Master and Servant: My Outline and Me

master_servant-1My classmates called it my spreadsheet. It was a little embarrassing that to write a novel I needed a chart. 3 columns x 76 rows = 228 fields of information that I made myself fill in.

I didn’t want to do it that way; I had to.

I had a 500-page novel that I’d been writing, on and off, for twenty years. It’s impossible to say how many drafts I wrote. I easily could have spent another twenty years draping more and more swag on the poor, overburdened thing without ever fixing the underlying problems that were keeping it from working in the first place. I couldn’t even tell you what the book was about, unless you had about three hours. I needed external feedback, and I needed structure. I signed up for GrubStreet’s Novel Incubator, a year-long course in which ten students decimate their novel drafts and then put them back together again, better.

After my classmates slogged through my novel and gave me their feedback, I understood that to tell the story I wanted to tell, I would have to kill off three main characters, bring three new ones to life, cut several subplots, create a single, strong plot where there was none, and trim at least 150 pages off the total page count. Of the original 500 pages, I would probably keep about 100, and even those would be severely altered. And I had six months to do it.

I had some solid characters to work with, some good dialog, some metaphors I really liked. But my plot was a pile of spaghetti. I’m a details person. It’s hard for me to see the big, simple picture. I needed a way to see only the crucial, bare bones of my novel. After finally deciding what my story was about in one sentence, I began to create a spine of an outline, listing only the scenes from my initial draft that supported that sentence: one vertebra here, another there. Then I filled in the missing links with newly invented scenes, forcing each to serve the structure of the book. In the end I had a spine: a simplified way to see my plot.

If I wanted to include something in my novel, I had to find a place for it on my outline. I had to understand in just a few words exactly what was happening in each scene, and why it was necessary for the story. If I couldn’t answer those questions, it wasn’t allowed on my outline.

Plotting was hard. It was work. If you’re a natural-born storyteller who knows, intuitively, what makes a good story, I hate you. I spent 2-3 months of my precious revision time just plotting. I didn’t let myself write a word until I had the plot locked down. I couldn’t. I didn’t have the time—or the pages—to waste.

From the spine, I branched out to a skeleton. After that, fleshing it out was easy. You’d think having your story so tightly prescribed would kill creativity. For me it was the opposite. Like any healthy spine, the outline was flexible. I changed it as needed during the writing process. The important thing was that it was always there for reference: Could the story still hold itself up? I actually found my new constraints freeing. I knew where I could take the time to develop backstory or extend a metaphor. I knew where a quick narration was needed to hurry the reader along to something more interesting. It was a relief to follow the outline because I finally knew that what I was writing actually belonged in my book.

I completed a new draft that was much more solid than the first. I’m revising it again, of course, but at this point I’m really not making any major changes to the structure; I’m dealing with some of the finer issues.

And I’m still using my outline. It has since grown from 3 columns to 8, to make sure a scene’s essentials are in place before I even think of piling on the extras. It may seem formulaic, but I believe that, if done right, all this structural planning will remain hidden, creating a story that comes alive.

Here’s an example of the outline I use now, showing how I would chart a scene from my book.

Microsoft Word - Outlining chart.docx

So that’s 8 columns x 74 scenes = 592 fields of information on my current outline. Is it all filled in? Mostly. Am I still embarrassed? I’ll decide when the novel’s done.


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