There are many people who prefer to take an idea and just write and see where it goes, but even for those, there comes a time when you have to do some work on the structure of the story. Others like every detail planned out before they start writing, and most of us fall somewhere in between.
If you use writing software, like Scrivener or yWriter, it will have outlining facilities built in. I use yWriter (read my review here) and it breaks chapters down into scenes and provides a heading and a description box for each scene, as well as the writing area for the actual contents of the scene. This allows easy rearrangement of scenes and chapters by drag-and-drop if you need it.
When I looked at my list of chapters and scenes for what I wrote on the fly during NaNoWriMo a few years ago, several things were immediately apparent. For one thing, it’s way too short. I also realised that characters had changed in the development of the first book, Intruders. But one thing took me a while to notice. See if you can spot it:
Ch1 Sc1 Parks, Hoy & Reuel captured
Ch1 Sc2 Bread and water
Ch2 Sc1 Parks returns
Ch2 Sc2 Breakout
Ch3 Sc1 Escape to park
Ch3 Sc2 Back to Kestrel
Ch4 Sc1 Red alert
Ch4 Sc2 Bokans attack
Ch4 Sc3 Tanu critically hurt
Ch5 Sc1 Introducing Kestrel and crew
Ch5 Sc2 Report of mission
I know the cryptic headings give little away, but can you spot the mistake? I was so eager to start with some action, that I don’t introduce the Kestrel and crew until Chapter 5. Would you read a book all the way to chapter 5 when you had no idea who anyone was? I don’t think so.
Outlining gives you the opportunity to get all your ideas down and put them in some sort of order, and then spot weaknesses and holes. You can do it on paper or on screen, use Post-its or file cards, and it’s important to always carry something to capture more ideas as you get them. You will find that taking an overview of your story will spark all sorts of new ideas.
So, how do you outline? Rather than re-invent the wheel, I recommend Chandler Bolt’s blog post in his Self-Publishing School, with links to other sites for more details on each of his points. My favourite is Randy Ingermanson’s Snowflake Method. I have already started revising, but I must make more time for working the outline into some sort of shape before I get too far.