Writing

Re-outlining.

Last night I finished transferring red pen revisions from paper to screen. *throws confetti*

The line by line edits were definitely valuable, but the most important part of this last pass was sitting down and closely reading the whole project straight through from start to finish. It was my first time doing so with this new iteration of this story. And I pinned down a bunch of things that I’ve got to go back and rework.

Identifying the problem is one thing. Figuring out how to fix it is another.

So I wanted to blog about re-outlining. Because this is what I started doing today, and it occurred to me that a decade ago, this was not yet a part of my editing process. And now that I do it pretty regularly, I can’t imagine not doing it.

Basically what happens is: after I’ve got a full draft (not even necessarily the first full draft), and after I’ve identified key structural issues (because I almost always find structural issues in my early drafts), I sit down and write down a list of each chapter. It’s basically just the title plus a super short summary of the key plot and character points.

This is one of my favorite editing tools. The important thing — the part that actually makes it so effective — is that this is a new outline created only after I’ve got a full draft (or maybe a third or fourth full draft). It’s not just an updated version of an old outline made way before all the words came out. Because in writing that new outline I inevitably notice new things about the flow. Things I did not notice in my original outline. Things I didn’t notice even as I was writing the novel.

Today I was just doing the re-outline for the B story in USLS. I discovered that there was a certain accidental pattern in my pacing that lined up pretty neatly with the seasons in the book. And then I realized that the sections that felt most problematic were the ones that broke away from that pattern. A little bell went off in my head. Aha! This is how you fix the B story.

Sometimes it’s shocking how logical and mathematic writing can feel. And in those moments I seriously believe I can fix anything — it’s just a matter of sitting down and making everything fit together like in an algebraic equation.

Zadie Smith said — and I know I refer to this quote so much but I actually think about it all the time — “It’s such a confidence trick, writing a novel. The main person you have to trick into confidence is yourself.” I guess for me, re-outlining is another element of that confidence trick. It never fails to unlock something in my brain. It makes the edits feel totally doable.

6 thoughts on “Re-outlining.

  1. I’ve been thinking a lot about the revision process lately, and that you’ve discovered a very effective way of going about editing your projects in a structured, feasible way by using outlines. I tend to be more piecemeal when editing my work, when it might make it feel like more of a daunting task than it really should be.

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    1. Well, everyone works differently! I’m also not the type of person who can start out by writing into the darkness — I always have a loose outline of where the story is going before I even begin the first chapter. If you’re the opposite, then I could see how working piecemeal might make perfect sense. But the big thing for me really is how much more manageable editing feels once I’ve laid out the skeleton of the entire project.

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      1. No, I’m actually the type of writer to make outlines of outlines of outlines before I feel prepared enough to pen a single word. However, for whatever reason, it never occurred to me to apply that sense of organization to the revision process. I think your way is probably a much better fit for me.

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