Outline Your Book Or Suffer In Revision Hell

25777_366224582299_4542941_nI’m about to do it again.

I don’t know why anyone would bother writing a book-length manuscript when they could write and potentially publish a dozen short stories with the same or less effort. Short stories are quick, and act as evidence that one has the capacity for writing fiction in the first place. If a short story is the single-focused brainchild of a few weeks dedicated work, a book is a commitment to raising the child to adulthood. Yet here I am, about to write my fourth book.

What am I thinking?

I’ll tell you what I’m thinking – I don’t know – except that this story, this book-long tale of my imagination, will not let me focus on anything else. The first book in the series (which may never see the light the of day), has turned out to be backstory. I’m not exactly thrilled that things turned out this way, but these things happen, and at least with the back-story out of the way the real story can now be told.

T.E. Lawrence reminds us that “(a)ll the revision in the world will not save a bad first draft: for the architecture of the thing comes, or fails to come, in the first conception, and revision only affects the detail and ornament, alas!” So with all due respect to Anne Lamott we must consider the risks of a poor drafting in the first place. Following that, one must realize that all the work done on a piece of writing may end up being little more than practice, or perhaps the fleshing out of backstory so that the real story can be told. This realization may occur after more than a year working on a project, and the conclusion can be upsetting. As with any catastrophe it may take some time to come to terms with the aftermath. When I wrote about a million words a few years back I concluded that, upon reaching the million word benchmark, one should write a million more. There are a number of ways to do this. One of them is through revision of a very poor first draft, just be sure to understand the perils of this approach.

One way to avoid writing a poor first draft, and thus having to revise permanently, is to write an outline. An outline does a number of things: it introduces the sequence of events for ease of drafting chapters; it introduces characters and helps identify the proper protagonist; it may inform appropriate point-of-view. By outlining the entire story one knows the end toward which one is writing, how the story impacts the protagonist, approximately how long the story will be, weaknesses in the plot; and is a useful tool for writing the all important synopsis which, whether self-publishing or soliciting agents and editors, is a useful exercise.

An outline takes pressure off of the revision process because it reduces or eliminates errors that can otherwise be made in blind drafting. By knowing where the story is going from the outset the writer is better informed of the story and less likely to create tangents which may end up being cut wholesale in the latter revision process. So while making an outline may seem an unnecessary drag to getting on with the writing, consider it akin to reading the rules before playing a new game. The enjoyment of the activity is greatly enhanced by understanding what you are doing from the outset.

 

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4 comments on “Outline Your Book Or Suffer In Revision Hell

  1. We’re in agreement: You have to be at least a little nuts to commit to writing a novel.

    I’ve made the mistake of writing without an outline. Yikes. I’ve also faced an almost overwhelming amount of revisions on a first draft that had benefited from an outline. I can’t imagine how much worse it would have been if I hadn’t used an outline. The good news is that I was able to update the old outline when planning for the second draft. That’s right…revisions to an outline.

    Why am I doing this again? 😉

    Best of luck with the book. As you stated, there’s only one way to get the story out of your imagination. You can’t ignore it, so you might as well make the best of the…um…adventure.

  2. You know what freaks me out is how much a person can build into an outline. The threads and motifs and nuances go and go seemingly forever. Especially with any sort of speculative fiction. I got a laugh out of your idea of revising the outline, but it’s an excellent point – all of fiction is meant to be revised until we sail it, and even then it changes. Hope your adventures are advancing well.

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