Outlining: The Second Level

So in my last post, I discussed the importance of outlining. Again, if you can write novels that you’re happy with without outlining, then you don’t need to read this post. But I couldn’t.

So, using the outlining I described, I wrote about three and a half novels, including the horrible first trunk novel. But I still struggled with each individual chapter, After all, a chapter of a novel is about as much work to write (although it is a whole different kind of work) as a short story. And I kept finding that once I got down to chapter-level writing, I hadn’t outlined as much as I thought I had. I had to make decisions about how the characters made decisions on the fly, and sometimes these would have far-reaching implications for the whole flow of the novel. I’d have to stop the flow of my prose to re-plot (or sometimes, plot for the first time) crucial events. For example, in my last completed novel, I had a scene where I needed characters on an airship to chase down characters on an ocean vessel. The problem was, while you certainly can (and peopleĀ have) docked airships to ocean ships, you can’t do it without an actual platform for that purpose. So I had to go back and write a backstory that explained why the ocean ship on question had that capability in the first place.

What I figured out, halfway through, was this: you can outline chapters as easily as you can outline full novels, and it’s helpful for the same reason that outlining the whole novel is. You can scribble down dialogue flows, rearrange the order in which things happen, and see quickly if you’re doing anything that violates later continuity, without having had to pound out pages of text. Then, when you ARE in the flow of producing text, you don’t have to stop and solve problems.

Using this technique, the last half of my novel just flowed like water. And for the first time, I discovered that writing a novel did not feel like a terrible, endless slog. That doesn’t mean that there were zero problems, and frankly, the fact that I’d finished three previous novels doubtless had its effect as well. But it was like turning out of a headwind that’s always been there, and I wished I’d figured out this bi-level outlining technique sooner. And so I offer this advice for what it’s worth, because I wish I hadn’t had to figure it out for myself.

I have wondered why novelists don’t talk about this more. I don’t see them doing it, anyway. There are several possibilities. First and most likely, other novelists know just how individual novel-writing is, and they don’t think their experience will be helpful. Secondly, they may have internalized it to the point they don’t think about it anymore. Finally, I may just not have been reading in the right places. But I hope my readers will find my effort here helpful.

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