Friday, October 24, 2014

Clarifying Thoughts: Revising Your Outlines to Make the Writing Easier

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

We talk a lot about revising our prose, but what about revising our outlines? Refining your story ideas and general plot breakdown in the outline stage can get a lot of the "first ideas" down on paper and leave you fresh to be more creative--and original--during the actual first draft.

After you've finished your outline, try reading through it and adding any ideas that pop into your head. Snippets of dialog, a great way to end a scene, an important tidbit that would be perfect for that chapter. Let your mind wander and whatever hits you, write it down. Go ahead and brainstorm on paper.

Once you're happy with your general story, check to see if the narrative is flowing. Some details you won't have yet (and that's okay) but look for the underlying structure of the novel. Ask yourself:

Is my protagonist moving toward something? 

If you have a lot of "stuff" happening to your protagonist, and not a lot of them doing anything, it could signal a reactive plot brewing. It might be a good idea to do a goal check and see what's driving your character to act.

Is my protagonist feeling too much? 

If your summaries or outlines are focusing more on the emotions, you might be short on external goals.What external events are bringing about these internal changes?

Is my protagonist debating too much? 

If you have a large section of the protagonist figuring out information or debating things, this could indicate not enough plot events.You might look for ways to get your protagonist moving and trying to accomplish things, while struggling with inner turmoil or figuring out a puzzle.

What are your character motivations? 

If you have no solid motivating factor for your protagonist, that could indicate a two-dimensional character who'll only act out the plot but not really care. And that means no stakes, so readers won't care either.You might look for ways to raise the stakes and make the conflicts more personal for your characters.

Are there four or five big plot events to keep the story moving? 

You might not know the details yet, but if there aren't enough solid problems occurring, you might find yourself hitting a wall halfway through and not know where the story goes. Figuring out a few of the major plot turning points ahead of time will give you something to write toward and help keep the story moving.

What's the big middle twist? 

Trust me, figure this out beforehand, even if you're not 100% sure exactly what will happen. A lot of books stall in the middle because there isn't enough plot to get from the inciting event to the climax. A big twist or event in the middle will give you something to write toward, and then something to recover from.If you do only one thing on this list, do this.

What's the ending? 

The ending is the whole point of the book--to solve a particular problem. If you don't know what it is, it could indicate a premise novel without a strong protagonist driving the story. Even if it's vague, figure out what your protagonist needs to do that will "end" the book.

Once you have a pretty solid plot flow, take a peek at some of the smaller layers, like character arcs and when certain information needs to be revealed.

Where do the character arc turning points fall? 

Look for the general areas you want your characters to grow, so you can ensure you give them obstacles to cause that growth. If they're a jerk the whole time and suddenly change, readers won't buy it. Make sure you give them enough time and reasons to grow.

Where is the critical information revealed? 

Information will be spoon fed to the reader the entire book, but there are usually a handful of shockers or big reveals in every novel. Where do yours fall? Do any fall too close to another major plot point or character arc moment? Perhaps space them out more to help keep the tension high.

What's the pacing feel like? 

If you notice a lot of things happening at once, and not a lot going on in other parts of the book, that could indicate a pacing problem. Good pacing goes a long way toward writing a good novel. Look for plot waves, where stakes keeps escalating and there's a good balance between resolving the goals and revealing new information.

When you're through with your outline, it's not a bad idea to share it with a writer buddy. It's not easy to critique an outline, but having someone ask questions and put down their thoughts as they read can be incredibly helpful in spotting bad tracks in logic or areas that are unclear.

Don't underestimate your subconscious when it comes to storytelling, either. I suspect a lot of pantsers have really good subconsciouses (subconscies?), and that's why they can just write without a road map. Stuff is brewing in their minds without them being fully aware of it. Even if you're not a pantser, feeding your subconscious enough treats to work in the background can be quite helpful. All those "Ah, ha!" moments come from there.

Agent Kristin Nelson blogged about an editorial road map, (this one for outliners and this one for pantsers) and this breakdown is a handy tool to go along with that. After that first draft is done, created a road map that covers all the plot points and events, then check it against this list to see how your story is flowing.

Do you outline? If so, do you revise before you start the novel? Do you revise during the process? Do you write the outline and the scrap it, relying on your memory to write the book? 

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Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. Excellent post. Thank you! For my next novel, I'l planning on outlining and I'll be using this as a template. I want to see if outlining will help this woebegone pantser past the muddy middle :/

  2. Really helpful as always. Definitely have to save this--thanks!

  3. Just want to say how much I get out of all your articles even if I don't comment everyday.

    But this one is particularly helpful, not only from an outline perspective, but from a revising one, where you can look at what you've already written to evaluate what's working and what's not.

  4. Excellent post! Or, as my 8 y/o would say, this is Super Duper Greatest. :D

  5. Awesome questions to ask yourself at all steps of the writing and revising process. Thanks for the tips.

  6. I'm a pantser, personally. I can't outline before the first draft. However, after that first draft, I almost always need some clarity and outlining helps straighten up the storyline. These are some really helpful signposts to keep me on track.

  7. For my screenwriting, I work through a very detailed outline. I'm moving toward something similar with my novel writing, but I like to jump into the story for a few chapters to get a feel for my characters. Then I work on an outline for my novel, which is less detailed.

    These are jus the sort of questions I need to work through with both processes. :)

    ~ Kaitlin

  8. Thank you so much for this post! Fabulous timing -- I was already planning to begin revising my own outline today, and now have a great list of points to consider.

    I spent about a month writing the outline, then put it away (and tried to forget about it) for another month. Now I’m both nervous and excited about what I might find in there...

  9. Great post. I've struggled with outlining versus pantster and I think I've come to the pantster conclusion for myself. I find the bare bones after I get that first draft down.

  10. A timely post.

    A few months ago, I typed up a middle grade novel. But there was too much going on and I couldn't rein it in. For the past few days, I've been typing my synopsis using Randy Ingermanson's Snowflake program and referencing the book he co-authored with Peter Economy, "Writing Fiction for Dummies". And appropriate title.

    And today, I receive your outstanding timely post. Now can I forge ahead and tighten my novel.

    Thanks again
    Tracy Campbell

  11. Xan, hope it helps you!

    Wendy, most welcome :)

    Jenna, thanks! I go back to my outline all through the book. It's really handy to have a summary of what you've done.

    Lydia, lol high praise indeed! Thanks :)

    Natalie, most welcome.

    Kendra, good to hear. I'm always worried my plotter nature doesn't offer as much help for the pantser. But I suppose some of that can indeed be helpful during revisions instead of the writing.

    Kaitlin, hope they help! I tend to work in small chunks myself. I may have the whole thing outlined, but it gets vaguer as it goes. But as I write, I flesh it out.

    Wendy, oh good! Putting away your outline for a month is a great idea actually. I hear that all the time for the manuscript, but never before for the outline itself. I'll have to try that next book!

    Traci, that's great you found your process. :)

    Tracy, yay! Good luck with that outline. Let me know how it goes for you.

  12. This IS great prep for Nanowrimo! I've got a very loose outline going right now, the major key points in each chapter are highlighted, but going back through with these in mind will really help me clarify it.

    1. Glad it helped! Hope it gives you a good head start for Nov :)