Three simple steps to a bulletproof novel outline

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I went into New Yorked, my first novel, without an outline.

It took five years to write. Characters appeared, disappeared, and reappeared. Entire threads were added, removed, repurposes, rethought, and ultimately, trashed.

One of the lessons I learned over the course of those five years was: I’m the kind of writer who needs an outline. I knew the start and I knew the ending, but the middle—that’s where I was getting lost.

The second book, City of Rose, I wrote and delivered to my publisher in six months. Part of that was because I found my voice and my process. But a big part, too, was: I had an outline.

And it was a damn good outline. Because I took a cue from a friend of mine, who has this trick for writing short stories.

He writes the story, then trashes it. A day or two later, he rewrites it from scratch. The logic goes that he’ll only remember the good parts, and the rest, he’s had time to think about.

He trashes the second draft too, waits a few days, writes a third.

The third version is his working version, which gets subject to editing and rewriting.

So for City of Rose, I thought I would give that a try with the outline, because that’s where I was getting jammed up. I outlined the book in a Moleskine after I was done sorting out my notes and character sketches.

I went chapter by chapter, spelling out the place, the characters present, the conflict, and the hook to drive readers into the next chapter. No more than a paragraph for each.

Than I waited a few days. Without looking back, I rewrote it. And I only remembered the good stuff. The places where I hit a wall—I had fixes and answers, since I had time to think them over.

A few days later, I outlined again. That third version nailed the story, hit all the targets I wanted to hit, and guided me through the book.

Simple, right?

Write, trash, think.

Write, trash, think.

Write.

It’s important to note that an outline isn’t gospel. There were a few points where I veered off, or found in the writing that something needed to be moved or added or eliminated.

Think of an outline as a roadmap. You can cut around construction or take a longer route to get in some sightseeing—but you’ll arrive at your destination (the completion of the first draft) so much sooner if you’ve got some semblance of a plan.

What about you? Do you outline? Or do you write by the seat of your pants and hope you find the story in the process?

And you can find New Yorked here.

3 thoughts on “Three simple steps to a bulletproof novel outline

  1. Excellent advice. I do outline, but more as a storyboard. A combination of Post-It notes and arrows and colorful scrawling on a whiteboard. It kind of looks like one of those spiderwebs of notes and photos TV detectives always uncover in the apartment of a serial killer. I have to “see” at least the major events of the whole novel before I can write anything coherent. I think of it all as a kind of jungle gym — each rung is a plot point. The story swings from rung to rung–sometimes a rung gets skipped, or added. But as Doctorow said, I can make the whole journey that way.

  2. Weeeell I started out writing by the seat of my pants, then went back and outlined, re-wrote, left it to stew, re-outlined, re-wrote again… I wonder if it might be easier to just start again from scratch?

    In seriousness though, this is some great advice. I probably need to re-write just the outline / synopsis and see what it looks like after a few cycles.

    Cheers, D.R

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