Outlining and summarizing

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.


  1. It was a trial and error process. I wrote a few early novels without the benefit of an outline and I experienced exactly what I described in my post — I got a couple of hundred pages in and something wasn’t working that was going to require a drastic rewrite of lots of earlier material. I realized then that as a somewhat plot-heavy writer I needed to plan the story out better.

    I’m not sure how I arrived at my current outline “format.” In the beginning I make lots of notes about the story in no particular order — events I think are cool or important, different characters and what I want to happen to them, various story beats. Once I think there’s enough in the notes to start building the framework of the novel, I start to hash it out. My outlines are “Chapter One,” followed by a bullet list of what happens and to whom, with notes about characters and their backgrounds as needed. the outlines got long simply because as I’m working through them and come up with ideas I figure I might as well include the details so I don’t forget them.

  2. Hey, I just saw you grew up in Lancaster! I live in Mechanicsburg, across the river from Harrisburg. My wife’s from Lancaster so I’ve been there quite a bit in the past few years. Small world!

  3. Interesting! The weirdest thing that happened to me with the outline for my current project is that the outline itself turned into its own little story object — I guess you could say it’s part outline, part proposal, part trial run with the narrative style I want to use. But it means that I’m having to do my “random accretion of details” stuff elsewhere, which is one of the reasons I’m trying Scrivener this time. It sounds like you tend to use Word docs for your outlines — have you ever tried any other programs?

    And yes, small world indeed! I haven’t been back to Lancaster since my parents moved away from there in 2003, but I’m hoping to stop by again sometime to wave at the house where I grew up. How is the area handling the recession? Pre-2003, it seemed like the subdivisions were never going to stop munching up all the farmland, but I guess development has probably slowed down with the housing market?

  4. I do use Word but I’m planning on getting a Mac the next time I have to replace a machine precisely so I can try Scrivener. You’ll have to let me know what you think.

    This area hasn’t been hit as hard by unemployment and housing devaluations as some areas, but it’s still fairly bad. The cities around here are in pretty bad shape. And new home sales definitely have been in the toilet for a while.

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