Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Outlining Your Book After the Fact

From Paul Levine...

SUMMARY JUDGMENT: I prepare a chapter-by-chapter outline of every book before I start writing. However, I almost always soar off into space, leaving the outline a tattered mess, hardly resembling the finished book.

So that I can keep track of the paths taken (and not), I do a "reverse outline" as I'm scribbling. It re-creates an outline from the manuscript, so I can quickly see the structure of the story, as written, not just as planned. My reverse outline is really simple. It's just the first paragraph of each chapter. That's enough to clue me as to what else is in the chapter.

Recently, I wondered if the first paragraph of each chapter gave an accurate summary of the book to anyone but me, i.e., a reader. The answer is....definitely maybe.

Here are the first several chapter/summaries of "Illegal," my 2009 novel that involves an L.A. lawyer's attempt to bring together a Mexican boy and his mother who has been caught in the web of human trafficking after a midnight border crossing went to hell.

1. Judge Rollins drew a handgun from beneath his black robes, pointed the snub-nosed barrel at Jimmy Payne’s chest and said, “Who you pimping for, you low-life shyster?”

2. One hour before he stood, naked and terrified, in the chambers of the Honorable Walter Rollins, Jimmy Payne stood, clothed and angry, glaring at a wooden pin some sixty feet away.

3. Payne plopped his Road Hawg into its zippered bag. “I’m out of here, Rigney. Go bribe the judge yourself.”

4. Jimmy drove west on Ventura Boulevard, speaking to his ex-wife on the cell. “Sharon, do you know a dickwad named Eugene Rigney?”

5. “You think I’m stupid?” Judge Rollins aimed the gun a few inches north of Payne ’s shrinking testicles. “Your wife’s a cop.”

6. An hour after fleeing the courthouse, Payne’s hands were still shaking. Either that, or a 5.0 trembler had rocked the Chimney Sweep, a windowless tavern squeezed between a Lebanese restaurant and a discount dentist in a Sherman Oaks strip mall. Payne wrapped a hand around the leaded base of his glass, trying to steady it, but the Jack Daniels swirled between the ice cubes like molten lava through porous rocks.

7. Marisol Perez led Tino through the swinging saloon doors, thankful the cantina catered to American tourists, not the usual loud-mouthed drunks, mal educados, who made up so much of Mexican manhood.

That's the tease. The book has 82 chapters. Do my fellow scribblers reverse outline their books?

OBAMA BLUNDER: Yes, the Obama folks failed to properly vet nutcake Van Jones for his job as an environmental adviser. But, no one died as a result. The same cannot be said of the Bush Administration's appointment of Michael Brown as Major Poohbah of F.E.M.A.

SHAME ON YOU, MOMMY! Do Mommy Bloggers exploit their kids be writing about their foibles? My daughter, Wendy Sachs, a Mommy Blogger herself, opines today on Huffington.

"Are mommy bloggers selfishly pimping out their children for their own creative fodder ... or, even worse, financial gain? Do our emotional, self-deprecating, angst-ridden, confessional posts that are meant to comfort the sorority of mothers in cyberspace ultimately hurt our own children -- if not now, sometime in the future?"

IN FUNERAL NEWS: The Rev. Al Sharpton, who never met a camera he didn't French kiss, said he will continue to fight for Michael Jackson's "legacy and what he stood for." Which was what, exactly?

Firefighters battling the Los Angeles County blazes have been inhaling various energy drinks to stay alert during their 12 to 18hour shifts. Now comes word that the high-caffeine drinks are dangerous because they dehydrate the body. The Los Angeles Times reports:

"Instead of energy drinks, officials ask firefighters to think about replacing salt, sugar, water and calories as a way to gain a boost. Posters bearing an outline of a slim, energy drink can with a big red strike through it are scattered around the camp."

Paul Levine


  1. I don't outline, and I don't reverse outline, exactly; what typically happens is somewhere in the mid-200 page range or higher, I have to figure out what's going to happen from there to the end and make sure all those pesky threads get either tied off or snipped off, so I'll do one-line descriptions: Derek climbs elevator shaft, for instance; bomb goes off; they live happily ever after, sorta.

  2. Yes, Mark, I sometimes shorthand events, also: "Hilarity ensues."

  3. Paul, I'd think you could probably sell one of your books to the publisher with: Somebody dies, then hilarity ensues.

  4. james o. born9/08/2009 11:51 AM

    I have reversed outlined before. When I thought I might make massive revisions, I went through a novel and summarized each chapter with one line. It was helpful in some ways.

    Congrats on your law scool beating my alma mater. It hurt but I'm better now.


  5. from Jacqueline

    Heck, Paul, it's all I can do to write the thing, without doing anything in reverse. Several books ago I took an idea from Friends, the TV show. I began each day with, "The one where Maisie ...." or "The one where she crashes the car and ...." - and then I just wrote what came into my head following those words, "The One Where ...." OK, so it's not perfect, and hardly literary, but you have to do what you have to do, or you'll never get anywhere in any direction, let alone backwards and forwards.

    And you're right about Michael Jackson - what, pray is his legacy?

    I mean, it's not as if he's a Beatle ....

  6. I just completed the most detailed elaborate outline I have ever written in my short career and it was really really difficult. I barely moved forward. Now you're asking me if I can do it in the reverse? Dancing backwards is one thing but writing backwards is quite another.