Reverse Outlines Revisited

Hey Folks,

This first appeared as a topic over at my Daily Journal at

It also sprang from a comment (a question from another writer) on Dean Wesley Smith’s website.

Awhile back I talked about writing a “reverse outline.”

The idea is, as you write your novel off into the dark (no pre-plotting, outlining, etc.) sometimes keeping track of characters, what they’re wearing, major situations, etc. becomes cumbersome.

Now when I write a novel, I open the Word doc (novelname.doc) and start typing whatever comes. I’m an adherent of Heinlein’s Rules and I enjoy writing off into the dark.

But I also open a Notepad text (novelname notes.txt) document. I use Windows, but Mac has something similar. I keep it open and minimized on my screen as I’m writing the novel.

In that .txt document, at the end of every chapter or major scene, I fill in a few details about the chapter or scene.

Those details might include

  • character names and anything significant (wearing a brown leather vest or a grey longcoat),
  • place names (was the hotel called The Amarillo Inn or the Amarillo Inn? did the scene or chapter take place in Justin, Texas or Eustace, Oklahoma?),
  • names of any minor characters introduced in that scene or chapter and their occupation, and so on.

Anything at all that I think I might need to remember later in the novel.

This takes only a few seconds per chapter or major scene and it keeps me from having to scroll back or use the Find function to search for the information.

On Dean’s site, the question the other writer asked was about series short stories.

I know many writers (like Dean) can set out to write short stories in series.

I can’t and so far, I don’t.

But sometimes, a character from a short story (or novel) I wrote awhile back tugs at my sleeve and pitches another story to me.

So now when I write a short story, I also keep a reverse outline of it. Then if I do return to that world to write another story, I don’t have to open the original story and read through it for information. I only have to open the “shortstoryname notes.txt” document and I’m good to go.

Try it. You’ll like it.

Happy writing!

PS: Hey! Only two days left before the madness begins at Stop by and watch the short stories develop scene by scene. I’ll post each scene live there as I write it. 🙂

The Journal, Saturday, 2/4

Hey Folks,

Ugh. Allergies on overdrive this morning.

Topic: Fixing Things (with the Subconscious)

The novel has ground to a temporary halt. But I know why, so it really is only a temporary halt.

All books (stories) are different, and they can all write differently, even from the same writer. I suppose that’s part and parcel of writing into the dark too.

The last few days, even as I typed, a nagging little voice was telling me the overall story was overloaded with one couple, one ongoing situation. This morning as I cycled through, the voice was stronger and more insistent.

It’s as if my subconscious was crossing its arms and holding its breath, refusing to give me more of the story until I right the ship here. It’s like dealing with a petulant 4 year old.

So I sat back in my chair, physically crossed my own arms and thought “All right. Tell me what’s wrong.”

And it did. This sort of thing happened exactly this way once before in one of my novels, but not to this level of severity.

“Come look at your reverse outline,” the subconscious said, tugging on my arm.

So I did. And I was surprised.

Currently there are three separate major groups of characters, plus two minor groups (at present) who keep peeking in from the wings. Each group has its own interlaced story to play out.

Recently I’ve been “stuck” on telling one of those stories, with the others making almost token appearances. As a result, the one story has eleven of the fifteen chapters. That isn’t a good balance.

Interesting to note, the characters who currently have eleven of the fifteen chapters are the only ones who weren’t yelling at me. (grin)

So today might be a nonwriting day. First I’ll spend soem time rearranging some chapters to balance the story. (Note: If you decide to do something similar, be sure to change the file name of the novel document first and Save As so you retain the original.)

When I start writing again, I’ll write at least five chapters that will insert between pairs of the current chapters. But I’ll need some distance from the novel before I start writing again. That might take an hour or it might take a day.

But I’ll start again soon. And the world will be right again.

Today, and Writing

Rolled out a little after 2, opened the novel by 2:40. Realized I was stuck, my subconscious screaming at me.

That was around 4. I stopped and wrote everything above, then began working on the reverse outline and then on the actual manuscript (after adding a B to the ile name and hitting Save As).

Definite nonwriting day today. I’ll be back tomorrow, but tomorrow might be a nonwriting day as well. Going to bed late tonight and getting up late tomorrow so I can stay up for the Super Bowl. At least that’s the plan. We’ll see.

Back tomorrow.

Of Interest

Over at Dean’s, basically another placeholder post but also one about BundleRabbit. If you haven’t found that yet, this might be the perfect opportunity.

Fiction Words: XXXX
Nonfiction Words: 530 (Journal)
So total words for the day: 530

Writing of Will Perkins (novel, working title)

Day 1…… 4219 words. Total words to date…… 4219
Day 2…… 4003 words. Total words to date…… 8222
Day 3…… 3383 words. Total words to date…… 11605
Day 4…… 3124 words. Total words to date…… 14729
Day 5…… 3373 words. Total words to date…… 18102
Day 6…… 2294 words. Total words to date…… 20396
Day 7…… 3102 words. Total words to date…… 23498
Day 8…… 2578 words. Total words to date…… 26076
Day 9…… XXXX words. Total words to date…… XXXXX

Total fiction words for the month……… 7974
Total fiction words for the year………… 100584
Total nonfiction words for the month… 1570
Total nonfiction words for the year…… 21260

Total words for the year (fiction and nonfiction)…… 121844

The Journal, Saturday, 1/28

Hey Folks,

Today, and Writing

Rolled out at 2:30 again, but the kitten let me sleep uninterrupted. Apparently she didn’t feel the need to knead on my bicep to soften it up before she lay down. (grin)

Normal early routine, then out to the Hovel by 3. I had Internet from the house (weird, but good). I remembered I hadn’t sent the new story to a new donor so I did that, then updated the Short Fiction page on my website to include the new short story.

