Posts Tagged how to outline a novel

How to outline a book without killing the fun of writing it

Do you write with an outline? I was asked this by another writer at a book event last weekend. ‘I like outlines,’ she said, ‘and I don’t like them. I want to know where I’m going. But if I make a scene-by-scene breakdown, I find I’m not interested in writing the complete book.’

I thought it was worth a post.

Because I believe outlines don’t have to kill your interest in the book.

The minimalist

You could try the barest possible directions – an opening, a pivotal middle and a surprising but elegant solution at the end. Those three markers might be enough to keep you on piste and still let you explore.

Certainly I’m not a person who can tolerate boredom or predictability. If a writing session hasn’t confounded my expectations in some way, I’m disappointed. Yet I’m a fan of detailed outlines. Indeed, I find they don’t stultify or restrict at all.  Au contraire.

I think it’s because planning is not the same mindset as drafting. Drafting is experiencing the story moment by moment – and that’s when the surprises come. Here are some examples.

The detailist

  • Immerse in a description and you discover certain practicalities that add more life to a scene.
  • As you build a location, you realise it forms a resonance with what’s going on. You might then make your characters use it more frequently.
  • As you flesh out a set-piece of dialogue, you realise it won’t work the way you assumed because there’s an interesting hitch in the characters’ attitudes to each other. Their reluctance to follow your orders – or vice versa – which you have not felt until this moment, opens rich possibilities.
  • You might try to write a piece of action that seemed straightforward. But you realise you need more of a build-up. Or you know the character would do it but they need a stronger reason. Or maybe they won’t do it at all. Or maybe they do it and it’s not interesting enough.

All these moments seemed clear and logical in the outline. But everything might change when you’re with the characters breath by breath.

So I find that outlines are like a question. I think the character might do this? I put it in the plan and find out.

How to write a novel slowly and carefullyWhat vs how

If the outline is most concerned with the ‘what’, the draft is interested in the ‘how’. And ‘why’. And whether the reader will care. If you like that kind of work – and I do – you might find outlines are not a hindrance but a stimulating provocation .

Here’s some provocation in action. Here’s where I wrote about a major twist I fell over in the first draft of Ever Rest. I had not considered it – even remotely – until I wrote something from the outline and decided it wasn’t enough. The characters had a sudden rebellion that kicked everything over. Amazingly, it worked very well with the rest of the book.

But why bother with an outline?

You might ask, why bother with the outline if it’s so likely to change? What’s all that planning for? I’m asking myself that. My gut reaction is that I need an outline or I’ll bolt madly off into my imagination and never finish.

But actually, there’s a good underlying reason. It’s structure.

Stories work by structure. Resonances, crescendos, misdirection, clue-planting. That’s what you’re really building when you work on an outline – a structure that is robust. And when you’ve done that, you understand what you can easily change, what the fallout will be and whether you’ll need other elements.  There’s a lot more about structure in my plot book.

Your outline, your way

We’re all different. So this is the real secret. Write the kind of outline that gives you a star to follow, and makes sure you don’t forget the important steps, but still leaves you plenty to discover and enjoy.

Psst… There’s more about outlining in the original Nail Your Novel.

Psst 2… Outlining is one of the ways to nail Nanowrimo. Here’s my post of resources for that

Psst 3… If you’re curious to know how Ever Rest is doing, this is my latest newsletter.

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How to turn a short story into a novel

I’ve had this question from Kristy Lyseng:
I have trouble when it comes to depth and expanding my writing. I always end up with short pieces. Are there any tips or tricks I could learn for writing longer pieces instead of short ones, both fiction and non-fiction?

Oh what a good question. Here are some ideas.

Stonehenge replica proved disappointingly small in This Is Spinal Tap

Spinal Tap were hoping it would be bigger

How much do you plan?

Maybe you’re confident you can keep control of short pieces, and bring them to a satisfying conclusion. With a short piece, you can keep it all in your mind in one go, but with a novel that’s much harder. So to write something longer, you need more detail, to spend longer in the planning or you’ll run out of puff. (Or, if planning hasn’t been part of your method until now, you’ll probably need to start.)

Most novelists plan. They might write a detailed outline they stick to firmly. They might plan and then twist and knead it as other ideas occur to them. But the vast majority of them plan. (Here’s my post on how to write to an outline and still be creative.)

sidebarcropGo the distance

When you write that plan, you need to make sure the idea has enough mileage. This may be where you’re getting stuck and I’ve been there myself. My earliest experiments in writing were longish short stories. I’d get an idea and work it into a situation with a few surprises and a twist at the end. I could get about 5-7,000 words, but no more. I dearly wanted to get my teeth into a big novel, but couldn’t envisage how to make it vast enough.

Actually, the solution was simple. I needed to spend longer on the plan. Some of my short story ideas could have been novels if I’d known how to persevere. Indeed Ever Rest has its germ in a short story I wrote nearly 20 years ago. (It’s wildly different now.)

What to enlarge

So has your idea got the scope to be a novel? There’s only one way to find out. Climb in and explore.

Take your time over it. If it seems to be a short story, let it rest, then come back and see if some of your characters could have bigger lives, or secondary concerns, or the story problem could have more dimensions than you saw initially. Could you add a subplot or a second story arc? Flesh out the characters’ back stories? Increase the significance of the setting in historical and geographical terms? Look for themes and create other story threads that complement them? Look at the structure too. Maybe the structure of your short story is the entire novel arc, super condensed. Maybe what you’ve designed so far is only a section, as far as one of the early turning points, and you could extend it far further. Keep coming back and looking for new layers. You can’t plan a novel quickly, but the more time you spend on it, the more you’ll see.

