Last week, a reader asked: I would love to know if any of you have suggestions on how to write a novel outline. I never really plan ahead in my novels, but right now I am stuck on chapter three and am considering the outlining process.
This isn't really a cut and dried answer, because everyone writes in different ways, and some people don't use outlines at all.
But here's what I do:
Because I now sell on proposal to my editor, I have to - duh - have a proposal. =) And a proposal includes a synopsis (of varying lengths), so for me, I have to have a clear vision of my story before I get it contracted and then written. This is great in a sense, because it means if they reject the idea, I didn't waste time writing a book that didn't sell, and can move to a new idea and try again immediately. But it's also frustrating because that means I have to stick to what I told them would happen, and obviously means I have to KNOW what happens in the story.
There is still room to fudge around with details though, and its happened before that when I was writing the story, half-way through I realized This plot thread was leading toward This, and would fit perfectly with This, etc. So I sent my editor an email, ran it by her and kept going with approval. So don't feel that when you get to this point of selling on proposal with your publisher or future publisher that it stifles your creativity or boxes you in. It doesn't have to at all.
What I do is prepare a 3-5 page synopsis with a clear outline of how the story opens, the heroine and hero's main goals and motivation and conflict throughout (what they want, how they're going to get it, what's keeping them apart, etc.) and the external plot (what's actually going in the story outside of the romance between the hero and heroine). I have a beginning, a middle, and an end that works together and wraps up with a happily ever after (my publisher demands HEA's!)
Since I'm such an organized, detail-oriented person to begin with, I typically thrive on having my story plotted in full previous to writing it, because then I don't have writer's block. I don't ever wonder "what happens next" or sit there staring, wondering where the story is going. I know where it's going because I had to decide before I started. That's another bonus - plotting a full story before you write it lets you dictate a story before you get involved with the characters and the emotion. It's like a pre-writing, bird's eye view, more technical perspecctive of "will this work? is there enough conflict? are the goals clear throughout? are there enough characters? too many? is the setting suitable?" etc. After you're involved in the writing process of the story, revisions hurts more from an editor because you're already so invested. Does that make sense?
Anyway, to get technical about my personal choice of outlining and plotting, here's what I do - I just sit down with a fresh Microsoft Word document page and start writing my ideas for a story. Usually this stage is just me typing, very informally, very amateurish, just getting thoughts on the screen all jumbled and half-finished. Then when I get a full idea fleshed out I go back and tie it together and brainstorm for "why did he do this" type justifications, and fixing what I call "plotholes" (potholes!) of things that don't make sense and need to be filled in, etc. Then when it's all there, I edit it into something presentable and official to present to my agent and editor.
So don't feel that you have to have a formal, worthy-of-presenting-to-your-high-school-english-teacher outline with points and subpoints and everything else.
However, there is much praise in the industry for Randy Ingermanson's "Snowflake Method" of plotting, but I haven't ever actually used it myself. I just know it's highly recommended if you are the type of person who works best with a more formal, detailed outline.
Bottom line - do what works best for you, whether that's plotting a lot, plotting a little, or not plotting in advance at all. Just write =)