Thursday, June 22, 2017

The Magic of Reverse Outlining

Zestful Blog Post #217

Before the magic happens, a couple of bits of business. I promised last week to reveal the name of the restaurant in the photo if nobody guessed. Not like it’s some super amazing thing, but it’s the 13 Coins next to the Seattle-Tacoma airport. It’s Marcia’s and my favorite place to eat when we stay near that airport, in spite of the slight hokiness of the coins being embedded in the polymer coating on the tabletops. We love the midcentury-modern ambience, and the food is good, although I watched the bartender water our Manhattans once. I complained, but the server argued that that was impossible. I let it go, but later saw the server whispering to the bartender, who avoided looking at us for the rest of the time. Don’t let that stop you from going there, though; just order wine or beer. Or coffee, if it’s breakfast time. We’re not degenerates here.

If you are reading this blog between the dates of June 22 and June 26, 2017, I wish you would pop over to Amazon and snag a free Kindle copy of I am Calico Jones. It’s a collection of four short stories by yours truly, led off by the title story, which is a personal account of an adventure by the very Calico Jones about whom Lillian Byrd loves to read in the cheesy novels she gobbles up at every opportunity. And wow, when I just tested that link, I see that it's at #4 in LGBT short reads, edging out the tons of erotica that make up most of that list. Go, literature.

Not long ago during a conversation with one of the few private clients I work with on writing fiction, I gave an impromptu piece of advice she found very helpful. She mentioned it in a comment a few weeks ago, and now I’m motivated to share it in this post today. (Thanks, Bev.)

It has to do with the revision process. Now, this can be during chapter-by-chapter revisions as you go, or while you’re revising a manuscript that is more or less complete.

[It wasn’t easy to come up with a photo for this post. Can you find reverse in this image? It’s my car; the plastic of the gearshift cover is delaminating, but it is 22 years old, so gimme a break.]

The technique very simply is this: Write down a little summary of each chapter. OK, that’s it. Now, most of us like to do at least a little bit of outlining in advance of writing fiction, and that is a good thing. But as we write, things don’t always go as planned, and that may be all very fine too. But then what?

Writing a little summary of each chapter does several things:

·       It helps you keep track of your threads of plot and theme as you go, and it helps you distinguish the two.
·       It helps you spot problems that need fixing, like plausibility gaps or plot gaps, or simply unfinished thoughts that require further development. It also will help you spot redundancies or nonessential material that should be cut.
·       If you listen to your gut as you review this summary, you’ll also notice where and how your emotions are triggered, and then you can work to emphasize or deemphasize appropriately.
·       It builds an accurate working outline. This alone makes this tip worth his weight in gold, if you ask me. (How much does it weigh? That’s the key question. I believe at least a pound. My mailing address? Just ask.)
·       This working outline will eventually become your completed outline, which you will use when pitching your manuscript to agents and/or publishers.
·       If you self publish, your outline or summary will be helpful to you when writing promo and cover copy for your book.

When I practice this, I write my summaries on a yellow pad off to the side as I’m working on the digital manuscript on my computer. Just a few sentences are all you need.

Have you ever done this? If so, tell us how it works for you. If not, and you decide to try it, ditto!

What do you think? To post, click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever.

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  1. Taking a breather from revising. Grabbed a copy of Calico!

    I reverse outline. Big time. Have a Google spreadsheet broken by all the things I want in each chp. Pre-draft, not so much, other than plot points, and the big scenes I'm dying to see.

    1. Whoa, dude, Goolgle spreadsheet. That is serious.

  2. I have to put together a synopsis of my finished manuscript and will be using this technique to make sure I don't miss any critical elements. Thanks for this advice!
    Rose Kerr

    1. Rose, you're welcome! We'd love to hear any insights you might wish to share on the process.

  3. An interesting idea, Elizabeth. I'm very methodical and usually outline as I write in order to keep track of what's happening when. In a book with multiple POVs, it also helps to remind me who hasn't had a POV lately, or make sure I don't let one voice dominate.

    I downloaded the Calico Jones stories and am looking forward to reading and reviewing!

    1. The POV issue hadn't occurred to me, Neil, so thank you! And thanks in advance re: Calico Jones. Great weekend to you.

  4. It's been helpful in all the ways you mentioned. Thanks for the great advice.

  5. As always, sound advice. I did this to write the dreaded blurb.

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  7. I used this technique to create a scene by scene outline after some initial revision on my draft because I needed to cut the word count. It helped me to see where I could cut, move, or consolidate scenes. Now that I have read this post, I am going back to the scene by scene outline on my WORD table and make a more bare-bones outline. First, I'll use it to make sure the most important plot points are in my short and long synopes, and second, I'll use this format to better understand how to PLAN the plot for book 2.

    1. Liz, that is so way cool! Thank you so much for adding to the discussion. I love learning how writers use techniques in the real world of their work.


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