All of that took an hour. But I have coffee and cigars, so I just stood up and stretched a bit, then visited Dean’s site to read comments. That took awhile. Up to the house to let the pets out.

Finally to the novel at 5:20, and up to the house around 6:30 for a visit and more coffee. Only several hundred words in the first session today.

At almost 5000 words in (total), I finally did some world-building. For that I make notes on a Notepad document. I also caught up with my reverse outline on the same document. I should have done that yesterday.

The rest of today I’ll work back and forth between the notes and the novel. Of course, as the novel progresses I’ll need to make fewer notes.

Over the next few hours, a couple of breaks to change clothes and swap coffee for tea. It’s 9:15 now and I’m back to the novel.

At 10:30, a break.

Well, that turned into a long one. I ate lunch and helped my wife at the house a bit. Now, at 12:20 back to the novel.

1:30, made my word count for the day and it’s Saturday, so going to take the rest of the day.

Back tomorrow.

Of Interest

Twenty great comments on Dean’s “More Questions” from yesterday at Love the “plan not play” analogy. There’s also a question in one comment that illustrates the person hasn’t been around Dean’s site very long. Or mine at all. (grin) See if you can find it. Finally, if any of you have questions re anything you see in these responses, and if you don’t want to write Dean or comment for some reason, feel free to email me.

Then check his “Questions and Lecture Announcement” at His lectures are excellent, by the way. I’ve listened to several. Questions on any of them, feel free to ask.

Fiction Words: 4003
Nonfiction Words: 420(Journal)
So total words for the day: 4423

Writing of Will Perkins (novel, working title)

Day 1…… 4219 words. Total words to date…… 4219
Day 2…… 4003 words. Total words to date…… 8222

Total fiction words for the month……… 82730
Total fiction words for the year………… 82730
Total nonfiction words for the month… 18200
Total nonfiction words for the year…… 18200

Total words for the year (fiction and nonfiction)…… 100930

Creating a Reverse Outline

Hi Folks,

In the interest of full disclosure, I first posted this as a blog entry on April 2 in my Daily Journal at

To continue the discloure, this is a technique I learned from Dean Wesley Smith. I find his openness and instruction (inadvertent and otherwise) pretty much invaluable.

But to the topic at hand.

Anyone who knows me or has talked writing with me for more than five minutes knows I don’t outline. If I’m going to take the time to outline, I might as well just write the story. If I wrote an outline, I would already know where the story’s going, what’s going to happen, etc. So then why bother writing it?

If I wrote an outline and then followed it, I, not the characters, would be telling the story.

I would be “directing” everything. I would be the almighty, all-powerful writer on high. Ugh. I don’t even begin to want that job. I much prefer to go in blind and just write off into the dark.

I much prefer to allow the CHARACTERS to tell the story. After all, they’re the ones who are living it. I’m just their recorder.

I don’t wanna lie back on a cloud, occasionally checking to make sure all the people I created are doing and saying what I tell them.

I wanna be down in the trenches, running through the story WITH the characters, and entertaining the snot out of myself. Or rather, allowing them to entertain me, just as they will entertain the reader.

However, I DO create what I call a “reverse outline” as I write. When I finish a section, a major scene or (in my current WIP) a chapter, I take a moment to make a few notes on a Notepad document. This consists of only a few sentences per chapter.

Now as I recall, Dean keeps a legal pad next to his computer and makes notes longhand. For me, typing it into a Notepad document is easier than writing longhand.

In my reverse outline, I list the chapter number on the left. Then I add significant items such as

  • which characters were in the scene and how they were dressed,
  • any major events that occurred in the scene, with appropriate details,
  • any major descriptions in the scene, and so on.

That way when my characters surprise me with something and I need to cycle back to add a bit of description or a foreshadowing or something, I refer to the list.

This is a TON easier than scrolling endlessly as you look for a name or a word or a phrase or what color shirt a character was wearing. It’s also a lot easier than even having to use the Find function to search the document.

Anyway, in my current WIP, at well over 63,000 words in and thinking I was finished, I decided to hold off publishing. My subconscious (that little voice) told me there was more to the story.

Okay, fine. But for some reason I didn’t create a reverse outline as I wrote this novel. And of course, when I realized I was going to have to splice in some new scenes, I wished I had.

So I took almost three hours of what should have been writing time to go back through the entire novel. Not reading it, but just going from one chapter to the next and making a few notes about what happened, who appeared, significant descriptions, etc.

And that led me to want to pass along this really useful technique. In fact, if you write off into the dark, this technique is invaluable. And if you don’t, if you’re still outlining, well, as they say in Texas, “Bless your heart.”

Try it. You’ll like it. (grin)


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