An agent has asked me for an outline of my peculiar lit-fantasy novel Earthly Vessels. I'm already familiar with the unique pain of writing synopses, but an outline is new territory for me.
As I understand an outline, it's supposed to be a fairly bald, chapter-by-chapter accounting of What Happens Next. This is certainly an easier proposition than composing a synopsis, which is an artform of its own. (And one at which good novelists seldom excel.)
I have to confess, however, that Earthly Vessels isn't the sort of book that outlines well. Yes, there is a this-happens-and-then-this-happens throughline. But the book purports to explain all the mysteries of not just the universe but the multiverse. Sorta. And it isn't clear how much of that needs to go in the outline.
The process of outlining brings the whole issue of balance to the fore. In one of his fine essays on writing fiction, Lawrence Block quotes a musician as saying, "The worst thing in the world's when you're singing dirty blues and not going over, and you're not sure if it's 'cause you're too clean or too dirty." When you have something eccentric with potential truckloads of outlandish detail, should you try and keep the detail to a minimum--or should you view it as the whole point of the work, and give it full rein? Some of the novels I like best are stuffed with potentially self-indulgent detail: O'Brian's endless nautical jargon, the faux-scholarly footnoting in Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Fowles' obsessive Victorian trivia in The French Lieutenant's Woman.
The answer, as always, is the Goldilocks Optimum: neither too hot nor too cold, but just right. Easy to say, hard to achieve.
Earthly Vessels runs about 115,000 words. Outlining the chapters makes me think I have rushed the end (a recurrent sin of mine), and perhaps been a little conservative in larding on the details. Even though 115K is a hefty book, I'm afraid it's a little shorter than it ought to be.
Unless, of course, its problem is that it's too long.
There. That clears things up. I'm so glad we had this little chat.