Ahead

After step 6, I actually go further and plan out the first five chapters at a scene-by-scene level, also using the corkboard function. This is obviously much more detailed and I sometimes include a bit of important dialogue in this plans. I like planning only five chapters in advance because it’s not too overwhelming while also giving a good sense of how I have to transition from each emotional beat into the next.

Each scene gets its own “page”, which is very useful later on for checking back on what I’ve written. I also try to title them succinctly for easier reference with things that I will remember. Here are the first five chapter of my fifth novel as view from this step.

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I wrote this six months ago and I can perfectly recall what happens in each of these individual scenes by looking at the titles.

When I’m done writing the actual novel up until chapter five, I outline like this all the way until chapter 10 and so forth. I normally don’t write on the days that outline like this, or write very little, not by choice but because I spend a lot of time thinking exactly how to turn a few lines from my chapter summary into an actual chapter. So I end up dreading outlining days, but well, they’re necessary for me.

Tips & Tricks for This Step

  • By scenes I also mean emotional beats or changes in tone within a given chapter, not only changes in setting. For example if there is a reveal, I probably split the scene between the lead up and the reaction.
  • I aim to have 4 “scenes” per chapter of about 500 words each (to get a 2k chapter). I would say that on average I do manage this, but there are always a ton exception because the story comes first.
  • I sometime include little jokes for myself in the titles to make them easier to remember.
  • Occasionally on this step, I realize that I need to add or cut a chapter. It happens.

Step 8: Backdrop Rehearsing

This steps is concurrent with step 7. It’s actually kind of intuitive? But I wanted it to added because it is so vital tom my whole process. I can actually feel the quality of my writing decline significantly when I neglect this step. It’s basically just thinking.

The time I spent on my commute is sacred to me because it’s when I think about my story. I never listen to audiobooks, and I try not to get caught up on social media because that way I set aside at least an hour (it takes me 30 minutes to travel to my university on a good day) for thinking about my story. It comes back to Victoria Schwab’s idea about writing not just happening on the computer.

What I mean by rehearsing is that I allow myself to think ahead. I like writing chronologically, and I don’t think I could do it any other way. But here, when I’m stuck on traffic, headphones plugged in, I think about all that’s to come. I like imagining how a scene (be it the one I’ll write when I get home or just one that I’m super excited but is still half a book away) plays out, what lines the characters might say, how the prose should work, what the setting is going to look like. I basically narrate the scene to myself. And I don’t write any of this down. For me, this makes the actual writing much easier as I either remember the tiny details I came up with or just follow my plan unconsciously.

It’s worth noting that I don’t only do this “rehearsing” while on my commute. Here is where I catch mistakes or plot holes and basically think through the things I’m writing.

Tips & Tricks for This Step

  • Doing this also helps a lot when I’m despairing about what I’m currently writing. It reminds me of what I love about the story.
  • In Step 1, I kind of mentioned the dangers of disengaging from the story that I’m writing and, well, here’s where I’m most at risk. When I find myself thinking more about a future story than the one I’m working on, it means trouble.
  • There are some songs that immediately make me think of my story, so I put those on whenever I’m struggling to concentrate.
  • Some days, I just can’t. Either I’m too stressed or just not in the right mindset. I try to remind myself it’s okay, that it’ll pass.

Step 9: A Novel (Hopefully)

So after planning five chapters ahead and writing and thinking for a few months, I have a novel! Yay! Also, I probably gathered a few crumbs here and there for the next book!

 


I’ve read many other posts about other writers’ processes, and even if mine is completely different they’ve helped me work through some problems or understand myself better. Or, well, even just get me excited about writing. I hope that explaining how I work will help you in some of those ways, too!

I’m still kind of baffled at the fact that I have written enough books to have a “process”, to be honest. I didn’t put a disclaimer but I think it’s pretty obvious I’m speaking for myself only. Every writer has a different process etc etc…

But what about you? Do you do any of these things? Are your own steps similar? Or did you look at one and went oh God that would never work for me?

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