10Tips for outlining your novel

10 Essential Outlining TipsThis week I let Twitter decide what I should blog about(I occasionally have polls @DiannaLGunn) and they chose outlining, so I decided to compile all the outlining tips I could possibly think of. I was gunning for 13 but I spent this past weekend partying out of town and I am STILL exhausted.

1. Take your time

I know it’s really tempting to write a brief outline as soon as you have an idea and jump into your new book the moment you’ve finished that brief outline but this is a great way to end up scrapping your entire first draft and starting over.

Taking your time with the outline and the idea itself before you actually start the book helps you write a better book the first time. Hell, sometimes I don’t even write the idea down at all until I’ve already half-written an outline in my head.

2. Develop your characters and world first

Another reason why you should take your time is because you need to develop your characters and establish at least a little bit of information about your world before you write a serious outline. You can write down a partial outline right away, but if you don’t take the time to develop your characters well before you start they are sure to change the story dramatically as they grow. 

Your goal should be to know your characters and world well enough to know how they will react to the events that make up the plot before you start the outline. To do this I usually do at least one writing exercise in the POV of all the important characters and six or seven worldbuilding exercises. I also do another round of these exercises between drafts so I can develop the characters and world further, adding more depth to each draft.

3. Do it on paper

There are several kinds of outlining software and writing software that comes with its own outlining process but I much prefer creating mine on paper. Working with paper and a pencil helps my brain think in a different way than it does when I’m actually writing a novel. Having a paper copy beside me while working on my laptop is also easier than switching between windows every time I want to check my outline.

4. Make it easy to change

Notice how I said “paper and pencil” above? I write almost everything in pen but I’ve started writing outlines in pencil so I can more easily change things. This is because I often decide to change the order of things once I’ve written them all down and sometimes I get rid of things altogether or add new things. Admittedly it’s easier to change if it’s in a word document, but I like paper much better.

5. If it’s an old idea revisit your notes

If you’ve decided to drag out an idea you never went far with and breath new life into it or to rewrite a project you need to read everything you ever wrote about it. Often you’ll find that you’ve forgotten many aspects even if it’s only been six or seven months between drafts. You may also want to change things you had previously established about the world or characters to fit with a new vision of your story, and you can only do that properly if you know what the facts were supposed to be in the first place.

Reading a lot of old notes might be tedious but there is no other way to really immerse yourself in the material, especially if you’ve built a unique science fiction or fantasy world.

6. Be willing to try different outlining methods

Sometimes a new project will demand a new outlining method. Projects with more than one viewpoint character or extremely complicated plots typically need a slightly more complicated outline which connects all the story lines properly. For example, I actually wrote several outlines for my last novel–one for the main story line and one for each character arc.

7. Keep factsheets on hand while outlining

Factsheets are documents containing all the facts about specific characters and places in your story. I usually keep one for every main character and one for the recent history of the world I’m working in. This allows me to have all the information I need on hand and to make sure I don’t have anyone doing something totally out of character.

8. Ask critique partners & beta readers for their thoughts 

If you’re working on an outline for a second draft or a sequel you don’t have to figure out everything alone. There are(or at least there should be) other people who are familiar with your story and your characters, people who you can bounce ideas off of. If you’re really unsure about something these people can help you figure it out.

9. Let your outline sit for a few days

Once your outline is actually written you’ll be tempted to jump straight into your novel but this is generally a bad idea. If you revisit the outline a few days after you finish it but before you start the novel you’ll probably realize there are a few small(or large) changes you want to make before you start writing. You should also be using this time to do character development exercises to add depth to your story.

10. Give your story freedom to change

The truth is that if you’ve created a truly dynamic world filled with strong characters you’re almost guaranteed to encounter some serious change. The handful of writers I know whose characters tend to stick within outlines are the people crazy enough to spend several weeks or even months on an outline before they start.

If taking a new direction you haven’t built the structure for is completely terrifying you can always stop in the middle and rewrite your outline(this is part of why it should be easy to change). Letting your characters and world change will almost always make for a better story.

Do you outline? How much do you outline? Let me know in the comments section below!