In 2020, I presented a session on Making it to the Finish Line at the Write on the Sound (WOTS) conference. During Q&A near the end, in the chat feature someone asked about what I meant by doing a reverse outline during revisions. I was pressed for time and the monitor had already given me my time’s-up signal, so I gave a brief, half-assed answer. I’d like to correct that here.
Those lucky writers who can plan ahead and work from an outline at the outset are far more efficient, and no doubt finishing more books than authors like me — those who write by the seat of our pants. However, all books need a structure. In his upcoming book, Refuse to Be Done: How to Write and Rewrite a Novel in Three Drafts, (pub. date 3/22), author Matt Bell offers a strategy for a reverse outline so any type of writer can produce a great book in three drafts.
His premise is to write a complete, exploratory draft, or what he terms the generative revision, because rewriting and revision occur at all stages of the process. Those of you who recently completed nanowrimo no doubt made minor fixes along the way, such as correcting a POV shift, or realizing you’ve spelled your protagonist’s name four different ways. In this step, even if you have an outline, the book will gain momentum on its own as you write, thus forcing you to revise and make discoveries as you forge your way to the end. Then put it in a drawer and start something else.
In the second phase, the narrative revision, is where Bell recommends you initiate a reverse outline. This is where, through careful analysis, you learn what your book is really about. “It’s this stage—and never before this stage—that I write a full outline of the novel. Outlining what already exists.” The outline can take whatever form works: such as a storyboard, note cards on a wall, bullet point list or a traditional outline. The point is to make a model of your story or novel, where its ideal structure is revealed.
The plot deepens, characters are fleshed out, scenes — possibly chapters — get moved and likely deleted (I keep a file of deleted material called Cuts in case I later find a new home for it in the manuscript) and the underlying story becomes more apparent. The prose will be tighter yet the book is likely longer.
Bell recommends rewriting the entire manuscript—retyping the document in a new file—instead of cutting and pasting. This is fine if you actually know how to type, but I hunt and peck with two fingers and make multiple typos, so this won’t work for me.
Bell also advises you to read your work out loud. If this is too daunting, there’s a feature on Word called Speak, where the computer will read the book aloud in its monotone voice. This is a good way to hear missing words and typos and recognize repetitive scenes.
Take another long break from the book before the final step: the polishing revision. When you meet with your pages again, you’ll rediscover what you’ve written. This phase allows you to take something good, and with precision, make it great. For me, this is the slowest phase of revision, yet it’s also my favorite. I take it one scene at a time with printed copy. Those pages are mercilessly marked up, sliced and diced like murder victims.
This stage is where you look at beginnings and endings of paragraphs, scenes, and chapters. Does the beginning draw you in? Does the previous line propel you to read the next?
The Find feature in Word is your new best friend; it will help you root out weasel words like that, just, even, (there’s a long list of them on page 141), “to be” verbs, weak dialogue, cliches, too many sighs, shrugs, and weak verbs. “The more interesting the verbs, the more interesting the action.”
This process sounds like it’s going to take a lot of time, and it will, yet approach it in manageable chunks. You won’t be able to “polish” a novel in one weekend, but small daily gains will eventually produce a finished piece of writing. It won’t be perfect because there’s no such thing as the perfect book, but it will be the best version of your original concept.
Laura Moe is the author of three novels and is board president of EPIC Group Writers. See EPIC’s events page for upcoming workshops. She is currently revising the structure of her novel-in-progress.
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