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Lakeshore
An author of no particular popularity

Jay Lake
Date: 2010-11-11 04:52
Subject: [writing|process] On outlining a novel
Security: Public
Tags:books, green, process, publishing, writing
After my process post of yesterday [ jlake.com | LiveJournal ], several people asked me to comment in more detail on my outlining process.

Well, first of all, I don't outline. Not in the classic sense. Rather, I synopsize.

"What's the difference?" you may ask.

Good question.

An outline breaks the book down structurally, by chapter and scene. Many authors do this, some tracking right down to projected word count and lists of characters in-scene before they ever cut a word of draft prose. A synopsis summarizes the book in a compressed narrative format. Many authors do this, as well. It is the more common selling document, I suspect, simply because the synopsis gives a better feel for the tone and arc of the story. In all likelihood, a number of authors do both. (For the authors, editors, and agents who might be reading, feel free to amend or correct this distinction in comments.)

One thing to note here is that outlining is one of the many aspects of our craft that is highly idiosyncratic. Unlike, for example, spelling, which outside of eye-dialect tends to be consistent; or punctuation, which is only moderately idiosyncratic. Ask any three writers how they outline, and you'll probably get four or five answers at least. Which is to say, there is no right way to outline, there is only the way that works for you.

For my part, given that I'm a synopsizer, I tell myself the story in a compressed format, in reading order. Sometimes there is supporting material, such as a dramatis personae list, for example, but functionally that's an appendix to the synopsis. Developing that synopsis is rather like writing a very dense, badly-styled short story, except that I have to jam in the plot complexity and character arcs that are generally required of a novel.

Note that the density of the synopsis does not map to the novel on a fixed basis. Sometimes a throwaway line will expand to thousands of words, other times a key scene in the synopsis might make it into the novel nearly unchanged. However, to give you a something of a feel for how they can relate, following is a bit of compare-and-contrast.

Three sentences from the outline of Green:
One day along the docks in her Neckbreaker persona, Green passes by the Dancing Mistress. The felinoids of the Stone Coast are very rarely seen south of the Storm Sea. The Dancing Mistress is being followed by a crowd of shouting children and beggars.


The corresponding text from a late (pre-copy-edit) version of the manuscript file:
Down along the Avenue of Ships, the middle of a warm, rainy Wednesday which happened to be the Festival of Coal Demons, the Goddess spoke to me again. I did not feel Her presence as I had in the past, but there was no mistaking the furred, rangy shape that stepped through the crowd near me.

A Stone Coast pardine.

I had never seen one of that race here in Selistan. Sometimes the Lily Goddess made Her will known through unlikely chance.

As I took a few strides more, I realized this was the Dancing Mistress. Only strongly drilled habit kept me moving when I wanted to stop and stare. She was bare-handed and bare-footed, wore a light toga of some open weave fabric, and carried a satchel over her shoulder - almost as she'd looked back in Copper Downs, except dressed for our weather.

I brushed past her, close enough to touch. Her pace faltered as if she'd noticed me, but I was clothed as Neckbreaker, not to mention three years older and taller than when last she'd seen me. The small riot of beggars and children who jostled in her wake kept her moving, or she might have turned to stare.

At least, so I fancied.

What was she doing here?


So, basically, I write the novel in a very short form as the synopsis, then I write it again as a first draft manuscript. Then I go over it again, and again, and again. (I once calculated that by the time a book hits mass market paperback, after a hardback release, that I've read it at least nine times, all of those for editing or revision purposes, or both.)

But it all starts with what I somewhat erroneously refer to as the outline.

How do you outline?

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Kari Sperring
User: la_marquise_de_
Date: 2010-11-11 13:09 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I keep running notes at the end of whatever chapter I'm on. These are a mix of questions (what does X think? Where's the goat?), forward notes (remember to include the avocado; Y notices purple string!, fire at aircraft shed), and random other stuff (don't forget about the toaster; shiny wool -- can I use this; check place-names; Y must find the spoon before chapter 7). It works some of the time...
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Twilight: WriterRose
User: twilight2000
Date: 2010-11-11 18:13 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:WriterRose
That! I don't really outline (i'm organic - whether for now or for always is anyone's guess) - but i leave notes about where to go next and bits to remember later :>.
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jimvanpelt
User: jimvanpelt
Date: 2010-11-11 13:11 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Some of my outlining friends hate it when I tell them I don't outline, so now I tell them that to write a 100,000 word text, I do a 100,000 word outline, and then I polish it.

