TAP037, How I Edit the Outline of a Novel Before Writing the First Draft
TAP037, How I Edit an Outline Before Writing the First Draft
I hope you are all well and are staying safe.
So you’ve created an outline for your novel, and now you’re ready to start writing. Diving into the first draft seems like the first logical step. First, however, I recommend you slow down and edit the outline of your novel. I learned this lesson the hard way after publishing my first-in-series novella.
To this day, I regret not going back and editing the outline of that novel. There were minor things that were not wrapped up at the end that I believed were wrapped up rather subtly, but the reader needed more clarity around these issues. If I had edited the outline before starting to write the first draft, I would’ve fixed these issues before they were issues. By the time you get to the revision stage, it’s difficult to see all of the errors, especially if you are a new writer and don’t have an established team of beta readers or a critique partner who is a little more seasoned than you.
About this Episode
In this episode, I discuss how I edit my outline. I know what you’re thinking “after that three-part mini-series on my outlining process, she then goes and edits her outline.” Yeah, I do. And this is something I’ve done because I’ve wanted to learn from past mistakes. After publishing my first book, I realised that it’s easier to edit plot issues before they’re on the page. When you go through the process of writing your first draft, the plot is there on the page, whereas with the outlining approach, it is mouldable to a certain extent.
This episode isn’t scripted because I want it to be a chat about how I edit the outline of a novel. In saying that, I have compiled a list of steps and broke down exactly how I edit the outline of a story. Each of these steps has a bullet-pointed list of notes to help me stay on track. I’m sharing this with you so that you know that I’ve thought about this episode in detail, and I’m not just making it up as I go along. Part of the reason these notes exist is I want to remind myself these are the intricate steps that I take because I am a little concerned that if I just talk by the seat of my pants, I’m going to forget about something that’s actually really vital.
For those of you who are new to this podcast, I want to thank you for stopping by and trying out my show. To those of you who’ve been faithfully listening in, thank you for regularly listening in and supporting me. Your support means more to me than you know.
What You Need to Know
Before I dive into how I edit an outline of a novel, here’s what you need to know about how I write.
- I write in scenes, not chapters.
- Division into chapters happens after the outlining phase.
- I’m so fixated on scenes because when I learned how to write, I studied screenwriting. Screenwriting is written on a scene-by-scene basis.
- I write murder mysteries with more than one point of view character.
- My outlining process and how I edit my outline have evolved throughout writing five fiction works within the mystery genre.
- Every scene or chapter of my novel raises a question about the story’s plot and character motivation. As the reader turns the page, there’s a question that I’m hoping the reader is thinking.
Without further ado, let’s get into the show.
Step #1 – Create a List of Plot Questions in Every Scene or Chapter of Your Story
Below is the outline spreadsheet for the first book in my rookie reporter series, called The Candidate. Here’s a brief description of the spreadsheet for those who don’t want to watch the short clip or don’t like pictures.
Outline Spreadsheet for The Candidate
The first column is the act label; I don’t populate every cell in this column. All I do is label the start of every act. In column B, is the plot point label. Column C contains the scene number; after that, I’ve got the title, point of view character, and the scene location. The following columns contain the scene goal, scene type, and plot, which includes a one-sentence summary. Next to the plot column is the blocking notes, which help to remind me about what I want to put in the scene. The next two columns are the value shift or the turning point. I’ve got a value shift or a turning point column for the start of the scene and one for the end. After that, I’ve got conflict, stakes, cliffhanger, and then I’ve got the scene question.
This video has been bookmarked to the place where I talk about the outline spreadsheet for The Candidate.
The Prologue of the Candidate
In the opening scene of The Candidate, an unidentified older man is staggering through his house. But, first, he pulls a bodkin arrow out of his chest. Then, he lifts himself up in his study, and he wanders out of the study and then down the pristine white hall leaving a trail of blood behind. The reader gets to see what he’s thinking in his final hours. You get a sense of his struggles. Then, he grabs his keys and decides to drive and not wake up his pregnant wife. But you don’t know why. And the reader realises that he’s not going to make it to the hospital. He’s going to die on the way. Even if he calls for an ambulance, he will die waiting, end of discussion.
He realises he shouldn’t have pulled the arrow out of his chest; Albert made a huge mistake. And then he goes, “What am I going to do?” And he decides where he’s going to go. But the reader isn’t let in on the character’s whole reasoning. These are the questions that I want the reader to be asking, “Who is this person? Where is he going? How did this happen to him? How did he end up on the floor of his office with a bodkin arrow in his chest? And who has a bodkin arrow laying around in their office?” As they turn the page, these are the questions I want the reader to be asking at the end of this scene.
What Should You Do If You Don’t Have a Detailed Outline?
This scene question column is what drives the edit of my outline. Initially, it wasn’t there to serve this purpose; I just put it in there because I was asked myself, “what questions does the scene raise?” Then, I filled out the information and didn’t look back. I set and forgot about the detail. In Missing, I did this, and I didn’t actually go back and check it. For some reason, the value of what I had done didn’t register for me, and I really wish it did.
