Outline after First Draft? What madness is this?

It’s true! I don’t do an outline until I’ve finished my first draft. Here’s the photographic evidence, taken in my hut not two hours since.IMG_1097

And the reason? I have become quite good at this part of writing, at least: separating out the various drafts’ functions.

For me, the first draft is about characters dictating story. I don’t want to box them in, in any way. As far as I can I want them to tell me their story. So I try not to know everything about them. That way, they can surprise me.


It’s not as if I know nothing. More than likely there has been a treatment, submitted to a publisher ‘outlining’ the main characters, part of their journey – the punchier parts that might earn me the contract. But that’s a sales document. It’s in my head but not open on my desk. Being that I write historical fiction, usually about some intense period or event – you can see one of my text books on the current subject on my outline – my research will have given me some incidents that I know I want to write about in the course of the novel, and chronologically. In the case of ‘A Place Called Armageddon’ about the Fall of Constantinople, the details of the siege dictated quite a lot of the structure – but I still didn’t do an outline first, just a Timeline. With the Great Plague, it’s more an especially vivid backdrop to my characters’ stories – and obviously directly impacts on them.

I also like the notion of getting to know characters as I write them. When I teach this, I always say: would you know everything about a person you just met? Spend time with them, place them under stresses, give them comfort, withdraw it, see how they react. By the end of the first draft I feel I do know my characters – and now can go back and rewrite them from the beginning with that knowledge. I also find I really start to recognize a character when they crack their first joke.

The outline above? Very simple. Left column for Chapter Number and page count. Next column: Chapter Title. Next, characters involved and their basic actions. Last, for notes. You’ll see that last is largely blank for now – because I haven’t actually read the book through yet, just marked it out. I’ll read next, and make notes. But what the outline already tells me are things like – a character’s prolonged absence. In this case – the villain goes missing for about 60 pages in the middle. Can’t have that!


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6 Responses to Outline after First Draft? What madness is this?

  1. Lisa Jensen says:

    I love this post! When I tell people the best advice I ever got about writing historical fiction is to write the story first and THEN do the research, they look at me like I’m nuts. Of course, you need a working knowledge of your period or event going in, but as you say, you really need to let the characters tell you their story first —jokes and all—before you formalize it all into a finished book.

  2. beckony says:

    I also outline after the first draft. I find I usually have all the pieces at the end of the draft, but the outline is needed to get them into place.

  3. Gwen says:

    First of all, I love the title. “What madness is this?” I just started writing, and I’m going to try the ‘outline after the first draft’ method. It sounds as if it would help make it more realistic.I have heard from multiple authors that the characters will sort of take the story in their own direction, which is intriguing. Excited to see what happens when I really get into my writing. :) Love this post!

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