I wish I could outline. I think it might speed me up, but I don't seem capable of figuring out what I mean or where I'm going until I've actually written to the point where I have to make the next decision.
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desperance
User: desperance
Date: 2010-11-11 22:56 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
This. Step by step, page by page, hand in hand with the reader. Whatever's over the page, I discover it at the same pace that they do.
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Talekyn
User: talekyn
Date: 2010-11-11 14:56 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I think half of the reason I continue to struggle with the mystery novel is that I never did outline. I had an expectation in my head of where the story would go and where the main characters would end up, but that was about it. Of course, the novel started out in an odd way. I hadn't intended to write a novel. I was stuck for something to contribute to my bi-weekly writers' group in order to meet the minimum activity requirements during a period where I wasn't writing consistently, and I pulled an old journal entry out, typed it up and polished it a bit, and submitted it. Ifigured it was a nice character study/short story with a cryptic ending. Two weeks later, the response from most of the group was "if you don't finish this, we'll kill you." From there on, I just kept writing, thinking that eventually I would decide if it was a supernatural mystery-thriller or "just" a mundanatural mystery-thriller. That indecision (which an outline might have helped focus) has hurt me in the long-run. As has the fact that novels are still outside my comfort range by a wide margin compared to writing short stories.
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2010-11-11 15:00 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
As has the fact that novels are still outside my comfort range by a wide margin compared to writing short stories.

See my concept of "span of control"...
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Talekyn
User: talekyn
Date: 2010-11-11 15:09 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I missed your original posts on the subject, but saw it mentioned recently on Jim Van Pelt's blog and it really "rang true" for me. The 50k format seems to be about as far as I can go feeling comfortable. That would be considered what? A novella?
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2010-11-11 15:16 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
50,000 words is a short novel, actually. Novellas are typically considered to top out at 40,000 words (though measuring the distinction by word count is pretty arbitrary - the real distinctions are in structure and plot complexity).

The market for short novels in adult trade fiction is extremely minimal these days. As compared to, for example, the late 1960s. YA still publishes those.

See here for a bit more on this:

http://jaylake.livejournal.com/1397832.html
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Talekyn
User: talekyn
Date: 2010-11-12 14:03 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Thanks for that!
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madrobins
User: madrobins
Date: 2010-11-11 16:21 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
When I am starting a book I write a paragraph in the form of "Once upon a time" story--it's weird, but it lets me know what is important to me in the story, as well as the plot. Then I start writing. Then, usually about half way through, I often feel compelled to write a chapter-by-chapter outline of what I've got so far, just to make sure that I'm fabricating from a steady basis (I have been known to forget something).

I will say that the one licensed media book I ever did, for which I was required to turn in a 25 page outline, was a breeze to write. Which was good because the deadline suddenly got veerrrry short and I had to write and revise in six weeks. In fact, my deadline was so tight that I turned the book in before I heard if Marvel had approved the outline (which, thank God, they did).
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taerin
User: taerin
Date: 2010-11-11 23:59 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I really like the "once upon a time" idea. Thanks, madrobins. :-)
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desperance
User: desperance
Date: 2010-11-11 22:57 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I've read it at least nine times, all of those for editing or revision purposes, or both.

How do you distinguish between editing and revision?
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2010-11-17 14:30 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
How do you distinguish between editing and revision?

Whoops, meant to answer this earlier.

Erm...I'll have to think about that a bit. Watch for a blog post soon. Intuitively, they feel different to me, but as soon as I try to define cases, the difference gets really slippery.
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Bryan Thomas Schmidt
User: Bryan Thomas Schmidt
Date: 2010-11-11 23:21 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I'm still at an earlier Jay Lake stage where I like the book to unfold as I go, except that I have taken to outlining the following chapter as I finish the one prior. This outline may change as I start writing, but at least gives me a sense of the key scenes and what has to be accomplished in each as well as which subplot/plot they belong in and a sense of the dramatic order in which I want to tell them.
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