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I'm working on a full, detailed outline of my planned book series before I have much of it written down. I'm not a pantser, I must have a clear idea where I'm going before I can get far.

In the process of doing this I've started to question the direction that I'm taking certain things. How do I know if the plot and all its threads are being resolved satisfactorily? How is the pace? Are my characters too static or too numerous? etc. etc.

So I'm wondering when and how it is appropriate to evaluate and get feedback on a summary - plot, setting, characters - that hasn't been (fully) written yet. From what I've seen of online writing communities, criticism always seems to be about writing style rather than content. Is this something that would even be worthwhile at this point, or is it all about the delivery? And if so, how would I get that feedback?

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Write a synopsis. Then get feedback on that.

Your synopsis should be as brief as possible, conveying only the elements that are absolutely crucial to the story - the elements without which the story would be absolutely different. If you were summarizing the first Harry Potter book, you don't need to say "and then he went to a Potions class, and then he went to a Quidditch game, and then...". Instead, it'd look something like this:

  • Harry is an orphan sorely mistreated by his aunt and uncle.
  • On his 11th birthday, he is suddenly summoned to Hogwarts, a wizarding school. His aunt and uncle try to stop it, but their attempts are in vain.
  • Harry has a secret past: evil Voldemort killed his parents and disappeared; Harry is famous as "The Boy Who Lived."
  • Harry has lots of exciting adventures at school as he learns about the secret wizarding world. One of his teachers is Snape, who is cruel; another is Quirrell, who is bumbling and pleasant.
  • Bad things are happening at Hogwarts - attacks and destruction.
  • Harry and his friends find out about the Philospher's Stone, which grants eternal life, and is hidden in Hogwarts. They realize Voldemort is after the stone. They think he is acting through cruel Snape.
  • There is a break-in aimed at the stone. Harry and his friends race to reach it first, overcoming wizardly tests and challenges.
  • It turns out the villain is Quirrel, who is harboring Voldemort. Snape has been trying to protect Harry all along; Harry's misunderstood him completely.
  • The last line of defense makes sure the Stone will go only to someone who wants the Stone itself, rather then the long life and riches it can provide. Harry gets the stone and defeats Voldemort's current incarnation.
  • Harry is sent back to Privet Drive for the summer.

Now, this is a very simple, straightforward plot, that skips almost all the "meat" of the book. That's fine. That's what you're after - just the absolute essentials.

Now your synopsis is critique-able. If you have any overarching problem that would destroy your story's credibility, it would be evident at this point. This plot is clear enough for questions like "How can he possibly write a virus for an alien computer system he's never seen?" or "Why doesn't she just call the cops?" or "He does all that just to get the girl? That sounds awfully stalker-y to me" or "This doesn't seem to have an actual ending" - narrative problems big enough to substantially affect your entire book, not just a couple of scenes. Since you've eliminated all the non-crucial details, it's safe to assume that as long as you stick to the outline, anything new that you introduce might still raise narrative problems - but they'll be local, a single character or chapter that needs to be fixed, rather than "this whole book makes no sense."

If necessary, your synopsis might touch on the cast of characters; you might include subplots, or have a seperate synopsis for each major plot thread. The important thing is to include everything that's crucial to the whole, and leave out anything that isn't.

As always, treat feedback with caution. Some reactions you'll be able to dismiss; others will point out weaknesses that you should take care to shore up; some might demolish your plans entirely. Figure out which is which before you get too worked up about any of them.

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Find a good beta reader or a good editor.

I ran into this problem myself: I had a plot which was solid and detailed but left room for expansion, I had characters I absolutely loved, I spent months in world-building, wrote 125+ pages, and then showed it to a few trusted, intelligent people to get some early feedback.

What I learned: One of my main characters was a complete idiot (and was not supposed to be), the system of government too clearly showed how I'd cobbled it together from other writers, and I could never quite boil the story down to an elevator pitch.

What I should have done was shared it with the readers before writing the 125+ pages, so that I could have made the decision either to fix the problems or abandon the project without having spent another year on it.

So yes, without question, get feedback before plunging in. I am of the strong opinion that you cannot create a novel in a vacuum. I'm not a pantser either, and I think the best work comes from getting a vigorous shakedown from good critics.

A good critic is someone who constructively, kindly, thoroughly goes through your work and not just points out the problems but can suggest some solutions and alternatives. This is what I try to do when I'm editing someone else's book.

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Content and delivery go hand-in-hand. If one area is lacking, the other can't make up the difference - it's a bit like having a fancy cell phone but no service.

A couple of beta readers or an experienced fiction editor would be able to help you think through the outline and to address your specific concerns. Having a detailed outline reviewed that you expand upon and then having that new version reviewed again essentially is the approach used in television/film production - you pitch an idea, develop an outline, create an alaborate scene-by-scene synopsis, move to a first draft, etc., with an editor or a director reviewing the script at each step.

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I agree with the rest. Evaluating your story before writing it is like rating a love affair before having it (OK, I know. Awful metaphor). The thing is, you must receive feedback from other people. That's the only way to know whether your plot, pace, characters are delivering satisfactorily.

From what I've seen of online writing communities, criticism always seems to be about writing style rather than content.

I'm not sure if you have tried Scribophile. They not only have an inline editing form but also have a template form which is divided into plot, pacing, description, characters, etc.

I'm an active member in that community and use that form most of the time. It forces me to organize my critiques and be more specific.

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Thanks for the tip. I just joined Scribophile this month but I haven't posted anything for critique yet. –  Travis Christian Nov 13 '13 at 21:37
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When you're done the outline, send it to me. If it's good, I'll steal it. Haha, just kidding, but seriously don't work for a year on an awesome detailed outline and then show it to just anybody on an online forum. That's a job for people you'd trust with a big envelope full of $20s and $50s.

For starters, search for books/movies with similar thematic elements, and make sure you're not staking a claim on a worked-out mine.

Too many characters: You can have lots of bit characters, and they won't get fleshed out (at least, not in one novel). That's OK. But you can't have more than a few main characters in a novel (or in the 1st novel in a series). Otherwise, something has to give. Characterization, description, or plot must suffer. Or the book will get unbearably long. (When did you last read "War and Peace"?) It's OK, though, to gradually flesh out bit characters, and introduce new important ones, in a book series. (The Harry Potter series is an obvious recent example.)

All about the delivery: Maybe some artsy types only care about the delivery, but 99% of readers want both content and delivery.

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If you can find beta readers who are willing to look at an outline and seem competent to evaluate it, then I see nothing wrong with consulting them. There are certain flaws in a novel (e.g., “if the protagonist had half a brain she would do such-and-such in Chapter Three”) that would be detectable at the outline stage and that are hard to paper over with beautiful prose.

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Agree. But thankfully Tolkien didn't do that, or we wouldn't have LotR. :-) –  dmm Nov 13 '13 at 21:58
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