In the Part 1 of this post we covered the brainstorming part of plotting, where
- you capture everything you know,
- then fill in the blanks,
- then drop all that information into your favourite story structure.
In Part 2, we looked at making a scene out of the beats, and time saving hacks for organizing your outline.
This post, we look at the final steps which deliver a complete outline you can use to write your first draft at your best speed.
The Final Check
Once you have your outline filled in, so the scenes are flowing in a logical order and there are no obvious gaps in the story logic*, you should complete a final check.
[*No obvious gaps—because you won’t realize there are hidden gaps until you’re in the throes of writing it. Don’t sweat getting your outline perfect. Everything will change as you’re writing, anyway. Your outline is just the bones.]
A final check is just like a final pre-flight check carried out by flight crews. It’s a last double check before you commit yourself to 50K, 100K or more words on a story that might contain glaring omissions or weaknesses.
Just as it sounds, your final checklist is a list of criteria and critical questions that are often genre-specific. You’ve been mired in weeds for days or weeks as you build this thing. The checklist will make you consider the story from the 20,000 foot view.
The list is personal to you, and you can build additional checkpoints as you get to know your own weaknesses better. Some possible questions include:
- Is your finale as tight and fantastic as you can get it?
- Is there a body in the first scene (for murder mysteries)?
- Is there a HAE (for Romance novels: Happy Ever After)?
- Does the opening scene have a good, solid hook?
- Are your essential scenes (mid-point, black moment, etc) strong enough?
Also consider negatives:
- Are there any talking head scenes you should combine with action scenes on either side?
- Does the pace feel like it’s slowing down, anywhere?
You can build your own list by searching, for example, for for the top elements of a fantastic SF novel, or spy thriller, etc.
This might be the same list you used at the very beginning of the process, for essential scenes in your story structure. At the very least, that essential scenes list should be a part of your final checklist, in addition to other critical elements for your genre.
Then add in your own weaknesses and personal preferences. For example, I tend to have slow beginnings while I set things up, so I often look for ways to speed up the first act and make it tighter.
Then use the list.
Once you have the check list, read through your completed outline from top to bottom, then use your checklist and check off the points, one by one.
Make changes to your outline as you are reminded by the checklist of major points you may have overlooked or destroyed with all your scene rearrangements and constant reworkings.
Then, a last read through and you’re done.
Remember it doesn’t have to be perfect
You should aim for a good, solid outline that includes all the essentials, but don’t obsess about having every single beat and development covered—especially toward the end of the story, when the differences between your outline and what you actually write will be at their greatest.
You’re trying to be efficient and save time. Sweating over an outline, trying to make it perfect, really is an enormous waste of time. Aim for 80 to 90% there, instead. It’s enough to make sure you don’t get bogged down anywhere in the writing phase.
Save your outline, then paste a copy at the bottom of your manuscript file, if you use that system.
And you’re done.
Now start writing.
Some things to keep in mind as you outline and plot:
1) The genre you write in will dictate the degree of world building you need to do. Once you have made the process as efficient as possible, you may simply have to accept the time it takes, and make allowances for that demand by including it in your schedule.
2) Writing in series is absolutely the fastest way to cut a huge amount of time from the plotting process. The first book takes a large amount of plotting, world building, etc. Each book after that is very light on plotting time–a few days at most.
3) The more books you write, the faster you’ll get as you hammer out your own plotting process and get better at thinking sideways to come up with alternative beats, etc., especially if you remain within the same genre.
How do you actually schedule plotting and outlining, when you don’t really know how long it will take?
As with everything related to novel writing, keeping records and adjusting your schedule as you learn more about your own writing processes will result in a more accurate schedule. The more accurate you can be, the more you can reliably predict your output for the year ahead.
That makes business planning and projections far more accurate and helps stabilize your business and remove a lot of stress.
Start by guessing
Give yourself a week to plot…or more. Take a wild guess, or even an educated one.
Then, sit down and plot. See how long it takes you when you’re following a basic outline of steps to complete.
Keep logs of the process, and perhaps journal entries about steps that were more difficult or less, or unnecessary (which helps refine the process next time).
When you have finished plotting the first book, you will have a good idea of how long it will take you to do another book, if:
- It is in the same genre
- And also a first in series (or not)
Note how many hours in total the plotting and outlining took. If the next book you plot is a different genre or a second in series (or a first), then adjust your estimate up or down accordingly.
The more books you complete, the more accurate your predictions will be on how long it takes to plot and outline.
How many finished words per plotting hour?
This is a critical ratio that will automate your production schedule.
For instance, I know from my own experience that I can plot in a day approximately 10,000 finished manuscript words. My average hours of writing per day is five, so that’s 2,000 finished words an hour. This is for second and subsequent books in a series.
That means if I anticipate and aim for a book of 80,000 words, then it will take 80,000/10,000 words, or eight days of plotting.
If it is a first book in a series, I will bump that up to 8,000 words a day, or, in the case of the 80K book, 10 days of plotting.
If it is a new (sub)genre for me (which doesn’t happen often), I will give myself far more time. Perhaps another five or six days—although I will try to complete any genre research and market investigations before I start the plotting process.
As I write far more second-and-subsequent books in series, within the same genre, I use the 10K/day ratio in my production schedule, then tweak as needed for the outlier books.
I have written a lot of books, so my rate hasn’t really shifted in a number of years.
As you learn to plot and outline efficiently and via the shortest critical path of steps, your rate will drop, until it stabilizes and you are at your most efficient, too.