Working With An Outline, part 1

Since I am working on a detailed outline for Shapes, I thought it might be useful to make some notes about how I intend to use that outline once it’s complete. Although these notes are formed in the context of the one book, I expect they’ll be relevant to other outlined projects I work on too (like Song, for example).

Outline Format

Before digging in on what to use an outline for, these are some specific thoughts on the format of the outline itself.

Working as I am with existing text, I took that text and applying the following transformations to it:

<line number>: <outline line> [ <text line> ]

So given this text:

Once upon a time, there was a young woman called Mary. She was a shepherdess, which means she spent long periods of time up on the moors away from other people but surrounded by sheep.
This suited Mary fine, since she generally found the villagers who owned the sheep to be about as bright as the sheep themselves.
Despite entrusting their sheep to Mary, her work as a shepherdess was not highly-regarded by the villagers and so they didn’t always keep the sheep harnesses in good repair.
Mary also had one lamb of her own that the blacksmith had given her in lieu of payment for her shepherding. She tried not to play favourites with the sheep (not that the sheep would notice, of course) but she was very fond of this little lamb, who she called Algernon.

… I start with the following content in the outline document:

1: [Once upon a time, there was a young woman called Mary. She was a shepherdess, which means she spent long periods of time up on the moors away from other people but surrounded by sheep.]
2: [This suited Mary fine, since she generally found the villagers who owned the sheep to be about as bright as the sheep themselves.]
3: [Despite entrusting their sheep to Mary, her work as a shepherdess was not highly-regarded by the villagers and so they didn't always keep the sheep harnesses in good repair.]
4: [Mary also had one lamb of her own that the blacksmith had given her in lieu of payment for her shepherding. She tried not to play favourites with the sheep (not that the sheep would notice, of course) but she was very fond of this little lamb, who she called Algernon.]

This transformation is exactly the kind of thing that text editors like vim and emacs excel at.

Turning Text Into An Outlineable Format

I am a vim user, and these are the steps I followed in that editor to turn my story text into the outline form:

:%s/.*/[&]/
%! perl -e 'my $ln = 0; while (<>) { $ln++; print "$ln: $_" }'

That “perl” line calls out to a one line script which adds line numbers to standard input.

Additionally, once the outline text has been added, I performed the following command to strip the original text.

:%s/ \[[^\]]\+\]//

Sketching the Outline

When the text is laid out appropriately, I add outline notes between the line number and the bracketed text. The goal of this outline is to capture the beats in the text – it’s not just relating the story, but how that story is going to be told.

1: Introduce Mary, shepherdess. [Once upon a time, there was a young woman called Mary. She was a shepherdess, which means she spent long periods of time up on the moors away from other people but surrounded by sheep.]
2: Describe how Mary is well-suited to this isolated work and does not care for the villagers. [This suited Mary fine, since she generally found the villagers who owned the sheep to be about as bright as the sheep themselves.]
3: Recount that the villagers reciprocate by not caring for Mary much either. [Despite entrusting their sheep to Mary, her work as a shepherdess was not highly-regarded by the villagers and so they didn't always keep the sheep harnesses in good repair.]
4: Mary had a little lamb. Mention where she got it. [Mary also had one lamb of her own that the blacksmith had given her in lieu of payment for her shepherding. She tried not to play favourites with the sheep (not that the sheep would notice, of course) but she was very fond of this little lamb, who she called Algernon.]

Next time, I’ll write about what I do with the outline once it’s got some content in it.

2 Replies to “Working With An Outline, part 1”

  1. Kim says:

    Wow, that’s quite the system! Is this an outline for editing or would it also work on a first draft?

    1. Dunx says:

      this is for editing, but I am going to try this approach out on a first draft at some point.

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