I’ve addressed outlining in a couple of previous posts ( The Larval Stage of an Outline and The Bare Bones Outline ) but both of those were specific to individual works and hardly comprehensive.
I don’t know if I’m going to achieve “comprehensive” in this post, but I’m at least going to open up the focus and talk about the whole process.
Let me start by saying that this post assumes you have at least a basic story idea. Maybe I’ll try a post about getting ideas, but really, I don’t know that I’m qualified.
I start with what I call a “brainstorming” outline. I try to get the ideas I do have down roughly in the order they should be in. There’s a lot of question marks and places where I write down two alternatives for the same plot point. These outlines tend to be very funny, including lines like “[install plot here]”.
After I save that document, I walk away from it for a couple of days. Then I go back and make changes (generally using strike-through, in case I decide the original idea was better). This second pass is more useful, but very messy.
Next step is the “rough outline”. Which should tell you a little more about the brainstorming outline! In this outline I try to fill in the blanks (though that is an ongoing process, of course). At this point I also create two other documents: “Questions” and “Research”. Sometimes they overlap. That way I throw the “stumbling blocks” somewhere safe where I know they will be addressed and can get on with the parts of the outline that I’m more sure of.
In the book I’m currently outlining I added a new step, which I call the “lump outline”. It’s the precursor to the “block outline”, but the blocks aren’t fully formed yet. In this outline I work out the scenes in the novel, usually using bullet points for the scene’s details. This phase of my outlining helps me get a feeling for the pacing of the novel. Is the beginning too long? Is the climactic scene too short? That sort of thing. And, of course, I add more detail to each section.
The next step is the “block outline”. In this one I set up the actual chapters. This fine-tunes the pacing of the story and helps me have an idea for how much of the story I want to write in any one sitting. I don’t like to stop writing in the middle of an idea. The Sunshine Line series has date stamps as chapter headings, but for Help Wanted my chapters had names, and this is the point at which they got them.
The block outline is the form that I eventually use when I start writing, but it goes through a few iterations before it’s ready to guide me through November. Along the way I address the things I put in the questions and research documents. I also create character sheets (in the TSL series, I only create character sheets for new characters) and develop concepts. For instance: My fairies have a sort of rudimentary telepathy, so I had to work out what that meant (limitations in distance and content, for instance). I work on the material surrounding the outline, then periodically update the outline itself.
I actually had in excess of 11K words written as reference for The Sunshine Line, but that was my first novel and I went a little overboard, I think.
My final outline is a block outline, but I put “final” in the file name just to make it slightly easier to find at a glance. This outline is usually about four pages long.
If you’ve never written a book before, this process might seem a bit overwhelming. Don’t be intimidated. The basic premise is that I build the ideas slowly, rather than trying to get it perfect from the beginning. The process I described is very organic for me; you might find your own way quite differently.