There's no good answer to this question. Each writer is different. Tad Williams, for example, wrote a 100-page outline to his fantasy series, MEMORY, SORROW, AND THORN, and a 20-page outline to his OVERLAND series...and both these series are the same length.
Now I outline before I write a novel, and here what I do.
1. The basic synopsis. A 250-word sketch of the novel consisting of little more than how the story opens, what will happen in the middle, and how it will end. The purpose of this basic synopsis is to prove to myself I have the building blocks of a story in place before I get too deep into it.
2. Character creation and Setting creation. I spend some time on both, looking how to develop the three basic conflicts: man vs. himself, man vs. man, and man vs. nature.
3. The Synopsis. Taking the conflicts I developed in #2, I aim to write a 1,000-word synopsis. I divide this synopsis into beginning, middle, and ending. My goal is to show how each conflict beings, how it develops, then how it's resolved.
4. The Outline. Based on the Synopsis of No. 3, I start a working outline. I outline as I go. I'll write out the first 10-15 scene, develop them, arrange them into chapters, then write them. Then I'll do the same thing for the next 10-15 scenes. I'll keep doing this until I finish the novel.
My ultimate goal in all of this is NOT to get stuck with an outline I can't change. The 1,000-word synopsis acts as a road map. If I run into problems along the way, or I want to stop and explore, I can because I'm not locked into any one thing.
This method also helps me go back and make notes about changes I'll need to make in the beginning based on what happens in the middle and end.
First we let the juices flow and I write the first scene or two, getting the character firm in my mind.
Then I skip back to a simple one liner--give myself a punch--they call it a tag line. I get excited about a book when I do this. Like I'm pitching it to myself, seeing if I wanna finish it.
Five sentance summary which usually turns into my query letter pitch. I'm digging into character motive a bit more.
Next I write a bit more on the novel, make some notes about plot and structure--where do I want it go?
Then I write my full summary. It's usually only two to three pages, as that's the simplest form. I may expand it into five pages--I like to two or three different sizes, as you never know what an editor might want to look at (some ask for three pages, others like five, and then there's the ones that want you to blab on as long as you like).
Next I finish the book, changing a few things along the way usually. I'm never stuck on anything until I'm finished with the book. And even then, things can change. Once the editor gets ahold of them they're sure gonna.
Keep in mind I'm a character driven writer 90% of the time, which will make my system a different than, say, a world driven writer. Everyone does this whole mess of digging a story out of your soul a bit differently. There's no one way, except whatever works for you and your story.
I wrote Book One mostly from an outline--which changed along the way. But, because I screwed up, the outline I used to write from no longer exists. The only working outline I currently have is for Book Three. That outline wouldn't have been any good for this purpose anyway. It was just notes to jog my memory, rarely complete thoughts. The working outline is as long as it needs to be, since it's only for my purposes. It can contain anything from a one-line entry to fragments of dialog.
I'm now starting to work on a synopsis or outline that would be part of a query. I have a feeling that the synopsis that I have right now is a shade too long at 2500 words. But how long should it be for this purpose?
I was looking at an example on the SFWA website earlier that broke the synopsis into sections--Background, Character, etc. Right now, my synopsis is just a short version of the story, perhaps in a little too much detail. I want to start on this because I have a feeling this is something I may want to work and rework to get it just right.
[This message has been edited by Meredith (edited April 10, 2009).]
Unfortunately, you'll probably have to write more than one. This is the advice from several agents and editors. The reason is that different agents and editors will want different lengths. It's not one-size-fits-all. I would suggest three, all single spaced: a single page one hitting the highlights from you main protagonists POV, another from five to ten pages or so, and finally one that is a mini novel of whatever length is required to tell everything.
This is all assuming you're ready to sell the thing. For planning, the longer length one using any of the methods suggested that works for you would probably be best.
[This message has been edited by luapc (edited April 11, 2009).]
[This message has been edited by luapc (edited April 12, 2009).]
The method I suggested might even work for a rough outline to use before writing a story, though more as a list than as a set of paragraphs.
Happy-go-lucky guy inherits a magic trinket that turns out to be something powerful and nasty, so he decides to take it to powerful magic people and ask for help.
Turning point #1--they tell him it has to be destroyed and they are too susceptible to its power, so he volunteers to take it where it can be destroyed
Turning point #2--his best hope to get the magic trinket to where it can be destroyed is killed when they have to travel through a particulary scary, nasty place
Turning point #3--one of his remaing hopes for help tries to steal the trinket from him, and he realizes that the trinket is doing nasty things to his friends, so he decides to go it alone
Turning point #4--he doesn't manage to go it alone, but is joined by a truly loyal friend and an earlier victim of the trinket's nastiness
Turning point #5--the nasty victim tricks him into a deathtrap and his loyal friend decides he has to take the trinket and go it alone
Turning point #6--the loyal friend finds out that the first guy isn't dead after all, and is able to rescue him and they both go to destroy the trinket
Turning point #7--they get captured, but they're disguised, so all that happens is they are forced closer to their destination
Turning point #8--the trinket does its nasty work on the hero, and he decides he doesn't want to destroy it after all, but the earlier victim attacks and in the fight the trinket is destroyed after all, bringing destruction down on everyone
Turning point #9--the hero's other friends, whom he left behind, have been doing their part in the meantime, and they manage to rescue the hero and his loyal friend before they are completely swallowed up in the destruction
The story wraps up as they find out what all everyone else has been doing and then get home in time to deal with one last bit of nastiness from leftover bad guys.
Turning point #10--the hero is too changed by what happened to him, and can only find peace in a world far away from his home
Turning point #11--the loyal friend still has a life of love and happiness ahead of him, and he goes home after bidding the hero good-bye.
For those who like to write outlines, listing the turning points could be one way of doing it. <shrug>
[This message has been edited by Kathleen Dalton Woodbury (edited April 11, 2009).]