Outlining your novel is one thing. But then, whether you prefer to outline with minimalism, maximalism, or hindsight (aka, in revisions), a surprisingly easy stumbling block can be that of figuring out how to use your outline in the first draft.
Recently, I received an email from Matt Powers, which made me realize that, out of all the dozens of posts I’ve written about outlining, I’ve never actually talked about how to use your outline when writing the first draft. Matt wrote:
I’ve read several of your writing books, as well as too many blog posts to count, and I don’t think I’ve seen this addressed. Forgive me if I missed it.
I have an extensive outline that I’m quite pleased with, and I’m about 40,000+ words into my first draft, but here’s the thing: I’m struggling with the actual writing and I can’t seem to get into the flow because I keep going back and forth between the draft and the outline. I have so much in my outline that I want to be sure to include, that I find I can only get a few sentences in before I’m pulled back to referencing the outline.
It’s like I have one eye on each, and it equals a slog of an experience!
I see tons of advice on how to create an outline, but very little on the practicality of actually using it. So I guess my question is, how do you utilize your outline when writing that first draft? How often are you referencing your outline as you write?
The How and Why of Outlining a Novel
For a long time, the writing world differentiated between writers who were “plotters” (those who planned/plotted a story before writing it) and writers who were “pantsers” (those who “write by the seat of their pants” with no upfront planning). However, over my years of outlining many books, writing many words about outlines, and learning about how other writers work, I’ve come to believe these distinctions are far too narrow.
At some point in the process, almost all writers end up outlining/plotting/planning. And at other points, we all end up pantsing/winging it/being spontaneously creative. In a craft as complex as that of novel-writing, both are equally important. How much outlining an author does upfront versus how much revision that same author does on the back end will vary greatly depending on each author’s personal mental wiring and creative preferences.
That said, let me now express a little of my personal passion for maximalist outlining. I write extensive outlines, which start out with largely incoherent stream-of-conscious ramblings and questioning, before eventually solidifying into detailed scene outlines that contain just about everything a first draft should except for narrative prose.
For example, here’s a snippet of the scene outline from my gaslamp fantasy Wayfarer (from the scene in which he “contracts” his super-speed):
Will flees for home. The trip is a blur. He’s nauseated, vomiting, and horribly dizzy, heart beating out of control, short of breath. I think that the powers should manifest just a little bit: his hands moving quicker than he’s used to, so he has trouble with the door latch. But he chalks it up to his illness.
And here’s approximately the same snippet from the corresponding scene in the first draft:
Through the weed-eaten garden, Will ran. Up and over first one stile, across the road, then the other stile. The night air cut through the sweat on his face. Even as he ran, his teeth rattled cruelly.
For the first time since he was a lad running this field at night, he caught his toe and fell on his face. Before he hit the soft soil, his stomach erupted. He vomited, and then he vomited again. The stars in the sky spun and spun, in every direction, up and down, in front and behind.
On hands and knees, he dragged himself forward, barely gaining his feet.
This time, there was no running; indeed, he could scarcely walk. He splashed into the knee-high stream before its gentle splashing even registered in his ears. He crossed without looking for the bridge. He would have been unable to see it in any case.
He staggered up to the house. His vision had gone completely dark, so maybe there was no light in the window.
My goal in writing any outline is to, first, pour out all of my “dreams” about a given story. I want to number all the shiny pieces my subconscious creativity has given me.
Then, by the time I’m done with the outline, I want to have moved as thoroughly as possible through the first analytical pass. I use my scene outlines to work through a story’s logical progression. I want to figure out as many of the details as possible, everything from what props are available in a particular scene’s setting, to the specific action/reaction sequence of each scene’s structure, to the motivations of all on-stage minor characters.
In other words, I try to use my outline to answer every single question I can think of before I start writing the first draft. I do this for two intertwined reasons.
1. I want to write a clean first draft (because revisions:blech).
2. When writing my first draft, I want to turn away from my logical brain and immerse myself utterly in the imaginative dreamzone space of my story.
I can’t do the latter if my logical brain is always turning into Hermione-raising-her-hand-every-five-minutes. And I certainly can’t do both simultaneously if I haven’t already checked off the bulk of any story’s necessary causal analysis and troubleshooting.
This is why I outline. But how do I then take all these tens of thousands of words from my outline and seamlessly integrate them into the creative zone of my first draft?
5 Tips for How to Use Your Outline
How you choose to reference your outlining notes during the first draft will depend largely on the format of the notes themselves.
