Tag Archives: Newbie’s Guide to Publishing

Developing a Written Outline–Part II

The previous post discussed why writers should prepare written outlines for their novels. Let’s look now at what an outline should include. Writers differ on the length and scope of an outline, but it should include these elements:

  • Title of the novel.
  • Premise or idea behind the story. This doesn’t have to be detailed. It could be one sentence. For example, the premise for the Harry Potter series could be this: an orphaned boy escapes from a cruel childhood to discover he is a celebrated wizard who must take on a powerful evil wizard.
  • A list of the characters. For the main character, the writer should identify her strengths, weaknesses goals and motivations. The characters should include those who will help the main character and those who will try to stop her.
  • Identification of the main character’s goal, quest or dream and the obstacles in the way.
  • A sequence of major events in the story, which should have conflict and tension.
  • A climax to the story, followed by resolution.
  • A satisfying ending that ties up the loose ends.

Common types of outlines include:

  • Chapter outline—a few sentences or paragraphs on each chapter
  • Scene outline—short descriptions of each scene.
  • Narrative outline—an account of what happens in the book.
  • Index card outline—writing scenes or scene ideas on index cards

Outlines can be short or detailed. A writer colleague of mine uses a device called a “structure table,” a grid with columns and rows. Such a table could be organized in a grid with these columns:

Chapter/Scene/Characters/Setting/Action

Some writers organize tables where one of the columns is Motivation. Some create storyboards and some authors write scenes on color-coded index cards. Some write a long narrative describing all the action in the present tense.

Mystery writer JA Konrath writes long outlines. “My outlines are very detailed,” he wrote in A Newbie’s Guide to Publishing. “They run between 30 and 40 pages. I go chapter by chapter, and list who is in each scene, what information needs to be revealed, and what the conflict is.

“I write outlines in present tense, and give each chapter a paragraph or two,” he wrote.

Konrath estimates it takes him a solid week of eight-hour days to produce a 40-page outline. “But once I do it, writing the book is easy, because I already got all the hard stuff out of the way.”

James Scott Bell, in his excellent book, Plot & Structure, discusses a variety of plotting systems, ultimately concluding writers must choose the system that works best for them. He cautions, however, “If certain foundational elements are missing, the story is going to sag. You can avoid major problems by some focused thinking about your story before you write.”

As I mentioned, I am more of a “pantser,” but I have used an outline for each of my novels. My outline for Small Change became moot when I made the main character 14 years old instead of 10 at the start of the book. That’s the beauty of writing. You need to have the flexibility to change your mind when something’s not working. If I were to rewrite my original outline it might start out like this:

Chapter 1

Introduce John Sykowksi, the main character, and his family at the lakeside resort in Wisconsin where they spend a week each summer. In the opening scene, John, who is 14 years old, is uncomfortable when their neighbor, Mrs. Crandale, asks him to rub suntan lotion on her back. [This foreshadows the most dramatic scene in the first half of the novel]

So what’s the correct answer regarding outlining? There is none. Whatever system works for you is what you should use.

Here are some good resources on outlining:

Paperback writer

Creative Penn

Snowflake method-Randy Ingermanson

Larry Brooks discussion on outlining

What is your outlining method? Have you changed your view on outlining as you’ve grown as a writer?

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What is Your Professional Development Plan?

A new year beckons. It’s a good time to take stock of where you are as a writer and what you need to do in 2012 to reach the next level.

Most good companies offer professional development programs for their employees. Writers usually don’t have the same resources as businesses do, but there’s no reason every writer should not have a personal professional development plan. Here are a few elements of my personal professional development plan:

1. Join and participate in a writer’s group or an online writer’s community. A vibrant writer’s group offers a spirit of collegiality, support, feedback, and mutual helpfulness. Engaging regularly with a group of trusted people who share your passion for writing will give you a great sounding board and a sense that you are not alone in your journey.

2. Read at least two books each year on the craft of fiction writing. Learning is a lifelong process. There’s no such thing as knowing everything there is about the craft. While you are at it, subscribe to at least one writer’s periodical. I recommend Writer’s Digest.

3. Read writing blogs at least three times a week. There are so many excellent blogs out there produced by writers, literary agents, and readers. A few I read regularly include Writer Unboxed, Rachelle Gardner, Nathan Bransford, Jane Friedman, JA Konrath (A Newbie’s Guide to Publishing), Kristen Lamb, and Bob Mayer. You will learn not only about the craft, but about publishing, the role of agents, marketing, and how to use social media.

4. Attend at least one writer’s conference each year. I attend the Connecticut Authors and Publishers Association (CAPA) annual CAPA-U meeting. In addition to offering workshops on the craft and on marketing, these conferences provide ample opportunities for you to network with other writers and some offer face-to-face meetings with an agent. This is enormously helpful to new writers.

5. Read at least 25 books a year, across all genres, and non-fiction as well as fiction. What? You might say. That won’t leave any time for fiction writing. Stephen King reads 80 books a year and still has time to churn out a novel.

Bonus tip: Practice your craft regularly. You will learn so much just by writing. There’s no substitute for finishing a novel, or two or three novels. You will most likely not hit your stride with your first novel, but you will learn about story structure, character development, and scene crafting.

So there you have it: my professional development plan for 2012.

What is your professional development plan for 2012?

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