Creating the Outline of a Novel: From Notebook to Scrivener

A novel always starts out in the back of my mind as a nebulous zygote. A character or a single scene is the seed from which a beautiful child (novel) will be born. It grows there in my mind without my noticing it until one day it solidifies. I say to myself, “Ah ha! There is a story there to write.” It is time for the birthing process to begin. For some people, this means “pantsing” a rough draft without any thought beyond the original seed. For me, I prefer the outline process to give myself a solid foundation with which to build on.

I like to begin the outline process with pen and paper or in Word on my desktop. The pen and composition books are easier to take with me and give an extra layer of creative play that I’ve come to value. There is something about the feel of paper and a pen in your hand that is comforting. It slows down the process enough to allow you to think the details through. I always use a pen, not a pencil. I do not want to be able to easily erase what I’ve written. This is not a time for editing, but for allowing unhindered expression to come forward. I can not do this on a computer due to my fast typing speed. Lately, I’ve been favoring the notebook method over using Word on the computer to outline.

When starting a notebook, I will put the name of the novel at the top, the year I started working on it, and what volume this notebook is. Sometimes there is only one volume, sometimes there are more. For my first novel, I barely had any notes at all. Most of my ideas were in my head alone. Now I find that there is more value in putting the ideas down on paper as best I can. A novel can stretch out over a few years time in the the writing of it. That is a long time to remember tiny details.

My novel’s beginnings are a scrawl of different things. Mind maps where a central character or scene is at the center and I ask myself “what if” questions and then write down ideas as they come no matter how strange around the central idea. Most of these “what if” scenarios are cast off as illogical or too far fetched. Ideas that I like, I highlight, but otherwise simply leave them in the notebook. I sometimes will write down narratives of scenes that have come to me. I don’t go into details, that will come later with the writing of the novel itself, but I try and capture the essence of what is percolating in my subconscious.

I start doing “interviews” of the main characters as they come to me. It is a method that I learned in a creative writing class last year. I make a note of the character’s physical features and find an actor that he can be loosely based on. I begin to formulate the personalties and emotional and intellectual goals and ideals of each character. I write down phrases that would be common to them alone, gestures and other habits that help make the character his own person.

Since I write science fiction and fantasy novels, I find it helpful to rough out a map of the land I’m writing about. Nothing of great detail, enough so that I know where everything is located and can have a good idea as to how long travel time is between the different locations in the story. If I decide that a map will be useful to the readers later, I either will create a better one myself or hire an artist to draw one for the book.

At this point, I open up a file in Scrivener and start to set up the project. In the research area, I create files for the character sketches, the location descriptions and decide on keywords to represent each character, location and special object. This helps me to track information during the revision phase of writing. I also like to print out this information to fit into my writing filofax journal so that I can take my research information with me when I write outside my home. I consider the Scrivener files to be the master copies and my filofax the copy. When I update the information, I update Scrivener first and then print out a new page for the filofax. I like to use the filofax since I don’t have to worry about electricity or waiting for the information to load up in a computer. What I need is all there organized in my writing journal without distraction of the Internet.

Once the research information is in Scrivener, I start an “outline” file in the research area. I write a short paragraph of each scene of the novel from beginning to end based on the highlighted areas of my mind maps from the notebooks and the short scenes that I’ve already written down on paper. The master outline is one file in the research area of Scrivener and a copy is printed for my filofax writing journal. At this point I’ve closed my paper composition notebooks and am working completely in Scrivener.

The final step, before I begin drafting, is to take each outline paragraph and create a separate file for it in the drafting area. I will give the scene a title, write a short synopsis of it in the scrivener card and then paste the entire description paragraph into the document notes section of the inspector. I also label and put in the status of the newly created file.

Every writer uses a different method to create their novels, this is the way I cobble together mine. I consider Scrivener and my filofax writing journal to be the key elements of the system. Scrivener organizes my research and novel information and the filofax is its backup shadow that comes with me everywhere. Together, they form the backbone of my creative process and help to make writing my novels easier.

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3 thoughts on “Creating the Outline of a Novel: From Notebook to Scrivener”

  1. Wendy, so interesting to read about how you start a writing project. When I think of people writing novels, it sounds like such a big project that…where do you start?

    1. It is a big project. Don’t let anyone kid you. However, it is no worse than planning a year’s worth of art venues and then following through on the creation of products to sell and planning for each event, which we have both done. I think the best place to start a novel is to have the glimmer of an idea for a story. A scene that you can’t get from your mind, a character that grabs your mind and doesn’t want to let go. That…and the compulsion to write. That crazy thing that you do because you must do it. At that point, I open a notebook or turn on Word and start putting down the ideas and build on them.

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