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Outlining—Craft Tuesday at Write on the River

Many Theories, One Concept

How do you organize your life? How do you organize your day? I submit to you that however you do that, that is how you will initially approach organizing your novel. Do you outline your day? Your month? Your year? Your life? Your career?

Once you recognize this, though, you can always change.

I grew fonder of outlining the more I wrote, but then backed off that as I learned to trust my subconscious more and more as I gained more experience as a writer. A novel is very complex when viewed in its entirety, most particularly mainstream fiction. Working without an outline is sort of “winging” it. Remember that an outline is a living document that you can constantly revise and add to as need.

I believe every hour spent outlining prior to starting a novel, saves you many hours in the actual writing process. It also helps you to write a better novel as you will ‘tighten’ down the story in your outline before you write, rather than having to do it in rewrite.

To be honest, I only outlined my first complete novel when I had a contract that called for a complete outline to be submitted to the publisher prior to final approval for the project (and more importantly a portion of the advance was to be paid on acceptance of the outline.). You are going to have to “outline” sooner or later when writing. You can do it as you go along or you can do it before you write. Doing it as you go along often causes you to have to waste a lot of time writing material that either has to be thrown out or be extensively rewritten. It is prudent to do a lot of the thinking work ahead of time.

The major problem in working without a good outline is that you tend to get “stuck” about halfway through. When I first began writing this wasn’t a major problem. My stories were basic and relatively straightforward action/adventure and, while I didn’t have a detailed outline, I did have a good idea of where I wanted the story to go (as they were based on personal experiences) so I managed to blunder my way through. As I tried writing more complex stories, I found myself getting stuck more and more often and having to take days away from the keyboard to work out where the story was going and keep the subplots in line.

When you start your manuscript with your one sentence original idea, you have a relatively blank slate to work with. The further along you get, the less options you have. If you work without an outline, you may find yourself with no options at some point. Or at least no good options. This is, to slightly understate the predicament, not good.

If you combine many of the other chapters in this book such as narrative structure, the beginning, characters, etc. you get a good overview of the pieces you need to put together a novel. Outlining is putting those pieces into a framework. The basis of your framework is that one-sentence original idea that I beat into you early in this book. Then you decide your storyline and the characters who are going to live the story.

I cannot overemphasize (OK, I probably could) how important it is to have a feel for your characters before you begin writing. I consider getting that feel part of outlining—bringing your characters to life.

Outlining is also very critical in keeping your subplots tight to the main plot. You will restrict yourself from going off in tangents if you know at which point in your main story a subplot develops and where and how it will eventually come back and tie into the main story line.

Another advantage of outlining is that since the outline is tight to start with, as you write and add flesh to your outline, you can make the story even tighter.

One of my biggest obstacles to outlining was that I just wanted to get started writing and didn’t want to take a couple of weeks doing the outline. Now I realize how much time in the long run it saves me to stay away from the manuscript and do the outline first.

The degree of detail in your outline is personal. In fact, you may chose not to have one at all. But don’t treat it like the gospel once you do devise one. As you go along the characters will develop a life of their own as will the story. As you fill in details, occasionally these details will cause you to change parts of your story as opposed to what was outlined. None of my recent, more complex novels, turned out the way I thought they would way back in the beginning when all I had was the original idea and some research.

Remember that outlining is an ongoing process just like the writing. If you view a novel in the beginning as a large blank slate, then the original idea is a sentence you write at the top of the page. From there you start your outline, tracing characters and events along the timeline of your story. When you feel you have an adequate outline, you start writing. As the story progresses, you must go back every once in a while and redo the outline, tightening your story down.

I view this for me as writing in surges. I project out my story as much as I know at the time. Then I proceed to write. When I sense that I am losing track, I go back over my outline and fill in what I’ve already written, adding in all the details. With these new details, I redo the outline, tightening down what has yet to be written and making sure it is in congruence with what has already been written. Sometimes, I also have to go back and add a layer to the story, or take a layer away.

There are some critical questions that you must answer before you begin your manuscript. Answer these questions in writing, not in your head. To me, the bottom line on outlining is writing down everything I can possibly think of with regard to the story. You will find that the process of actually writing down those great thoughts you have might knock you up against the harsh rocks of reality. Sometimes it looks very different in black and white on paper, than in color in your brain.

Here are the questions:

What is my one sentence original idea?

