Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Writing the detailed outline, part 1

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Habit, as I’ve said before, is a writer’s best friend, and these days, I find myself having to fall back on my old work ethic more than ever. With the publication of The Icon Thief less than four weeks away, it’s easy to forget that I have another novel due in less than nine months. And while November 1, which is when I’m contracted to deliver The Scythian, may seem like a long way off, in order to produce a decent book, I need to start writing now. Over the past couple of weeks, then, I’ve been taking my rough synopsis for the novel and fleshing it out into a blueprint that I can use to write the first draft. In some ways, this is the most crucial step of the process, so it seems like a good time to talk here about what what an outline really means, at least to me, and how it differs from what most of us imagine when we envision the outlining stage. Because a detailed outline is the most useful writing tool I’ve ever found.

Every writer has a different approach to outlining. Some, like Elmore Leonard, don’t do it at all; others, like Lawrence Block, work best from brief notes on a couple of index cards; and a few create an outline that is basically a short novel in itself. I fall squarely in the latter camp. As I’ve noted before, I outline like it’s my second job. Part of this is due to the conventions of the kind of thriller I’ve found myself writing: much of the reader’s enjoyment, at least in theory, comes from the convergence of countless small plot threads and pieces of information, which need to be planned in advance. It’s also because of what I can only describe as a sort of paradoxical laziness. The physical act of writing a first draft is so taxing that the last thing I want is to worry about an unresolved plot problem when I’m just trying to put words on the page. As a result, I’ve found myself dividing the writing process in half: first, I produce a detailed outline, which takes care of the bare bones of story, and only then do I begin the actual writing. For whatever reason, this makes the whole process less painful.

In a way, it’s something like the relationship between a screenplay and a finished movie. When you read a screenplay, you get a lot of information: the order of scenes, all of the dialogue, and enough of a sense of the action to allow you to picture it in your head. All the same, even the greatest script isn’t meant to be a self-contained work of art: it’s a blueprint that is gradually elaborated at every step of the way. A detailed outline is like a script for the novel I hope to write: it contains each important story beat, a sense of dialogue and atmosphere, and a list of objectives, sometimes down to the individual sentence. The result is a document that can approach the length of the final draft itself. For The Scythian, for instance, I’ve already outlined eight chapters, which I expect will come to something substantially less than fifteen thousand words. The number of words in my “outline” so far? Twelve thousand.

Obviously, this approach isn’t for everyone, and even as I look back on what I’ve written here, it sounds somewhat insane. Yet I’ve found that it’s the only way I can produce the sort of fiction I enjoy writing, under what are often considerable time constraints. And far from inhibiting creativity, I find that it actually enhances it. Writing an outline is an elaborate and intellectually challenging sort of game: I don’t need to worry about writing well, but about constructing a series of clearly defined beats that tell the story I want to tell, even in the absence of good prose. Since I live with an outline for weeks, I find myself fussing over it at odd moments, tinkering with it, sometimes radically altering it. And when the time finally comes to write, I have a solid foundation of story on which I can always rely, even if the act of writing itself often takes me in surprising directions. Tomorrow, I’ll be talking more about how I approach the outlining process each day, and how I turn a mere synopsis into the blueprint for an actual story.

Written by nevalalee

February 9, 2012 at 11:09 am

Posted in Writing

Tagged with ,

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