Had to post a link to this interesting post by David Forbes about writing book proposals (linked by someone on Twitter, argh, can’t recall who). I’ve never tried to write a series — though I did think, once upon a time, that my first, now-abandoned novel might have been the first of three — and I’m always intrigued by hearing how series-writers conceive of their work. But I wanted to link to this post specifically because I finally found someone who writes even longer and more detailed outlines than I do! Forbes says:
My outlines usually run about 30 to 40 single spaced pages, with bullet points for each chapter detailing what happens, along with character sketches or other plot reminders.
That is seriously impressive. I think I have outline envy; mine are usually more like 10-15 pages. (My first outline for Alcestis was 14 pages; my outline for Killingly, revised more than three times already, is 11.) But I outline for the same reasons Forbes does, which he describes as follows:
The outlines are pretty meaty, and I sweat out all of the little details in this form because it’s easier to figure out on page 28 of the outline that something is going really wrong than writing without an outline and getting to page 350 and realizing the same thing. I’m a plotty writer, so it’s easier to fix problems in the outline first. It also makes the writing of the actual book much easier, since most of the problems have already been solved. That’s not to say that other problems don’t crop up along the way, or characters need to change, or new ones need to be added (all of which happen), but I usually don’t have any big problems to deal with once I get started.
Notably, though, the post itself is primarily about writing book proposals — a task that even Forbes, with his detailed outlines, finds tiresome. It’s kind of a truism of any writing process, I think — the hardest thing to do is to sum up complex ideas (or a complex plot) briefly, without misrepresenting it, while not stripping away all the interesting parts. This is true of novels, dissertations, and people, since cover letters for jobs demand the same kind of performance.
Finding a good way to summarize the “hook” of your work is even harder. Here’s a great post from Justine Musk describing her own experience trying to refine a 1-2 sentence version of her story.