Writers who prefer the minimalist approach may create outlines that feature only a single phrase for each suggested scene, or even just a phrase for each important structural beat. In this case, referencing the outline is a comparatively simple and intuitive activity, since you’ll probably only need to check your notes at the beginning of each writing session. (In fact, some of these writers end up filling in their outlines simultaneously with their first drafts, as a way of keeping track of what they’re writing, for easy continuity checks.)
But what if, like me, you end up with enough outline notes to form a respectable pile of notebooks?
In the case of maximalist outliners, it becomes essential to create a system for accessing all those juicy notes you’ve labored over, without constantly pulling yourself out of first-draft flow.
(Needless to say, writers who prefer to wait until after the first draft is altogether finished to do their logical thinking will have few, if any, notes to start with. Depending on the extent of required revisions, these authors may end up, to all essential purposes, following either the minimalist or maximalist crowd.)
Here are my top tips for organizing and using your outline notes, however few or many they may be.
1. Organize the Notes as You Go
Here’s the thing about piles upon pile of rambling notes that circle around randomly: they get to be a mess quick. This is especially true if you outline longhand like I do (if you’re interested in following my outlining process in a tidy digital approach, check out my Outlining Your Novel Workbook software).
The trick is to organize your outline notes as you’re writing them. Use color-coded highlighting systems to file your ideas for easy reference later. If you’re writing longhand, transcribe regularly (especially if, like moi, you can’t read your own writing after too much time passes). This will save you a ton of work in the interim between outline and first draft. You can thank me later.
2. Buy Scrivener
You can, of course, write and use even the most complex of outlines without Scrivener. But this powerhouse word processor for writers just makes everything so much easier. With its opportunities for folders and files and sub-files, among many other organizational gadgets, its a huge step up from juggling your story’s outline and first draft between separate Word files.
By the time I’m ready to write my first draft, I will have used Scrivener to organize my outline notes scene by scene, along with many sub-folders for reference material that includes everything from research notes to costume pictures to character interviews to the random bits of story info I call “orange notes” (because of the highlighter I use to color-code them).
This way, if I find myself needing to break concentration to check something, I don’t have to go far. With everything at my fingertips, I can quickly check myself, then jump back into writing.
3. Block Out a Beat-by-Beat “Storyboard” for Each Scene, But…
Now that we have our outline notes set up and optimally organized within Scrivener, what’s the best approach to referencing the notes without bumping out of the writing zone every five minutes?
Each time I begin writing a new scene, I review my notes and create a sequential list of everything that needs to happen in the scene. The list I used for the scene from Wayfarer, in the original section of this post, started out something like this:
- Will is dizzy as he runs home across the field.
- He trips and vomits.
- He tries to get into the house, but his reflexes are too fast.
In essence, I’m creating a non-visual storyboard, with each beat blocked out.
4. …Don’t Do It Until the Last Minute
You’ll note I do this storyboarding whenever I’m ready to start writing a new scene. Feasibly, you could go ahead and write up the complete beat list for every scene before you start the first draft. This is an approach I consider with every book I write—and one I always reject.
Because my memory is faulty. I write best when I know what I’m writing. If I have to take a little time at the beginning of every scene to think my way through my scene outline, then I know my head will be in the right place. If I merely scanned a beat list I might have written months ago, I would inevitably miss some important moment on the list and end up constructing the scene inappropriately.
Writing up each scene’s beat-by-beat sequence refreshes my memory and lets me take full advantage of all the notes and ideas I labored over when in the outlining phase.
5. Paste Your Beat List Directly Into Your Scene Doc
Once I’ve knocked out my beat list, I put it in the main body of my scene’s Scrivener file. I position it on the screen so the first item of the list is just above the bottom of the screen, directly in my line of sight. This way, I can easily glance down and reference the beat I’m working on.
As soon as I finish the beat, I’ll delete it, which raises the subsequent beat into view. Sometimes, of course, I won’t need to reference every beat. I may write several beats before needing to look down and check my progress.
This approach allows me to focus on bringing to life the first draft’s causes and effects without having to constantly click out of full-screen mode to make sure I’m adhering to the logical progression I already worked out.
Is this the most elegant approach to dealing with maximalist outline notes? Maybe not. It does require a little extra work before each scene. But over my years of outlining and writing almost a dozen novels, this is the method I’ve found most useful. It helps me make full use of my outlines and, as a result, allows me to write relatively clean first drafts from a place of uninterrupted creativity. As far as I’m concerned, that’s win-win!
How you outline, how much you outline, and how you use your outline when writing your first draft are all deeply personal parts of the writing process. Only you can figure out the nuances that will position you to write your best novel. But these tips may help you decide your own personalized tricks.
Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Do you outline upfront? Has it been a challenge for you to figure out how to use your outline when writing the first draft? Tell me in the comments!
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