I didn’t learn to outline until halfway through my third novel. Before that, I was still figuring out how a novel went together, and feeling my way through as I wrote. If I’d tried to outline my first novel, I don’t think I would have been very successful at it, because I didn’t have a good feel for how a novel was written.
But halfway through my third novel, I was miserable. I didn’t know what came next and my writing slowed to a crawl. And that’s when I discovered that if I don’t want to give in to the despair that hits in the middle-blues of the first draft, I always need to have a plan for what I’m going to write next. Hence, the outline.
Over time, I’ve come to rely increasingly on the outline. If I want my plot to form a smooth arc, with nicely-paced supporting scenes along the way, then I better know the end from the beginning. If I want my characters to grow and change and become different, more interesting people, then I need to have an idea of where they’re going from sentence one, so I can drop little clues and change them inch by inch, making progress toward the end goal in each scene. That’s just how I roll.
I like to outline in a spreadsheet. (Sometimes I start on a big wall of plastic that I later transfer to a spreadsheet, if I want to be able to see the whole thing at once.) I’ll make the first column for plot, and write one sentence per scene all the way down the far left. Then across the other columns I’ll write the name of every major character. In each character’s column, I write their growth and reactions to each plot event in that event’s row, so each column represents another arc that will take place in the book. If I’m planning on developing a setting element as a character, I’ll write down the arc for that in another column. One of the things this does for me is make sure all the major characters (and even the minor ones) have consistent character development across the book. It also forces me to have a clue who everyone is before I begin; failing to develop side characters is a bad habit of mine, and having to fill all those empty squares in the boxes under that character’s name helps me to have a clue what they’re doing.
My plot outline is usually twenty sentences or less, with the whole outline amounting to not more than 1000 words or so. If my book is going to involve more action, I might have a separate action-plot outline where I make more specific plans; if the book is more character-centric, my outline will be shorter, and have
By the time I’m done with this process, I’m finally ready to begin to draft. The book might sit for years, waiting to be the outlined-project I am most excited to work on. When I’m ready to draft something, I’ll sort through the options, trying to pick something that makes sense as a business decision, but that I’m also excited about. Last time I couldn’t pick between three books, so I pitched them all to my agent and made him choose.
But, eventually, each book gets its turn to be written.