Wednesday, February 20, 2013

A Living Outline, the way I avoided writing my novel's shitty first draft

One of the craziest accomplishments of my short writing career was finishing So Say the Waiters, book 1, in under a month. And it wasn’t just a sloppy first draft. It was a pretty tight second draft, but I’ll explain that in a second. I’ll admit, I did pick one of the longest months of the year (August) to start writing, but I hammered out at least 10 pages a day, every day, all August long. It was exhausting. I went a little crazy. My sleeping schedule was all screwed up, but I was happier than I’d ever been during those long hours of working.

The purpose of this post is to reveal how vital the outlining process was to finishing a novel in a month. That first draft really did feel like a second draft because I spent about a year taking notes and thinking hard about the novel. I considered a number of ways to approach it until I discovered the right perspectives and tensions. Then I spent about three months outlining each episode (five in all) and then each chapter within those episodes (between 6-7 per episode). Every chapter had an approximate page count so I knew how long the episode would be. I wrote a character bible describing every detail of every character. I literally divided and conquered the manuscript, making the outline a type of first draft.

Where I nearly lost my mind writing for a month.

What made this outline different from most other I’ve worked on is that it constantly stayed open on my desktop. It was a living document that changed as I wrote the novel. Knowing that the story would be serialized and longer than most of my projects, I knew that updating the outline would be important later as I referenced it. Suddenly, the outline became a living document—a living outline. This has come in very handy as I’ve come close to finishing the second novel. The living outline has allowed me to back up from the larger work and edit, compress, and shift tensions with more flexibility. Instead of cutting 2,000 here and 5,000 words there from an actual first draft and getting all emotional about it, I can quickly read a synopsis of a chapter and make tactical decisions about the plot.

This has saved me. And it has allowed me to create the most ambitious project of my life. 

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