Who are my main characters? What are their primary motivations? Do their primary motivations naturally lead them to assume the role they must, in this novel? How did they get these primary motivations? How do I show the reader the characters primary motivations?

Where and when is my setting?

What point of view will tell this story best?

What tone will I have?

What should be my initiating event?

How will conflict escalate?

What will be the moment of crisis for my protagonist?

What is the climax of my story?

How do I maintain suspense/reader interest throughout the novel?

Caveat. Be careful that your writing doesn’t appear to be just a blown up outline. When that happens, the writing appears to be stilted and a little forced. Also, just expanding an outline leaves little room for creativity and allowing the characters to react and “live”. You may have outlined certain events occurring, but when you actually sit down and write your characters experiencing those events, usually you will find that it turns out not exactly as outlined. Sort of like real life. Go with it. Allow your characters to be living beings involved in the story.

Find the degree of outlining that you are comfortable with, but at least consider doing some sort of outline. There are some very successful authors who can break a novel down by sections and structure and crank out certain genre novels according to a “script” they have for that type of book. And, although many don’t like hearing it, there is a formula to some type of novels. Although we all want to be original (or maybe we don’t?), realize that if you are writing a romance and you produce something totally unlike any other romance on the bookshelves you’ve done two things: you haven’t written a romance in the first place, and secondly, when you try to market it, it won’t be viewed as a romance. You may be the trailblazer like those I mentioned earlier and start a new field, but the odds aren’t good. If you feel strongly about your writing, don’t let that dissuade you, just be aware of the reality of the situation.

I definitely feel that updating your outline is important every day when you sit down and try to write chapters. Pick a start point and an end point for every chapter. Then ask yourself how do I get from one to the other? What is the purpose of this chapter? Also look at the chapter in terms of the overall story. Where does it fit? Is this the right time for this to happen? If you don’t have a definite end point, your chapter will meander.

Do you outline?  How do you do it?

Book Dissection—Craft Tuesday at Write on the River

Someone Has Already Done It; Let Them Help You

You’ve got your kernel idea; your conflict lock and you’ve done your research. Before you begin to write your book, you should find a novel similar to what you plan to write that is already published. I guarantee you there is something out there that’s similar. Then you should sit down with your razor sharp brain and slice it apart to see all the pieces. Then put them together again to see how they all fit.

You have to ask yourself a number of questions:

  1. What was the original idea the author started with? How close is it to mine?
  2. How did the author translate that idea into a story? What twist did the author put on the original idea? What’s my twist? How am I different from this author’s work?
  3. What is the theme/intent to this story? What is mine going to be?
  4. Why did the author begin where he or she did? Will a similar opening work for me?
  5. Why did the author choose the perspective/point of view he or she did? What will mine be?
  6. What scope did he or she place on the story?   What bookends? Can I have similar bookends?
  7. What is the pacing of the story? How much time did it cover?
  8. How did the author bring the story to a conclusion? What was the climactic scene? What is mine going to be?
  9. What did the author do that you liked?
  10. What did the author do that you didn’t like?
  11. What didn’t the author put in the book that you might have? Why didn’t the author put that in?
  12. What was in the book that you feel could have been left out? How would the story change if it were left out?
  13. What were the subplots? How did they connect with the main plot? Did all the subplots get resolved?
  14. Why did the author pick the settings he or she did?

These are questions you are going to face in your own manuscript. If you can understand how someone who successfully wrote the same type of book answered them, you greatly improve your ability to answer them.

One thing you can do is take an Excel spreadsheet. Each row in the sheet is a scene in the book you are dissecting. The first column is a brief summary of the action of that scene. The next column is the purpose of that scene. Do this for the entire book. Then delete the first column. Focus on the purpose column. You add a column to the right of purpose and label that your actions. You now have an outline for your book that will not plagiarize the other book.

Great SantiniHere’s another interesting exercise to do. Take a book that was made into a film and compare the two. For example, The Great Santini by Pat Conroy. If you read the book, then watch the movie, you will notice several subplots are missing from the movie version that are in the book. How did the screenwriter do this yet maintain the original idea and story of the book? Did these subplots add or take away from the book?

I was talking to producer Dan Curtis (Winds of War) and he told me how he works on taking a novel and turning it into a screenplay. First he breaks the novel down into a list of one or two sentence summaries of every major scene or action. Then he writes the screenplay off that list. Then he breaks the screenplay down into a list of one or two sentence summaries and sees how that compares to the one he did for the novel.

