Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Writing the detailed outline, part 2

with 7 comments

Yesterday, I spoke about how whenever I start work on a novel or short story, I begin by drafting a detailed outline that often approaches the length of the final manuscript itself. This may sound like a huge “outline,” but it seems marginally less insane when you realize that it’s actually my second or third outline, depending on how you define it. The first outline, at least for a novel, comes in the form of a five- to six-page synopsis to my publisher, in which I briefly summarize what I see as the plot, based on a few weeks of mulling it over. The second outline, which I develop concurrently with the first, is a more detailed breakdown that aims to lay out the action chapter by chapter, at least for the first big section of story. (For reasons that I’ve mentioned before, I try not to outline an entire novel at once, but to save some unanswered questions for later in the process.) And it’s this second outline, which is basically just a list of chapters with a few brief notes, that I need to turn into something more substantial.

And I do it a chapter at a time, usually a chapter a day, for however long it takes. (My novels, incidentally, tend to have between fifty or sixty chapters for a manuscript of 100,000 words.) For City of Exiles, I did two detailed chapter outlines per day, which I’ve since decided is too intense a routine: I could keep it up for one book, but not for much longer, at least not without burning out entirely. A chapter a day is a much more manageable pace, and it also dovetails nicely with how my brain works. In outlining, as in everything else, it’s often best to focus on one thing at a time: one beat, one scene, one chapter, as if the rest of the novel didn’t exist, even if it’s always at the back of your mind. Devoting one day to outlining an entire chapter allows you to give it the attention that it deserves, without worrying about the second chapter that you have scheduled for later that afternoon. And it allows you to ruminate on that one chapter during those moments of daily downtime that are so crucial to the creative process: washing dishes, running errands, taking a walk in the park.

So how does a typical day look? When it begins, I generally have some general notes on the chapter in a text file, an additional set of more detailed research notes on any technical matters that I expect to encounter, and a stack of index cards with miscellaneous ideas. (For more information on the index card system, see here, or Kenneth Atchity’s useful book A Writer’s Time.) I try to review my notes as early as possible, ideally before my morning shower—which is the best thinking time in the world—or, increasingly, at bedtime the night before. And my first goal is to come up with the most basic possible structure for the overall chapter, with David Mamet’s three questions as a guide:

1. What is the scene about?
2. What is the protagonist’s objective?
3. How do we know when we’re done?

These questions are so helpful for guiding my thinking that I include them as a footer in my outline document in Word, along with a fourth question, which I added after reading Mamet’s famous memo to the writers of The Unit: Why now? And my first order of business is to structure the chapter around these questions, in a chunk of narrative that has a beginning, middle, and end. (Later, of course, I may seek to cut the beginning and end of each scene, and jump from middle to middle, but I’ve found that it’s useful to think in these terms at the outline stage.)

Once I have what seems like a workable narrative shape, I begin to flesh it out, putting myself into the scene as much as possible, writing it from one beat to the next, orienting myself with the structure I’ve mentally developed, and thinking whenever I can in terms of actual paragraphs. The result, as you can see in these pictures of the outline for my story “Kawataro,” is a series of sentence fragments, telegraphic, joined with dashes, a series of reminders to jog my memory when I actually start to write. Once I’ve finished a draft of the outline, I break for lunch, take an hour off, and often do a mind map to generate one last round of ideas, after which I polish the entire thing one last time. In the end, I’ll have a comprehensive outline of a single chapter, which I copy and paste into my general outline for the entire book. The next day, I do it again. And if all goes well, weeks or months later, when I start writing the chapter itself, I’ll open the file, look at my outline, and still remember what the hell I was talking about.

Written by nevalalee

February 10, 2012 at 9:29 am

7 Responses

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  1. Have you considered teaching part-time/1 class in novel writing? You’ll make excellent teacher/writer.


    February 10, 2012 at 9:50 am

  2. Aw—thanks! The one problem with teaching a writing class is that at some point, you actually have to read the stories. Otherwise, it seems like a pretty good gig.


    February 10, 2012 at 10:29 am

  3. I love the information here! Thank you.


    February 10, 2012 at 1:51 pm

  4. My pleasure! I never know how interesting this sort of thing will be, so I’m glad you found it useful.


    February 10, 2012 at 2:04 pm

  5. Lord, that sound awful. I don’t know how you stand it. The only reason I write is for the bliss of discovery, the gorgeous moment when I look up and realize that three hours have passed without my knowing it because I’ve been living somewhere else. Transport, that’s the good part. Well, money, too. But mostly transport. I don’t deny the obligation of plot–though, hey, don’t you think it’s a bit inconsistent to blame the destiny-as-escape-hatch people when you’re plotting your stories so thoroughly?–plot is paramount, plot is the god we bow before. But I’d never get out of bed if that’s all there was to it. Ha! Can you tell I’m about to outline my next book?


    February 23, 2012 at 7:21 pm

  6. Well, it certainly isn’t for everyone! But I wouldn’t write this way if I didn’t derive a significant amount of pleasure from the process. The detailed outline is really more like a stealth first draft: the journey is always full of surprises, and I often find myself lost in a scene as I outline the first version of events, only to get lost in it again when I go back and write it for real. (It’s also probably significant that I only plot one section of the story at a time: I’m about to finish outlining the first third of my current novel, for instance, and I have no idea how I’m going to solve some of the problems I’ve set for myself.)

    But the proof, I suppose, is in the story itself. I’d love to send you a copy, if you’re interested…

    (And best of luck with your outline!)


    February 23, 2012 at 7:49 pm

  7. This is something I try to do but know I should spend more time on it. Thanks for sharing your process with us on here; there are definitely some tips I know I can use!


    November 4, 2013 at 5:28 pm

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