More on outlining

In the comments of some of the other posts someone asked me for more details on outlining…ask and ye shall receive 😉
As I previously mentioned I have two steps to outlining.

  1. The initial outline 
  2. The detailed outline

Amazing…I know!  I have a patient pending on this method–it’s such an original idea.  😉  The initial outline really just establishes the skeleton of the book(s) and I have a Scrivner folder (one per chapter) that gives just a few bullet points.

When it comes time for the detailed outline, or as I create characters, places, and groups), I add meat to the bones. I still keep it simple (more bullet points). It’s a dynamic flow. In some cases filling out the detailed outline will cause a person/group/place to come into existence (sometimes just added to my master list, sometimes requiring a character study or place/group description. In other cases, it’s when I create this “thing” that I think about where would be the best place to introduce them, and I’ll open up the summary outline and add a detail bullet point for me to introduce them.

The best way to illustrate the technique is with an example. I’m going to use the first chapter of  Theft of Swords because it is a book that is already released and you already read the first chapter that was created from this outline on Amazon just click on the cover (to use the “look inside feature”).  I suggest you look over this outline first then read the chapter to see how the various bullets play out.

Initial Outline 

  • Royce & Hadrian robbed on their way to Chadwick Castle
  • Archibald’s fails an attempt to blackmail Victor Lanaklin

Detailed Outline

  • Robbery
    • Who? – ex-members of Crimson Hand
    • Reaction? Royce impatient – Hadrian attempts a “peaceful” resolution
    • Humor? Royce give’s pointers to robbers
  • Blackmail
    • How? Letters – that will be stolen by R&H out from under Archie’s nose
    • Love letters between Alenda and Gaunt
    • Details? Show how well protected room is – let reader try to figure out what happened and how

In addition to the “what” happens I also have notes about “seeds” to plant  – and notes of world-building things to drop. These are things that generally will be used later

  • Points to make -Robbery
    • Hadrian – three swords – big one on back / Royce dark cloak (no visible weapons)
    • Amrath in Essendon & Ethelred in Warric, Colnora a trade city
    • Archie – the inept clotheshorse
  • Points to make – Blackmail
    • Archibald’s ambition & that he has powerful knights
    • Archie wants Alenda – mainly for increased position, but thinks she’s attractive too
    • Lightly introduce political structures
    • Mention of Myron, Enden, Breckton, & Degan
  • Name dropping
    •  Myron, Breckton, Enden
    • Political factions: Royalists, Imperialists, Nationalists
    •  Degan Gaunt

In the above, The Crimson hand came into being because I needed someone to rob Royce and Hadrian.  I already had a powerful thieves’ guild in Colnora that Royce had once been a part of  so creating another one in another city made sense.  In fact, this is a revised outline that was enhanced during the Orbit rewrite. In the “original” there was no such scene. But feedback from my editor and the fans indicated that the book should start with an introduction to Royce and Hadrian so they came into existence. Now that they exist, they are fodder for future works. For instance when I wrote The Rose and Thorn (coming out September 17, 2013), I was now able to “tap” this newly created group and provide more about them in that story.

But as I said it goes the other way around.  The city of Colnora,  the political parties, and Degan Gaunt already existed and I was making sure I touched briefly on them here. Putting them in the detailed outline of chapter 1 book 1 may trigger my mind to some ideas I have for other books further down the line, so I’ll open their initial outlines and put some bullets in them as well.

Because I write chronologically most of these detail points will go to future books, but it can go the other way around as well. For instance, when doing the simple outline of book #2 I needed a powerful knight.  Since my “places detail” already indicated  that the best knights come from Chadwick I created Enden and it made sense for Archibald to use him as bragging point – so that made me open up book #1 and make a note for Archibald to mention him. In the same way, Breckton is a major character for book #5 so it made sense to put a reference to him there as well.

These “little threads and details” aren’t supposed to be noticed by the reader of book #1 – but in a re-read people will see the connections that were there all along, lurking beneath the surface.  It provides the Easter Eggs that makes the re-reads more fun.

Outlining this way may seem like there is little room for discovery – but that is not so.  At the time of writing chapter 1 the letters were just love letters.  But as the book unfolded I realized that I could “up the ante” by making them “covert correspondence” between Victor and Gaunt with Alenda acting as a liaison to help her father. This gave her character an added depth that led me to add some bullet points to future books to capitalize on that “discovery.”

One other point I should make. There is much that the detail outline doesn’t cover that will affect what is written when  it comes time to start that chapter. For instance, in Archibald’s character study I note that he really hates anyone calling him by his nickname “Archie”  so I’m able to work that detail in to the exchange with Victor in this first chapter…both as a way for Victor to get under Archie’s skin and also to set the stage for something that will come up time and again throughout the series.  It didn’t show up as a bullet point here – but as I started writing other books I would review their detailed outlines and see if there were places that made sense to have similar exchanges.  This would cause me to add some more bullet points right before starting that particular book.

Well I hope this helps to understand my process a bit. In the next post I’ll talk a bit more about the character studies.

9 thoughts on “More on outlining

  1. Interesting insight into how you outline. I’ll certainly take something away from this in terms of the “points to make” part. I’m outlining at the moment and my chapter summaries are just events. Points to make would help flesh them out. Thanks.

  2. Hi Michael,
    Thanks for the great tips on outlining! I’m looking forward to reading your new series.

    I also wanted to let you know your Scrivener link directs people to a page for someone named John Scrivner rather than to the site where they can get the software. The correct link for the software is

  3. Reblogged this on Phillip McCollum and commented:

    Talented author Michael J. Sullivan has begun journaling his writing process on WordPress. He’s been in the writing game for a long time and built up quite an audience with The Riyria Revelations, an epic fantasy series that was a self-publishing success. His skills eventually led to him being picked up by a traditional publisher.
    I’ve reblogged an insightful article on how he outlines his stories, but I highly recommend you Follow the whole blog.


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