A few months ago we put out a call for writers to share their thoughts with us about their writing experiences. This morning I received from Maggie these comments on how to make an outline work for you:
I saw your call for feedback about methods and wanted to respond, having recently completed the last revision of a first novel. Perhaps it might help someone to hear a few more practical pointers from one who's just been through the "ringer," in a good way!
I love them for two reasons. First, I found the outline helpful in keeping me on track, balancing varying points of view, and helping to ensure that each chapter contained meaningful, plot-advancing and/or character--revealing action (especially toward the latter end of my revision process). I believe that as long as you, the writer, understand that the outline is a tool, not a mortgage or some other kind of inescapable commitment, you or your characters can take it in different directions; model it after your own needs.
It is a place to begin collecting your thoughts and ideas. It encourages you to think about your story as a complete work rather than a loosely-connected group of scenes or actions. But it is also dynamic. I updated my outline frequently as the novel took its course, especially in the beginning. Posting the grid on the wall and using small Post-It notes in each column made it easier to navigate when I changed major plot points. Having a physical outline taped up where I could see it provided a better sense of accomplishment, too.
Second, the outline proved useful when the book was finished, in making sure that I had closed off all the plot points. In the outline grid, each chapter had its own row, and the major characters and plot threads had their own columns across the top. I filled in key actions and discoveries, moving through one chapter at a time. To use a time-worn, but wonderful example, if a gun appeared in Chapter 17, the grid allowed me to make sure it went off in a later scene. It was especially helpful in resolving (or remembering!) many small details, even issues raised in dialogue, that I found had gone unanswered. Adding an occasional line to close these loops, or even choosing to eliminate unnecessary references and dialogue -- an added bonus toward lowering word count and tightening the writing -- were much easier for me to accomplish using the outline.
In starting my second novel, another thriller, my approach surprised me: I formed the basic premise -- similar to the first paragraph of a query -- and just started writing scenes, beginning with page one. I'm sure I'll have a completed outline within the next couple of weeks, but after doing some preliminary research, I found I had to start writing the opening so I could sleep. The difference between this novel's "start" and the last one? I'm confident that it begins in the right place. I'm also keeping all my notes and research data in one notebook this time. I had about two-thousand scraps of paper with cryptic notes on them for the first novel, and still can't decipher a couple of handfuls of them. They couldn't have been that important, right?