Use the narrative structure to lay out the structure of the novels you read. What is the hook, your initiating event? What are the progressive complications/escalating conflict? What is the choice the protagonist has to make in the moment of crisis? How is it made? How is the main plot resolved in the climactic scene? How do the subplots support the main plot?

It is essential that you be well read in the area in which you wish to write. The more you read, the more you will get imprinted in your conscious and subconscious brain the style and manner in which those types of stories are written, which will aid you greatly in writing your own.

I’ve sat down with best-sellers and breakout novels and broken them down on a spreadsheet scene by scene to study the structure. Many authors I’ve talked to have done something similar in order to learn.

A question you should ask yourself after dissecting a book like what you want to write is this: How is my book going to be different? What is my unique twist? Every idea has been done—it is in the development of your story off that idea that you have to bring your originality.

What book or movie do you think you should ‘dissect’ for your work in progress or a story you’re thinking of writing?

Traits of Successful Authors I— Craft Tuesday at Write on the River

Patience And Self-Discipline

It takes a long time to write a novel. No matter how fast you are, it takes a while. In fact, while some things like NANOWRIMO has people writing at a furious pace for a month and is a good way to get the writing down, it is also negative in that quantity is not necessarily quality.

The amount of time I spend writing a novel has actually increased the more I learn about the craft. Rather than making it easier, more knowledge makes it more difficult to write, as I try to make the book the best possible product I can.

Writers are often asked what their daily schedule is. I think it’s important to have the discipline to have a daily schedule and/or goal. It’s too easy to let the writing go and take care of everything else if you don’t force yourself to face that daily goal.

It’s different for many writers but here are some from writers I know:

5 pages a day; 2,000 words a day; 10 pages a day; six hours a day.

I think an external goal that can be measured is the best to go for. It’s a tangible goal and you know when you’ve accomplished it.

Beyond that tangible writing goal, I work seven days a week, anywhere from eight to fourteen hours a day. It’s hard for me to say how many hours a day I work because I am almost always ‘working’. If I’m not sitting in front of my computer, I’m researching or watching the news for interesting facts or simply thinking about my story, playing it out in my mind, watching my characters come alive. I have many of my best plot ideas while driving or riding my bike. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night with an idea, which is why I have my iPhone with recorder next to my bed ready for instant use.

My cable bill is very high, with every channel, on-demand, and DVR. There are writers who say ‘kill your television’ but I disagree with that. There’s some very good writing in that medium. I watch movies and shows the same way I read books: analytically to see what the writers did and also what were the possibilities that weren’t explored. The #1 thing a writer must do other than write is read and watch movies and shows. It is work. It will take away some of your enjoyment of things as you can get good at predicting what will happen next under Chekhov’s rule of ‘don’t have a gun in act one unless you use it by act 3’. But note that I say ‘use it’ not ‘fire it’. That’s the key to great writing. To take what is expected and do the unexpected.

Thumb_Nail_Novel_WriterWriting is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration. If you write only when excited or motivated you’ll never finish. You have to write even when it’s the last thing you want to do. Just put something down. You can always edit it later or throw it out (you’ll do a lot of throwing out and it hurts but it’s the sign of a mature writer; also, it’s one reason you don’t edit yourself to death on the first draft). I eventually average 500 to 550 pages of manuscript to produce 400 good pages in a final draft. A recent manuscript was 126,000 words long and then I cut it back to 90,000 words. To sweat over that many pages and then “lose” them hurts but not as much as getting the manuscript rejected or not sell if self-published. The longer I’ve written, the more I’ve become a fan of rewriting and editing. I’m also a fan of outlining and doing a lot of work before I write the first sentence of my manuscript, including doing extensive character development.

Overall, I’ve developed an inner “writing clock” that works in terms of weeks and months that lets me know how much I have to produce and how quickly. It varies its pace depending on the project at hand and it took years of experience to develop this inner clock. I force myself to put the time and effort in, even when I don’t feel like it. However, as I discuss in Write It Forward, almost every writer tends to underestimate the time it takes to complete a manuscript.

Experiment and find something that works for you in day-to-day writing. Maybe it will only be for one hour every morning before everyone else gets up—keep doing it. You’ll be amazed how much you can get done if you stick with it. One rule that’s hard for people is to TURN OFF THE INTERNET while writing.

