Reverse Outlining

Not much rain since last time.  Lots of veggies.  (I’ve picked at least ten ichiban eggplant, about a gallon of string beans, and three monster zucchini since Monday.  Oh, and another mystery squash and a few tomatoes.)  And this week’s writing task is…

Reverse Outline: Treecat Wars

Reverse Outline: Treecat Wars

Reverse outlining the 30,000 plus word manuscript I have of “Artemis Awakening 2.”

Reverse outlining?  What are you talking about?  And, hey, wait!  Aren’t you always saying you don’t outline your novels?

You’re right.  I do say that and I hold to it.  I don’t outline a novel before writing it – which is what most people mean when they talk about outlining – but I do outline as I write.  Often I start when I have a chapter or two in place. This time the novel took fire so quickly that, until I was interrupted by the need to do the page proofs for Treecat Wars, I neglected this essential step.

Why would you bother to outline what you’ve already written?  I mean, isn’t it wasted effort?  Don’t you have the manuscript there in front of you?

I do have it and, no, it’s not wasted effort.  In fact, I find reverse outlining the absolutely best way for me to keep track of my plot, characters, and the general flow of the action in an evolving novel.  So, how does reverse outlining work?

First, I pull out a sheaf of nice, white lined paper.  Yes.  I could do this on a computer, but I’m one of those people who remember things better if I write them down by hand.  Since part of the goal of a reverse outline is to serve as an aid to memory, I write mine by hand.

Next, I pull out a sheaf of brightly colored pens.  I assign one color to each point of view character and another to be used for chapter headings.   I also pull out a pencil.  The last preparatory step is to pull the manuscript file up on my computer screen.

Since my reverse outline isn’t for anyone except me, I don’t worry about writing down everything that happens in a particular section.  I focus in on events that will jog my memory when questions crop up like “When exactly did they arrive in Spirit Bay?” or “When did that mugging happen?” or “How many days have elapsed since….”

In the side margin I use the pencil to note what day a given event happened.  I use pencil because sometimes dates shift, especially if I end up going and adding something later on.  If the book has a precise starting date, I use that.  Otherwise, I simply label each day as Day One, Day Two, etc.  Later on, I can always add a notation as to calendar date, if that will be important.  I also make notations as to season since time of year can affect anything from length of days to temperature.  I also note the phase of the moon if that will be important.

What do I do if the action skips ahead several days?  I make a note of that as well.  More importantly, I note why those days were skipped.  Maybe there was uneventful travel or maybe time needed to heal from a wound or maybe the characters were waiting for some information.  Especially in the case of travel time, these details can come in really useful, making sure that journeys between points take about the same amount of time.

I recently finished reading a fantasy novel in which I never could feel the terrain was at all real since travel time between points seemed to shift according to the needs of the plot.  Most of the time, the characters seemed to slog along, step by step.  However, when the climax required a last minute arrival of the Good Guys, they showed up, a bit sweaty and all, but certainly faster than I could believe.  It took some of the fun out of the climax for me to feel that there was a deus ex machina, when the plot was going out of its way to eliminate deus or machina.

Yes, I do realize that, especially when a book is set in a low tech setting, travel times can vary widely.  If so, why not make a note of the reason?   You don’t need to write that long slog through the snow unless that slog is important, but you can note that getting from point A to point B took longer (or shorter) because of weather conditions.

But reverse outlining is useful for more than just consistent geography.  It can help with characterization, too.  Characters can marvel that they’ve known each other only a few days, but feel bonded.  Or, conversely, that they’ve been together for weeks but, after a short time, the friendship ceased to progress beyond initial introductions.

Why do I color code my point of view characters?  (Well, beyond the fact that it gives me an excuse to play with colored pens, which I love?)  I do this because it enables me to see at a glance whether the story has gotten out of balance.  Certainly, there are times when one character has more to do than another.  However, it is also true that a writer can become deeply drawn into one plot thread at the expense of another.  If this isn’t deliberate, then some rebalancing is in order.

So, time to pull out the colored pens and get back to it…


3 Responses to “Reverse Outlining”

  1. Heteromeles Says:

    I’ve been using Scrivener to do much the same thing, but it’s a matter of technique, more than anything else. I like the idea of color-coding characters, though. That makes a lot of sense.

  2. Susan Bannister Says:

    When will it be published? Sounds like an interesting read already!

    • janelindskold Says:

      May 2014 is the publication date for _Artemis Awakening_, the first book. I’m assuming this one will come out sometime in 2015. _Treecat Wars_, a couple of pages of the outline for which is featured in the photo, comes out in October 2013.

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