Here’s my post on how to outline – developed for Nanowrimo, but it lists the essentials for making a good start.  Here’s a post on troubleshooting your novel outline. And here’s one about filling the gaps in your story. And here’s how I work – in pictures.

A writer of two minds

Another thing I didn’t realise in the early days is that you have to be two kinds of writer. One does the big-picture thinking – where are we going, what are we doing, what’s the overall aim? The other is doing the moment-by-moment writing and development, crafting the sentences and enacting the characters. Very few people can do both simultaneously.

The wonders of revision

Also, don’t forget you can revise. You don’t have to get it right in one go. The outline can take you several weeks if you need it. When you’ve written the first draft, you can go back over that too (indeed you should). Here are some posts from my Guardian masterclass on self-editing, which demonstrate all the wonderful ways to improve your book when you revise.

ebookcovernyn3There’s a lot more about adding subplots and generating story in Writing Plots With Drama, Depth & Heart: Nail Your Novel.

Do you have difficulty making your stories long enough? Is there a natural length that you handle comfortably and are you happy with that? What would you tell Kristy?

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How to fix a plot hole

470346677_8ee3532e15_zI’ve had this great question:

I have bought your book, Nail Your Novel, and it has been really helpful. I was having a blast. Loving my characters, villains, setting, plot. But after 70.000 words I have a huge abyss in my story, I hit this blank between the middle of act II and the climax. Everything before and after that is just fine, but it seems that no matter what I do, I can’t resolve this blank spot.

Eric Alatza, first-time writer, Brazil. (Oh my: Brazil. I know the web is world wide so this shouldn’t give us pause, not for even a picosecond. Especially as you might be reading this in Brazil too. But it reminds me, in London, how much I appreciate that self-publishing and social media lets us reach …. anywhere. #momentofawe #howmuchdoIlovetechnology)

Okay, here’s how I’d attack Eric’s problem.

1 Does your story climax really fit?

You’re trying to join the end to the rest of the book, but does it fit? Has the story evolved beyond your original plans? Do you believe in this ending?

I had this problem with Lifeform Three. In my first draft I had written a storming finale, planned from the start, and indeed it had a lot of material I was chuffed with. You will never see it because it wasn’t the ending the book needed. As I wrote, the characters had taken on deeper issues, confronted essential questions – and my original ending was logical but disappointing. So I nuked it – yes, the entire final third of the book – and started again.

I’m wondering, Eric, if your spider sense is telling you this, which is why you can’t jump the chasm to the finale you planned. Ask yourself:

  • Is the ending unsatisfying in terms of themes explored, questions posed, other threads left dangling?

Also:

  • Are you forcing the characters in a direction they don’t want to go?
  • Will a character have to be uncharacteristically stupid to bring about this climax?

Is a new ending too painful to contemplate? Well, it costs nothing to brainstorm. Just as an exercise, cut loose and see where else you might go.

learning from fahrenheit 4512 Check your midpoint

You mention you have problems with the story’s middle. Is that because your ideas so far don’t seem significant enough?

If so, ask why. The middle of act II is traditionally a turning point. Perhaps the story stakes magnify, or an event turns everything on its head. Mr Darcy proposes to Elizabeth, which surprises and appals her. Nothing can be the same after that conversation. Perhaps there are new alliances that change the nature of the conflict – as in The Hunger Games. It might be the point where the character’s flaw, inner problem or true self first emerges as a dominant force – in Fahrenheit 451, the midpoint is where Montag meets a new mentor character. In the film of The Godfather, the midpoint is the scene where Michael Corleone commits murder, setting him on a new path. It might be a transformation that is subtle but deep. In My Memories of a Future Life, it’s where my narrator truly surrenders to the future incarnation. (I tried to write that without giving spoilers…)

So is your midpoint important enough? Have you got that sense of transformation and escalation? If not, brainstorm ways to find this significance. (And allow yourself to think of solutions that might mess up your planned ending.)

3 Get fresh inspiration

As always, you might be running on empty. When I’m stuck, I go to LibraryThing.com and search for novels that tackle similar themes, issues and situations. I also post an appeal for recommendations on Twitter and Facebook. (I’d do it on Goodreads too if I could work out how.)

Dissatisfaction is progress

There is a reason why you’re balking, although you may not consciously know it yet Our instincts are rarely articulate, but they are usually right. You know the rule about inspiration and perspiration? To fill a plot hole, do more digging.

Drafting is more than transcribing your notes

All the stages of novel-writing are creative. We’re constantly triaging our ideas and refining them. Whether we’re outlining, drafting or editing, we might find new insights and directions. Be ready to make the most of them.

ebookcovernyn3The ebook of Writing Plots With Drama, Depth & Heart is now available for pre-order and will be at a special launch price until it goes live on Twelfth Night (5 Jan). Even available in Brazil.

Thanks for the pic Corinnely 

What would you say to Eric?

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Planning your story – a checklist for success: and win Nail Your Novel in print!

chapbkI could have called this post ‘pantsing – a capsule wardrobe’, but along with novel-nailing that might have been a metaphor too far.

Some writers plan to the ennnnnth degree. Before they write, they prepare a trunkload of ideas, route maps and background. Then we have the scribblers who travel light. Just the barest plot twist, perhaps a skinnily-honed last line or a little black denouement. (Actually, I’m warming to this wardrobe theme.)

So if you’re in the former category, what mustn’t you forget? And if the latter, what’s the bare minimum you can get away with?

Today I’m at a festival called Chapter Book Challenge, a month-long event that aims to galvanise writers to write a chapter book in just a month. I’m zoning in on the essentials for the drafting process – and as an added bonus, commenters on the post (THAT post, not this one!) will get entered into a draw to win a paperback copy of Nail Your Novel, original flavour, which is packed with essentials for getting you from first idea to final draft. Come on over to find out what every well-dressed novel is wearing...

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