I was asked recently how I approach the outlining of a novel. It’s a question that comes up time and time again—and over the years I have answered it in many different ways. The main reason for this, of course, is that as I have grown as a writer, my approach has evolved. In the early days, I really couldn’t envisage writing a novel I’d planned beforehand. For me, this defeated the point of writing. In many regards, I then viewed my projects as a more involved, interactive form of reading. I wanted that seat of the pants spontaneity, that sense of never quite knowing where I was going to end up. It was fun. It inspired me. It kept me interested in writing when I otherwise might have drifted.
But that kind of approach, I soon found, was difficult to sustain. I quickly discovered that for every project that reached a conclusion, I was abandoning two or three others. This wasn’t exactly a bad thing. It served a purpose and allowed me to weed out the stuff that simply didn’t deserve to be written. But it was time-consuming. Sometimes I would find myself writing seventy thousand words before realising that it wasn’t quite going the way I would have ideally have liked. On average, that would mean three or four months down the drain. When you’re an aspiring novelist, that isn’t such a big deal—but when you are already published and looking to bring something new out every twelve to eighteen months … well, not exactly ideal.
Also, over recent years I’ve found that my novels have increased in complexity. I enjoy narratives that work on a number of levels—plotting, character and theme—and keeping track of this whilst trying to focus on the ways the novel “sounded” was becoming increasingly difficult. I like my work to have a certain lyricism, and there are only so many balls that even the most talented among us can juggle at any one time. (And I certainly don’t claim to be that!)
And so, I—with Children of the Resolution (my second published novel)—decided to try a different approach. A different approach for me. This has now become my tried and tested way of working:
- Initial one-page outline. This is in effect a three act representation of the novel as I see it. A simple beginning, middle and end. I don’t like to even think about moving beyond this until I have all three acts at least vaguely outlined.
- Single sentence chapter outline. This develops the three act outline into simple chapter summations, focusing on the central points. At this stage I avoid too much detail.
- From the above I develop a more detailed chapter outline—building a more solid awareness of character and plot development. This is, in many regards, my first draft. I expect a total of 20,000 words at outline to equate with a novel of around 140,000 words. I use this stage to nail down structure in particular.
While I initially had reservations about this approach, I’ve found that it suits me down to the ground. That said, writing is very much about finding your own way. All the how-to books in the world cannot substitute for experience and trial and error. Give this approach a go, but if it doesn’t work for you, don’t worry; there are no hard and fast rules to any aspect of writing—whatever some might claim.
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© 2012 Gary William Murning