4.09.2018

The Art of the Fiction Outline

The stages of submitting and then publishing a book entail long delays. This problem cannot be helped, for book publishing moves at a glacial speed. As an author you can fret about the fact that your literary agent or editor never seems to get back to you, but you’re just wasting your time. Unless you’re famous, they’re not changing for you. Instead, you should do something productive, like starting on the next book.

You can turn your impatience into an economic advantage if you write an outline for the next book. Depending on your situation, you could try to sell the finished manuscript and the outline in a two-book deal. Or, you can use the outline as a way to land a new book contract.

To become a selling tool, an outline must be long enough. I recommend a length of 15-20 pages. That way an agent or editor truly can judge the book’s merits. Like a synopsis, it is written out in paragraph form. You can assume that you will need a paragraph to summarize each scene (or chapter), depending on whether a plot advance is achieved during its course. That’s because plot is one of the two main ingredients in an outline. Each paragraph should have the scene’s point-of-view character leading his or her plot thread to the next step. You can attach the minor characters to these unfolding threads.

That suggestion indicates the other key ingredient of an outline: the relationships between characters. You want to stress over the course of the outline how these relationships develop. The obstacles in a romantic partnership, the steps leading toward further antagonism between enemies, the reasons a buddyhood is created—all of these are needed to make the outline emotionally charged. Even in outline form, you are trying to sway the reader’s emotions.

You don’t need all the nuances, of either character or plot. If a relationship between a major and minor character contains no progression, just mention it in passing. The same is true of plot; you don’t need to detail every clever nuance involved in a sting. Keep on a high plane, conscious that you need to keep moving on to the next paragraph.

That’s why it’s a good idea to avoid dialogue. Once you descend to that level of detail, you’re writing out the rough draft of the novel. You don’t want to show a rough draft to any book professional. Plus, that’s not the point of an outline, which is merely a vehicle for selling the unwritten book. If you stick to narrative summary, you’ll get through each point at a speed that someone who has read hundreds of outlines will appreciate.

Exercise: An outline is not a book report. You are still a storyteller, only in capsule form. Each paragraph should be a building block of some sort, either providing an interesting clue or an alarming turn in a relationship. You can’t supply all the shading, but your sketch should be intriguing to follow.

“There's no money in poetry, but then there's no poetry in money either.”
—Robert Graves

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine




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