Question: How do you take three half-completed attempts at a novel, half a dozen plot outlines and a folder full of ideas, and distill it all down to a two page outline?
Answer: Very slowly.
The secret is that you have to be prepared to throw out anything which doesn't fit, even if you consider it the best chapter/scene/piece of dialogue you've written in your entire life. If you try and work that stellar scene into a novel where it doesn't belong, the next thing you know you've had to add half a dozen chapters around it to make it fit. Bad author, bad.
For example, I have 50,000 words of 2007 NanoWrimo novel just begging to be used, and after the latest update to my Hal plot outline I reckon I'll only be keeping around 3000 words of it. That chunk will need to be rewritten too, with a different location and different characters.
Worse, there's a 25,000 word chunk from 2004, which was originally intended to be the framework for Hal 4. I'll be ditching nearly all of it, and keeping just one or two ideas.
THIS plot outline is what matters. I don't care how many months I spent grinding out tens of thousands of words, and all those false starts are just distractions. THIS is the novel I'm working on now.
You have to be ruthless. That's all there is to it.
As for practical advice, the way I come up with a plot is like this: Over a period of several weeks I write and rewrite the entire outline from scratch, from memory. I start each version small and add more and more detail, until I end up with a 2500-3000 word document. It's liberating to start anew each time, because it allows me to bypass problems with the previous iteration. I can experiment with different ideas too.
It usually takes me a dozen versions of the plot before I can even approach some kind of ending to the novel, but I'm not fussed because the real ending never comes out until I've written 70-80% of the first draft. (I do a lot of drafts, so it's easy to rewrite earlier events to suit the ending I've decided on. I always know who the bad guy is and why they're doing Bad Things, but the actual resolution is never set in concrete.)
Once I'm happy with the outline, sans ending, I convert the whole thing into a yWriter document with empty scenes and chapters. Then I just start writing scenes in whatever order takes my fancy, updating them from Outline to Draft in the scene settings as I go. I can print off an outline any time, and the work schedule tells me how many scenes I need to write each day.
How long to write the novel? About 2-3 months on and off. But that's another blog post.
Simon Haynes is the author of the Hal Spacejock and Hal Junior series (Amazon / Smashwords / other formats)