I’m talking here about writing a book under contract, not a book to-spec, because most of my books have a payment due on outline, so I have no choice but to hand something in if I want to get paid. Luckily for me, the outline is a natural part of my process. The last time I wrote without a 'skeleton' of some sort, I was 22 and the book never got finished. So.
It starts something like this:
“Hello, I am your character. This is what I sound like.”
All right, character, what trouble can we get you into?
”I’m sure you’ll think of something.”
Hrmm. Okay, so here’s the scenario….
[sometimes, of course, the scenario comes first and then I have to hunt and trap a character. But the process remains the same]
I begin with a précis – a miniaturized breakdown of the story, taking about three paragraphs: Character A is such-and-such and lives here-and-there. Into here-and-there comes Problem 1. Character A, with the aid of Characters B and C and antagonist Z and Y, battle Problem 1. Things Blow Up Real Good. There is a conclusion.
From the précis, I begin to expand outward, elaborating on each turn of the plot, filling in details, often with bits of dialog or scene-snippet. I refer to this as my skeleton, the bones on which the flesh and sinews of the story will hang. The outline can be anywhere from five to fifteen pages long, and in its final form is broken down into chapters, so I can judge the pacing. This is the file that will, eventually, expand into A Book.
At this point, the outline is ready to go to my editor for her once-over, and the payment request. It is also often handed over to the copy department, if we’re running late, so they can get started on any catalog or flap copy that might be needed. However, my editor also knows – through long, painful experience – that my outlines are *ahem* let’s just say that they’re a lot like Googlemap directions: accurate until they’re totally wrong.
Because once I start writing, the skeleton can morph. Scenes turn out different from plan, characters develop different personalities than planned, chapters break in different places and sometimes end in ways that weren’t anticipated…. And sometimes something that happened in an earlier book will dérive a new direction for this one. It’s all very organic, and I’ve found that trying to force a growing story back into the original form sometimes results in a misshapen and unpleasing story.
(of course, sometimes you look at the outline and think “okay, there is no way I’m going to get from A to C if I go through J. Back to B!” That’s why outlines are useful. Also, they keep you from forgetting Important Bits in the heat of writing. Which, y’know, sometimes we do.)
Revisions? Revisions are an entirely different kettle of kittens.