The Post-Revision Outline

A few months ago, I read a post on Kristin Nelson’s blog Pub Rants about her method of creating an editorial road map to highlight plot points for her clients.

I thought it sounded like a good idea. Writers divide themselves into outliners and pantsers–those who outline a little (or extensively) and those who go with the flow of whatever they are writing. I’m in the middle–I have a short, vague outline or a couple of paragraphs with the premise. Sometimes, I have bullet points telling me what the major points are, even if it turns out not to be very helpful sometimes.

The last time I had a draft to revise–Last Request, I think–I forced it on some friends to read, I gathered their comments and questions and emails, printed out the entire thing and read two of Margie Lawson’s packets. I scrawled all over the pages, highlighted in every conceivable color, and then found at the end that I had no idea how to fix the problems in that story.

This time, things are a wee different. I’m still revising–I have another hundred pages with the climax still to come–and when I’m finished with this draft I want to print it out, scrawl over it, highlight and cross through things. I want to either post parts of it on the AbsoluteWrite forums or send it to friends or writing contests for feedback. Those tactile moments with your work are the fun parts and as for the critique, well, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

But I also wanted to see how the storylines work, just as a matter of structure. Does each scene move the plot forward? How much is revealed about the characters as we move through their world? Those disappearing story threads–where do they disappear and where can I bring them back out again? Who has the POV in each scene? Are there plot lines that can be eliminated because they are unnecessary or weak? Are there random rants disguised as description? (Yes). Showing or telling? Does this make sense to anybody who is not me? How much info did I dump?*

Clearly, a scene-by-scene outline is the best way to figure all of this out. It’s certainly easier than reading a 350-page book over and over, isn’t it? It cuts down to the building blocks of the novel.

I’m writing out the setting of the scene first. If the POV is not Miles (third person limited, filtered through the character), then I note whose POV it is. If there’s description at the beginning, then a bullet point of the setting follows (i.e., church. Stone, ivy, old, square tower…). If not, then there’s a sentence about what’s going on at the beginning of the scene. Then the action of the scene plays out, listed with numbers. If there’s a transition, I note the line or paragraph that transitions into the next scene. I’m pretty weak with transitions; I tend to jump onto the next scene without any connective tissue. If there’s a page break, I note it down. When there’s character description, I either quote it or list it and italicize it. If I think there’s an info dump, I note it.

I’ve only outlined up to the middle of chapter 4 and already, I see a scene I can happily cut. This very detailed outline is not one I could ever do before writing a first draft. It’s a little tedious, but at least I know that it’ll help me identify what needs work without having to go through the whole entire thing to find it.

Anybody out there do a post-draft outline? I’d love to hear about how you organized yours. If you’re an outliner, how detailed go you get before you even write a word down? Do you think something like this would help your revision process? And does anybody out there find that they have anxiety dreams as they’re coming up to the climatic portions of one’s work?

*Info dump: exposition. a term used by writers to describe paragraphs and paragraphs of obvious research, backstory, or context that goes on and on and on. 

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