Reverse Outline Your Novel Drafts In Minutes
Turn your foreign and forgotten chapters into a high-level outline in minutes.
Have you ever written something of value?
Trick question, right?
But think of something you didn't finish and poured your soul into.
Something you just couldn't let go of.
Like a NaNoWriMo draft.
50 000 words of bottle excitement and hyped-up dreams.
But now months later, after giving that steaming word pile the space it needed to grow foreign. Foreign enough to edit. You realise you’ve lost touch with it.
You find yourself asking — “Just what exactly did you write?”
But now the mountain isn't simply editing it, but getting to know the damn thing again, reacquainting yourself with the words. Finding the path in the forest.
Loading all of those words back into your working memory so the simulation of the story becomes malleable in your mind. Again.
Usually, this means reading your whole damn novel again.
Maybe more than once. Which for me means getting it onto my Kindle. Taking notes, getting the notes off my Kindle, distilling them and getting them into a Notion outline.
Just so I can start editing.
And this kids, is why I have six unedited Nano novels.
(Yes, I’m learning to outline now. Because I’m too old for this shit. But I still want to mine those old novels and my recent draft for clarity and stories.)
What’s that I hear?
The sounds of angels singing of what could save us time.
Enter Reverse Outlining
It’s in situations like this, with big chunks of foreign-feeling text. When time is short and I just want to get to the re-writing.
That I've found reverse outlining comes in handy.
And this is how you do it.
Let's dive in!
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Perfect for discovery writers
This is most useful for discovery writers but could help anyone check what they’ve actually written against what they think they’ve written.
Sometimes you think you’ve written something that expresses the complex nature of the human condition, only to see you’ve written about a bum sitting in a dumpster setting bits of trash on fire.
Again this prompt can help with that.
It’s a second opinion on the subtextual meaning of what you’ve put down on the page.
The Basic Reverse Outline Prompt
I’ve switched to creating prompts that work in vanilla and free ChatGPT to make things as low-cost, simple and easy for you as possible.
To kick off this prompt I get ChatGPT to confirm it understands and ask you to paste your chapter to continue.
Future prompts will use this Q&A multistep approach that I’ve developed while researching other prompt engineer’s processes.
I want you to be an award winning developmental editor, like Shawn Coyne, and guide me through the improvement of my serial fiction chapter. Help me reverse outline by distilling what this chapter is about. 1. A one short thematic & narrative paragraph, what's the point of this chapter. What does it do for the story as a whole? 2. Give me 5 short bullets of what's literally happens 3. A succinct paragraph of what happens sub-textually, highlight any noticeable themes. 4. What stage of the Vogler's version of the Hero's Journey does this represent? If you understand, say yes, and ask me to to paste in my chapter.
I pasted this chapter of A Slave to Memory into the message box and hit
Here’s the reply I received.
I’ve added the headings to show how this helps me as a writer.
Why this chapter matters
This chapter delves into Murph's memories of his past and his connection to his new family. It sets the stage for his character development and his motivations for fighting against the corruption in the city.
What happens on the surface?
Murph and Omni merge into a single entity in a dream world, experiencing Murph's memories. Murph remembers his colorful home in Bokaap and his new family. He brings home a book for Viniah and searches for Jessalyn, finding her in a plant-filled courtyard with another man.
What is happening beneath the surface?
Sub-textually, this chapter highlights the importance of family and connection in a world full of corruption and chaos. Murph's memories of his home and his new family serve as an anchor in a turbulent time, reminding him of what he is fighting for. The presence of the other man in the courtyard hints at possible romantic tension between Murph and Jessalyn.
This chapter represents the "Ordinary World" stage of Vogler's version of the Hero's Journey, where the hero is introduced in their everyday life before the adventure begins.
I found this process incredibly calming, exciting and fulfilling because it removed a lot of the creative doubt I had about my story.
For example, the Hero’s Journey stage coming up as Ordinary World validated what I had been thinking and aiming for.
As I’m learning this structuring method, and complicating the hell out of it in this story by using three threads, it was great to know it “reads” as the stage I intended it to.
Give this prompt a try the next time you don’t feel you remember what you’ve written or when you’re uncertain your subtext is reading right.
If you have any questions or suggestions drop them in a comment, I’ve had some great conversations with readers and I read and reply to every one.
If you found this helpful and easy non-pay way to support me and The Reader Experience is to share this with a friend or two. It’s the number one way we grow.
Until next week — happy writing!
Ready to Level Up?
Hop over the paywall for the revised prompt.
It’s nearly 40 lines long
Tailors the output to specific word lengths
Uses an example to help ChatGPT zero in on what we want out
These revisions took at least 20 rounds of testing and would conservatively save you around 3-5 hours you can rather spend on your writing.
Bonus: the Midjourney prompt for this post, with a teaser for upcoming posts.
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