Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Novel Series Outlining

My newest editor gave me an interesting task last week that I thought I'd share. First, the backstory: In January the editor I'd worked with for the last seven years decided to quit the business. When something like this happens, most writers quietly have a cow (and I admit, for a day or two I had a small calf) but it can also be a good thing. Shortly after the bomb dropped I recognized the sterling opportunity peeking out from under the rubble, and moved quickly to request reassignment to an editor I've wanted to work with for some time -- and got it.

The only pickle still floating in the party punch was what the new editor inherited along with me: the new Darkyn trilogy. Since my new editor hadn't worked on the original series, she doesn't have first-hand knowledge of all the characters, plot lines and world-building in those books. And while I always try to include enough history in every book to keep new-to-me readers from getting lost, an editor needs to know a lot more. When she asked me to write up an overview of the characters and stories from the original series, I jumped right on it.

Outlining an entire series after you've written it might sound easy, but for me it meant condensing over 1700 pages of notes, plots, synopses, character outlines, research etc. into a reference document that someone with no knowledge of my novels could understand and use. Basically I put aside all my notes, wrote up what I would say if we were talking about my books in person, and then edited that first draft down to the simplest details.

A series outline can include, but is not limited to:

A series premise -- the tag or hook line for the entire series.

Titles in reading order

World-building outline -- this is often difficult to summarize, especially if you've built your world(s) from scratch. My advice is to map it out as briefly as you can using broad points to illustrate only the most important elements.

Plot summaries for each book -- to avoid writing full synopses, try to limit your summaries to one paragraph.

Character outlines -- major facts only. You may want to add appearance references (i.e. which book(s) does this character appear.)

There are also some genre-specific details you may want to include, such as a timeline of story and historic events, an explanation of a magic system, family or relationship trees, planetary or technological features, or any element of your invention that contributes significantly in some way to the series. Just remember to avoid getting caught up in TME (too much explanation.)

Depending on what information is needed there are a couple of ways to do a series outline, so it's also a good idea to ask for specifics as to what the editor wants to see. I did, and my editor requested just the major players and their story lines, so I focused my overviews accordingly, and distilled the series down to eleven pages, which I think is pretty decent given the mountain of information involved.

If you're considering writing a series, this is also a good way to figure out your ideas in advance. This comes in very handy when you sell the first novel and the editor asks, "Are you planning to write a sequel or a series?" Having your series outline prepared can even result in an offer for multiple books versus one.

To show you how I wrote my outline, I've uploaded some samples from it, which you can read here (warning, this includes spoilers for If Angels Burn.)


  1. You got all the Darkyn series info into eleven pages?!
    Am impressed. :)

  2. Thanks! An agent wants synopses for my the next books in my "series", so this is timely indeed.

  3. New Darkyn trilogy??? Yay!

    I can't believe you managed to smoosh the entire Darkyn series into one document without it being a 100-pgs thick. You're awesome.

  4. Very cool! I can't believe you got it down to 11 pages. Off to study your example.

  5. Impressive. I'm working on a series bible right now. This is perfect timing. Thanks.

  6. Wow! I never know what to include or not include when I'm writing a synopsis of the first book in my series and have managed to get it down to five pages and you condensed 1700 pages of story into 11???

    I bow to your ability! And wish I could do it!

  7. Thank you so very much for this. It's really helpful.

  8. This is a good way to baby-step my way into outlining. Thanks!


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