Outlining the Novel

Outlining the Novel

Have you ever tried to outline your novel using roman numerals? Bleah! Unless you’re a very special person, it isn’t going to work. I’ve tried, I’ve failed miserably. The method isn’t flexible enough to encompass the complexity of a longer work. I had pretty much given up on outlining. I’ve been hacking away on my next novel, Thunderhead: A High Desert Mystery, doing well, too. My manuscript is up to 26,000 words, 116 manuscript pages. A good start or so I thought.

My good friend, Lisa Alber, has been reading my rough draft chapters as they are finished. Lisa is a crackerjack writer and she’s working on a mystery novel of her own set in Ireland. Lisa’s response to Chapter 3: “Nice start, but it’s episodic.” That sent chills down my spine. Editors and agents often tagged my early fiction efforts the same way. “God,” I thought, “she must be wrong”, but looking over my manuscript I realized she was right. The story hopped from one pivotal scene to the next. The core plot was there, but as Lisa put it, the connective tissue wasn’t. I had focused on the central mystery and the resulting adventure, but had left out the human stuff. Crap! I’d have to go back and layer in the complex interactions between Harkness and the people in the county that would flesh out the narrative. Make my narrative real and accessible to the reader.

Here’s an example of how I’m attempting to do this:

The original version:

About then, Dick Solus and the volunteer firefighters trooped out of the high school looking grumpy. As Swift had told them, no fire to fight, just smoke in the science room. Solus called for Swift to join them. As he left, Madeline touched him on the back of the arm, between shoulder and elbow, and with her other hand she plucked a tiny piece of lint from his coat. She whispered something in his ear.

“You’d be an interesting man to know, Matthew Harkness,” she said when we were alone.

“So I’ve descended from fabled to interesting. My fall is swift and sure.” The black Plymouth still lurked across the street.

She looked as if she didn’t know what to make of that. “Let me guess your favorite musician.” She tapped her finger on her teeth. “Hank Williams.”

“Sometimes.” Bird Parker played in my imagination. “And you.  Edith Piaf no.” I tapped my teeth in imitation. “Benny Goodman nope, ah, must be Liberace. You’re a Liberace fan.”

And the revision:

About then, Dick Solus and the volunteer firefighters trooped out of the high school looking grumpy. As Swift had told them, no fire to fight, just smoke in the science room.

I opened my mouth to ask a question of Solus, but someone interrupted me.

“Matthew Harkness, you son of a bitch.”

I turned around “Why as I live and breathe, Prudence Knight, you’re a sight for sore eyes. Put on a little weight haven’t you?”

She wound up and slapped me. “You bastard. You knocked me up.” Her eyes spit venom. She looked like a rattler that had swallowed a watermelon.

“Mr. Swift, let me introduce Prudence, the mother of my unborn child.”

“Ma’am.” He touched the brim of his hat. “I must bid adieu, this is where I came in.” Swift strode off, looking more than a little amused.

I wiped a spot of blood from my lips. “Knocked up? It supposed to be a roadhouse rebound weekend with no strings attached.”

“You may have thought that, but things change.”

“It’s been seven months. You never called or wrote. Why now?”

“Can’t sing no more in my condition. My sister said I could stay with her until the baby comes.”

In my revision, I’ve skewed Harkness’ emotional life in a completely new direction. Prudence, a character from the first novel, has returned to town and she’s pregnant, yet another complication for my protagonist. As a result, Madeline Swan, who I had originally planned on being a primary player, has been relegated to minor character status. I knew from the beginning she wasn’t going to be a love interest for Harkness, so this makes more sense. I’m not sure if this works for the reader, but it makes sense for me. The narrative is more complex and has more substance. What I realized after reading Lisa’s comments was that my manuscript was my outline. I’d sketched things out, later I’d have to go back and fill in the blanks.

A while back I bought a copy of Scribner. Nice software, it might be right for you, but it wasn’t for me.  Doing some research, I realized that there are as many forms of novel outlines as there are writers. Gay Talese’s outline looks like this:

And Joseph Heller’s like this:


Detailed: Writer Joseph Heller's outline for 'Catch-22' - the anti-war novel which went on to become one of the best-known books, and phrases, of all time

If you’re worried about outlining, my best advice is find what works for you. Another writing buddy of mine cuts up her stories at the scene breaks, then shuffles them around finding the order that suits her best. Maybe like Heller, you’ll construct a grid, or maybe do creative clustering. Experiment, be daring, discover your own style.

Postscript: Check out Lisa’s blog. She’s got a great novel. Encourage her to get off her thumbs and publish that sucker.