All the thinking, talking, going to writer’s conferences, classes, etc. are not going to do you any good if you don’t do one basic thing: WRITE.

backgroundWhen I taught martial arts, I always found that the majority of the new students quit right after the first month. They came in and wanted to become Bruce Lee rolled into Chuck Norris all within a couple of weeks. When they realized it would take years of boring, repetitive, very hard work, the majority gave up. It doesn’t take any special skill to become a black belt; just a lot of time and effort to develop the special skills. The same is true of writing. If you are willing to do the work, you will put yourself ahead of the pack. You must have a long-term perspective on it. Under Write It Forward, your strategic plan, in essence, is where do you want to be in five years as a writer?

I think a hard part of being a writer is also knowing what exactly ‘work’ is. For me it was hard to accept that kicking back and reading a novel was work and I wasn’t being a slacker. Sitting in a coffee shop and talking with someone is work. Living is work for a writer in that you can only write what you know, so therefore experience is a key part of the creative process.

Ultimately, though, as the late Bryce Courtney said, you need a large dose of bum glue. Gluing yourself to that seat and writing.

The Ability To Organize

As those pages pile up, you’ll find yourself weeks, months, maybe years away from having written that opening chapter. That’s where your organizing skills come in. We’ll cover outlining later on, but in essence, the way you organize your life, is the way you will initially organize your book. So if your life is all over the place, you might have some problems. Yes, there are those natural talents who can just ‘stream’ a book, but they are few and far between. Most of us cannot keep an entire book in our head.

You have to keep track of your characters, your locales, and the action, to make sure it all fits. I’ve used many different tools to write a novel, but one thing I’ve done with every single manuscript is use what I call a story grid. This is an Excel spreadsheet where I can put the entire book on one page, scene by scene (for a really big book it might go to two pages). This spreadsheet is not an outline, but rather something I fill in with a pen each day as I write, to help me keep track of what has been done. Every day I then update the spreadsheet and print it out. It sits to the left of my keyboard (I’m left-handed). It helps when you need to go back and look up a specific part or change something.

I also keep numerous indexed binders with all my research material handy. I spend a considerable amount of time organizing my research material so I can find what I’m looking for. Details drive a story, and the more details you have accessible in terms of research, the more options you have in your plot. Right now I have two four-inch thick binders: one for people; one for events.

Some writers use programs like Scrivener or Onenote to keep track of their research, but I’m still old-fashioned and use Word and Excel and binders.

These practical tools are part of my process as a writer.

What practical tools are part of your process?

Writing Narrow or Writing Broad? Write on the River Notes

Do you write narrow, broad or both?

I’ve been struggling with my work in progress, Chasing the Son, and about 4 in the morning I realized a problem I’m having is I’m writing too narrow and linearly on a story that is actually broad and spread out over place and time.

Here’s what narrow writing is:


-action oriented

-real time

-conflict driven

Here’s what broad writing is:

-character focused

-slower paced

-multiple occurrences at the same time

-conflict driven

Note both are conflict driven, but in broad writing, the conflict is more character based, while in narrow writing, it’s more action based.  (all conflict should actually be both)

Neither are wrong. And a good book usually has both. In fact, I started this book out broadly. I begin by describing the low country around Charleston, then go into some history and by page three get to a character, then finally show character in action. Some would say not the greatest opening, where there needs to be that great hook on the first page and action. But I’ve written plenty of books like that. My subconscious obviously feels differently about this book and I have to trust it. Of course, that was my subconscious. The key is to move it from there to my conscious which is what I think finally happened at 4 in the morning. I’d gone from broad to narrow and it was bothering me.

We’re running a Write on the River workshop this weekend with four people attending and the key to it is focusing on process. What each writers process is and how their minds work. I really focus on this now after a quarter century of writing. I constantly surprise myself by not really understanding my process and having to work on it and refine it. So today I have to dive back in Chasing the Son and expand the story rather than move it forward as I’ve been doing. I need to add more texture and characterization so the reader understands the motives of the characters and why the action is happening.

By the way, Jen has been working on covers as we rebrand the Green Beret series. We’re breaking the books apart. The six original Dave Riley stories are one subset. But the books where Horace Chase comes to the forefront, will now be another subset. Even though Dave Riley is present in Chasing the Lost and Chasing the Son, these books are somewhat different. To brand them differently, we’re redoing covers. What do you think?

Chasing covers





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