What do you do if you don’t have this information already available? Read through your outline and ask yourself the following questions. At the end of this scene, what will the reader be asking as they turn the page? What will they want to know more about? Then add those questions to your outline.
Because I use a spreadsheet, I have one cell for all the questions in a scene, and I typed them all in one cell. On occasion, there is just one question, but usually, there’s more than one. If you’re writing romance, you probably won’t have many questions. Sometimes you’ll only have one question, and that’s fine.
Over the years, I’ve gotten a few comments from people after they see my outlining method. And the general vibe of these comments is the process is overwhelming. So, I’ve decided to not just share my outline spreadsheet and run. I’m considering creating a mini-course about my outlining method where I share my Excel spreadsheet and a series of videos that hold your hand through the process of using it. You will also have lifetime access and be able to submit questions for me to answer once you reach the end of the course or as you go along. The price will be under US$50 or more, like US$39.00, because I think it’s obnoxious charging a high price for a course.
I haven’t created the course yet, but if you’re interested, let me know by signing up for my email list, commenting below or commenting in the Am Writing Fiction Community Facebook Group.
Step #2 – For Each Question, Comb Through Your Outline and Check if the Question has been Answered
Write out all the questions or copy them from your outline and paste them into a separate document. Leave room underneath each question for you to write out the answers. Next to the answer, in brackets, type out the scene number. This will come in handy during your revisions. Below is an example of how I answered a few scene questions when I edited the outline for the Candidate.
An Example From the Candidate
In regards to the scene I shared earlier, several questions were raised. These questions were:
- Will this man die or get to the hospital on time?
- Who is this guy? Where is he going? And what has happened to him?
To answer the first question, “will this man die or get to the hospital on time?” I’ve written the following answer.
No, the man does not make it to the hospital. He dies. In scene 00X, Albert’s body is found in this location, but the protagonist James Lalonde doesn’t see the body until this scene after a specific event takes place.
With the second set of questions, “who is this guy, where is he going? And what has happened to him?” I wrote the following answer.
In scene 00X, the reader learns who this man is, and they learn where he was going. And also, later on in the story, in scene 0XX, as the crime has resolved, you learn what happened to him and what events took place that led him to have the bodkin arrow in his chest.
Step #3 – Search Through Your List for Questions that Haven’t Been Answered and Highlight these in a Different Colour
The reason I like to highlight the unanswered questions in a different colour is because it helps them stand out. I know it should be obvious enough that there’s no answer underneath, but I need to make it a little bit clear for me. At the end of this exercise, I can sometimes have up to sixty or more questions, which can become overwhelming. Highlighting the questions without answers gives me a clear idea of how much work I need to do before I can start writing the first draft.
These unanswered questions are potential plot issues that need to be addressed in the story, but not all of them will be plot issues. If you write in a series with an arc, vague or planned, it’s not uncommon to have a few unanswered questions. So, how do you differentiate between plot issues and questions that will be answered throughout the series arc?
Step #4 – Categorise Your Unanswered Plot Questions
If you’re writing in a series, there will naturally be no more than one or two unanswered questions in a novel that relates to a series arc, even if this series arc isn’t outlined ahead of time. While I outline my stories, I don’t outline the series, but I have a vague idea of what will happen in the future. And these are moments along James Lalonde’s story arc that will happen in the future, but I’m keeping my options open.
Back to how I edit an outline.
My Outline Editing Key
Here’s the key that I use that helps me differentiate between the various types of plot issues.
- Highlight the questions not answered but will be answered throughout the series in red.
- Loose threads that need to be resolved before the start of act three are highlighted in blue.
- And loose threads that need to be resolved by the end of act three are highlighted in yellow.
I have a few things that need to be resolved before the start of act three, so technically, by the end of act two. My reasoning behind this is that I don’t want to leave too many open threads in act three. Because act three technically is only 25% of the story, I don’t want it to drag out forever. I want there to be a bit of balance in the novel’s arc.
Step #5 – Decide Whether You Need to Add New Scenes to Your Outline
Ask yourself, which questions can be answered in your existing outlined scenes? What questions require new scenes or multiple scenes in order to give that satisfying answer to your reader? Sometimes it can be unbelievable to resolve a plot thread in a single scene. A plot thread might need to be wrapped up over a period of time, and thus across several scenes, the protagonist needs to pick up the pieces in that way. Lastly, do any of your questions require you to make edits to multiple scenes?
Regarding the questions that can be answered using the scenes that already exist in your outline, write the scene number or numbers in parenthesis followed by the answer. As you might have guessed, simply write, “add new scene for questions that require a new scene,” and then just write out what will be in that scene, and note the position of the scene within the outline and overall story.
Examples from Book Two in the James Lalonde Mystery
Below are a few examples from my upcoming book two in my James Lalonde mystery series. These plot threads are open because I am changing a primary plot thread in the story. I wrote the first draft, then changed my mind about a significant thread because it wasn’t realistic. And now I’m revising the rewritten version of that book. Before I changed one of the major plot elements of the story, I went through it and did this edit of the existing outline. And that’s when I had the epiphany; I should have done this in the outlining phase. Just like earlier, I will be purposefully vague about the answers to avoid spoilers.
