I’ve been writing novels now for over two years and learning about the importance of an outline has been a eye opening experience for me. It’s a lesson I’d like to share with you.
I have posted about outlines before. Re-reading that article showed me how little I knew about the process in the beginning.
For my first novel, Beneath the Surface, I thought writing a book amounted to simply sitting my ass in a chair and banging on the keyboard while my brilliant ideas flowed. Sure, the story poured out of me. I remember being so excited when I was done and so determined to send my baby out into the world for all to gush over.
But the truth was, Beneath the Surface was a hot mess. It took ten rewrites and five years to write. It was a hard lesson to learn, but for the final rewrite of Beneath the Surface, I finally used an outline to get the story sorted. It was a ‘slap against the forehead’ moment for me when the outline revealed the clarity I needed.
Writing a book is like any major project in life.
There must be a plan. A builder can’t construct a house without architectural plans. A baker can’t create a masterpiece without a recipe. And think of the essays we all had to write in high school – there was always a beginning, a middle and a conclusion.
It’s all about structure.
With a novel, or even a short story, structure is essential. The reader will lose attention if the house you’ve created is on a wobbly foundation. Thoughts will wander and your reader will no longer be captivated by your words. They won’t be eager to keep reading unless those pillars of structure in place.
Once you know about the way outlines work, you’ll see it in every great story you read or watch. You will find an inciting incidence, some conflict, a fall of some kind, another struggle, to finally reach a climax and ta-da – the character(s) finds their answer, or the issue is resolved, and life can move on.
If you want some examples of how this works, check out this post. It uses famous movies to show you how the outline was done.
After I learned the importance of outlines, writing one became straightforward for me. Yet it takes a while for me to get to the outlining stage. Once I have an idea, I let the story percolate a while. As I think of scenes, I write them down. When I think of conflicts, I write those down. I create the characters using another template and all of those pieces go into either “Notes” on my iPad or Scrivener on my laptop – whatever is closer.
Once I am ready to write the outline – when all the characters have been created, when all the jiggly ideas have been wrangled – I can usually crank an outline out in a day or two. Granted it’s taken me a while to get to this place because…
Deciding HOW to write the outline – that’s where I’ve struggled.
I listened to a marketing podcast recently, where the podcaster said something that really resonated with me. The episode was around being distracted by the ‘bright, shiny tools’, hoping there is the ‘perfect’ tool to save time and make things easier.
Ah yes, the golden goose. We get sucked into the hype, the promise, hoping there is a dream tool that will solve all our issues. But let’s be honest, and this was her point, we use always use the bright, shiny new tool for a week, maybe or a month or two. But when our plan is disrupted, when something goes awry, we give up on that new tool and return to our fall-back solution.
Finding that solution – what works for you – is what you should be using. It could be bits taken from all kinds of tools. But whatever it is, that solution needs to work for YOU.
(I don’t know about you, but I felt like this woman knew me way too well.)
This could be the case with a lot of tools in business. Scheduling social media. Project management. For me, I have been searching for the Shangri-La of outlining tools.
Plottr is a relative newcomer to the space, so I found it particularly shiny. Now, many people have had success with Plottr. I tried it when I was initially working on The Decisions We Make. But the tool was still in beta, and it didn’t give me everything I needed. I was so, SO, frustrated by spending more time working out how to use the tool than getting the outline written.
After trying all those ‘bright shiny tools’, I realised that I kept going back to my old standby – my excel spreadsheet. Yep, good ‘ol Microsoft Excel.
When I started to outline The Decisions We Make, I realised it was time I developed a system for outlining any novel. So, I sat down and created a template. It worked great for The Decisions We Make, and I was able to smash out the next outline for the book after that – in two days.
My point here is two-fold.
- Always use an outline when writing a novel. Otherwise, you may be rewriting that story for the next decade, or you may publish a novel that doesn’t work, and readers will tell you that through poor reviews.
- Find a way to outline that works for YOU. It may be a tool like Plottr. It may be pen and paper. Mine just happens to be an excel spreadsheet.
- There are a ton of different outline structures, or beat sheets, to use. This is the one I find most helpful: https://blog.reedsy.com/guide/story-structure/save-the-cat-beat-sheet/
- If you want some more information about outlining, check out this helpful post: https://blog.nanowrimo.org/post/658789676765806592/4-easy-steps-for-outlining-a-novel-as-a-pantser
- This is a more detailed offshoot from the overall post: ‘How to Write a Novel’
If you’d like a copy of my outline template, click here.
If you’ve written a novel, what tool do you use to outline? What works for you?
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