Got a request the other day to do a piece of outlining a novel. I am an outliner; I’m routinely mocked at my local writer’s group for my OCD spreadsheets and long lists of carefully organized notes. But that’s just how I work.* I can’t figure out where I want to go without a map.
So I’m going to walk you through my process for outlining a novel, from Idea to Roadmap. A caveat before we begin, however: this is what works for me. Your mileage may vary. And, as I mentioned the other day, no process is so good that it can’t be improved.
Step One: The Idea
No one starts a novel without an Idea. A scene, a character, a setting, a mystery, something. This is the nucleus around which the rest of your story will form, like rogue electrons being pulled in to make some new, probably radioactive, element.
I’ve had different things be the nucleus. The idea for The Patchwork King was the opening scene, after which I had to find out what happened next. A friend of mine gets very attached to particular characters and their story, quite aside from what’s happening elsewhere.
Whatever it is, whatever you find, this is the core, so make it good. Get something that inspires you to get through all the fiddly annoying bits. Whenever you get bogged down, look back to this one moment/character/thing that will make sure you go on, because stopping means that story will never be told.
Step Two: The Usual Suspects
This is your shopping list of basic elements. Have a protagonist? You need an antagonist, the flip side of the coin. You need a setting, because talking heads spouting ungrounded dialogue is only acceptable in a philosophical treatise.** You need a conflict.
These are the other planets orbiting the star of your Idea. They might not be as mesmerizing, at least not at first, but you need them to exist if you’re going to make a story and not an interesting little vignette. And it’s not unknown for the satellites to steal the show later on, when you’ve spent more time with them.
Some of the things you might find you need: protagonist, antagonist, setting(s), central conflict, side conflict(s), major characters, the high concept blurb, unicorn cavalry, some rules for magic/science/paranormal activity, an inciting incident, muffin baskets, velociraptors…
I usually find that most of this stuff clanks into place like dominos: the Idea kicks off a chain reaction and before I know it I have a little solar system of my own, where I can play god and wreak havoc. But there’s always holes, and the real brain work goes into figuring out what can—and what should—patch those holes. Stuff will change. Old ideas will fall off and get replaced by newer ones. It’s all very fluid at this point, but it should be a fluid that you’re trying to shape nonetheless.
You don’t have to have everything in place before you start outlining, or even before you start writing. But you should have enough to be going on with. You should know the answers to some basic questions, like ‘what’s the problem?’ and ‘why the fuck should we care?’.
And if it doesn’t work out later, you can always change it.
Step Three: Gather Your Forces
You’ve got an Idea, you’ve got some satellite ideas floating around up there, you’re probably good to go, right?
Wrong. At least, if you’re me, wrong. I’ve tried to start novels at this stage before, and you know where they are? Half-finished in the Purgatory File on my hard drive, never to return. And it’s a shame, because some of them were pretty good ideas. But I jumped the gun and killed them by going too fast, wrapping them around a telephone pole on the road to writing. My bad.
This is the time to put that little extra bit of work into thinking about the story. Daydream about it. Have moments of inspiration. Ideally, if you can be working on some other project at this time, it works out very well. You can get on with writing your other story while you let this one gently bubble at the back of your mind. Adding new characters. Fleshing out settings. Redefining the nature of the conflict. Solidifying.
When are you ready to go on? When you can’t fucking take it any more.
Coming Friday: Part Two, all the fiddly bits, including the Super Fantastic Outline.
*In my experience, most people lean toward either order or chaos. Personally, I think my natural bias is skewed so far towards chaos that I need the artificial borders of things like outlines in order to function.
**Even then, don’t complain if no one wants to read it. I’m looking at you, Plato.