Example of Series Arc Plot Thread
The first example is a plot thread that will be tied up in a later book in the series. At the end of scene seven, the reader should be wondering, “What do the symbols mean? Where will the message lead them?”
In this scene, James discovers a symbol and message written in the margins of a mediaeval manuscript. This isn’t answered in this book two because it’s a part of a longer story arc. The markings and riddle will become relevant again in a future story. It’s a moment in James’s storyline because something triggers the ah-ha moment he has about this manuscript. And this ah-ha moment is the premise of a future novel.
Example of a New Scene and Multiple Scenes Requiring Editing
The next example is an example of a loose thread that needs to be resolved at the end of act three. Somewhere along the line, the reader realises that the bad guy has an informant at the police station and is manipulating the police investigation. A trail of breadcrumbs leads to this moment, but it becomes evident at a certain point. The reader asks at the end of a scene, “Who is this person’s informant at the police station?” Somewhere close to the midpoint, the reader sees the bad guy’s point of view, and they are talking to someone at the police station. But, because the scene is written from that villain’s point of view, they don’t reveal who their informant is because the call takes place in a public area. As the answer to this question, I wrote the following.
In scenes 0XX and 0XX, the reader learns that this informant works at the police station and believes that this other person is being framed by James because he has a loose connection with somebody interested in mediaeval artefacts. The informant believes this person James knows must want it for themselves, and they must be trying to steal it instead of buying it, going through the appropriate channels. Close to the end of act two, cut to a new scene where the informant who is close to the leading detective panics because they are almost caught by another police officer. This loose end needs to be foreshadowed in act two but resolved in act three.
Step #6 – Brainstorm Solutions to these Unanswered Questions
These unanswered questions are obviously not the series arc questions but the questions that need to be answered within this current book. As you brainstorm solutions to this, add these answers to the questions in the document just like I did above; then, as you are brainstorming and are confident with your ideas, go ahead and transfer them to your outline by altering existing scenes or adding new scenes.
With my outline spreadsheet, and when I start altering the scenes during the editing process, I will go through and highlight the scene that I’ve edited in a different colour.
On the first tab of the outline workbook is the revision key. The key is as follows.
- A scene that needs a minor addition is highlighted in pink
- Highlighted in orange are scenes that need to be rewritten
- All new scenes are highlighted in purple
- A scene that needs to be deleted is highlighted in red.
If I ever delete a scene, I will transfer it to a different tab, but I won’t completely delete it from the Excel workbook. Sometimes, I can be a bit indecisive about what I want to do in this creative process. It’s a pitfall of my creative nature. Over time, I can become insecure about my decisions and change my mind. It doesn’t happen anymore because I have a fail-safe by keeping the outline of the deleted scenes. I know it sounds crazy, but it works for me.
Step #7 – Search for Disappearing Characters
This last step is something I’ve done just recently with book two in the James Lalonde mystery series; it’s a very new step for me to take. Comb through your outline and look for characters that appear and interact with the protagonist on multiple occasions but disappear entirely. For example, I had a character in, just like I said, book two, and they assisted James with a few tasks and then completely disappeared three-quarters of the way through the second act. After reading through my outline, I realised that this character has five scenes. And he has a POV scene because he does something meaningful for the story; this event occurs before he meets the protagonist, hence the point of view scene.
Because I set this character up, I needed to make sure I wrapped up their arc in the story’s final act. I need to answer the reader’s question, “What happened to this person?” From previous experience, there will be a reader who will want to know this. Trust me, readers will notice and make comments in reviews about things like this, where characters sort of disappear. Think of a way to give a character an ending. Add this ending to a scene in the story’s final act in the denouement or the return to the real-world plot points.
In order for you to edit your outline, you need to follow the following steps:
- Create a list of plot questions in every scene or chapter of your story.
- For each question, comb through your outline spreadsheet and check the question has been answered.
- Search through your list and look for questions that haven’t been answered, then highlight these in a different colour.
- Next, categorise your unanswered plot questions.
- Decide whether you need to add new scenes to your outline or whether you can just edit the existing scenes.
- Brainstorm solutions to these unanswered questions.
- Look for disappearing characters, and make sure you wrap up their storylines by the end of the third act.
In terms of editing your outline, this is all you can revise. Everything outside of this needs to wait until you write the first draft. The purpose of editing your outline is to ensure that you’re not making major plot rewrites during the revision stage, especially ones that could have been picked up at the start.
I hope this episode gives you a few things to consider as you outline your first or next book. As always, I have a few important questions to ask. How do you outline your novels? Or, how are you outlining your first story? I want to hear from you. Share your process or struggles with outlining in the comments section below or over in the Am Writing Fiction Facebook Group.
Thank you for listening, and happy reading and writing, everybody.
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I’m Amelia. I write Mystery Novels under the pen name A. D. Hay. And, I’m the author of Missing, the Lawn, and the Candidate. On this blog, I help new writers to finish their first draft, prepare their manuscripts for professional editing, and when they get stuck in the first draft phase or are confused about the revision process. Right now, I’m editing and preparing my soon to be published mystery novels, Duplicity, 24 Hours, and Immunity for publication.