One of my big jobs this week was to write outlines for two books (my biggest job was to mark around 40 student assignments, but we won't go there). These two are supposedly going to be Books 2 and 3, featuring the same character. When I wrote the first one, I had no intention of writing any more. It seemed a complete story to me, with a fairly resounding ending. None of this Hollywood doubling back and tricking the reader at the last minute with a new monster being birthed. Then the publisher said the character was so good, how about another story featuring her?
Of course. (Lesson 1 in writing and publishing - never say No way, Jose when a publisher asks you to write a book, unless it's something horrible that would destroy your rep forever. You can always negotiate what the book might be, and get it closer to what you want.) In this case, it had been a while since I'd written the first one, and I also really liked the character. Not sure where she came from, but we get on well together.
Then it became 'We'd like to see outlines for two more books, please'. Hmmm. I don't have any problems with outlines, especially the ones done my way. My way starts with scribbles and circles and arrows all over the page, then it progresses to more diagrams and grids and notes. When I'm happy, I start writing. But that's not what a publisher wants to see. Because they'd never understand my scribbles and diagrams in a million years.
A publisher wants to see it all written out, like a summary or a short version of what the whole thing will be about, who will be in it, what will happen, and what the outcome will be. It's also good to indicate what the outcome will mean to the characters, the result of their journey. For me, this is not a synopsis. A synopsis is when you have written the whole thing and rewritten it, and then you write down everything that happens so an editor or agent reading the first three chapters can see whether you've got a solid grip on the rest of the story.
These outlines are saying what I'm going to write about. What I have planned will happen. There in lies the rub. What if I change my mind? What if a better idea or ending presents itself halfway through the writing? What if I get to Chapter 4 of my planned novel (according to the outline) and I hate it and it's not working how I thought it would, and I want to burn it? That's why outlines freak me out a bit. What if I get it wrong?
The plus side of this, however, is that while I had a good idea for Book 2, Book 3 wasn't even a twinkle in my eye. I had to start from scratch and explore a whole new idea. I came up with something I liked, then I came up with something big and exciting that really made it all come together. And in turn, that showed me where the weakness lay in Book 2. That's what I'm working on right now - how to find that big, exciting extra element that I think Book 2 still needs to pump it up to a top-notch story. It's mostly there, but I want to add one thing more...