A New Baby – Or – How to Outline a Novel by Someone Who Barely Knows

Posted by in Stuff About Writing


My first manuscript is finished, or finished-ish for now, as much as a manuscript can ever be finished, and is in the hands of my very capable Betas. I’ve even gotten a couple responses back and I’m really excited about what I’m seeing – engaged readers who are finding errors I missed and who are giving me so many great ideas to think about, it is amazing. I’m beginning to feel like it might actually be worth pursuing publishing, and not just putting it in a bottom drawer and forgetting about it. But, no matter how good the reviews are, I can’t just sit around on my bum and wait – I’ll lose my mind.

Like any first born, it has been really hard to let go of the finished manuscript. But I have two kids, and so I know that you can love more than one thing with all of your heart. So, I’ve been outlining my next novel to try to stay out of my own head.

I know that not all writers enjoy the outline, some of you are pantsers and really more power to you. I just can’t. I can’t wing it. When I don’t have a plan I sit down in front of the screen and am overwhelmed with possibilities and become incapable of making a decision. When I have an outline I can focus and put out my best work, plus, outlining is supposed to cut down on your drafting and revision time. I have no proof of that, however, since I’ve only ever done it this way, but I can only imagine how long it would take me to pull together a novel length manuscript if I had no plan. The screen staring time alone would eat up at least a year. For me, outlining works.

To beat a dead horse, :), I think if you are writing a work with any sort of suspense or mystery, you need some sort of plan. I can’t even imagine how impossible it would be to try to keep all your threads together and make sure that you have red herrings and foreshadowing if you’re just flying by the seat of your pants.


As I’ve gotten a little more serious about writing, I’ve started reading a lot about it. Apparently, when writers are procrastinating, or bored, or suffering a block, or waiting for Betas to get back to them about manuscripts; they write articles, books and blog posts for other writers to tell them how to do stuff. 🙂 If you type “outlining your novel” into Amazon, I’ve read all those, plus some. But, nothing really worked for me. Don’t get me wrong, they all have some good (not so original) ideas, and I’m sure I’ve stolen from all of them, but none of them were “the” process for me. So, over the course of a number of short stories, and a couple of novels, I figured out my own. (Granted, I haven’t been published, so take what you want with a grain of salt.)

Here is my process:

1. Compelling Character – This is where I start. My stories are more plot based that anything, but I still thinking that finding the right voice is what makes a book readable. For me these characters are like lightening. They just fall out of the sky. If I sat down and tried to think up someone interesting, I couldn’t. Well, that’s not quite true, I could, but I think that character would feel pushed, or fake. For my first novel it was the heroine that came first, I kept thinking about what it would be like to be a battered woman, and find out that you’d inherited a house. I kept thinking about the relief but also the fear that, that would create. The hero came second, with him I was thinking about what would happen if you were born into the mob and wanted out – what are your options? The hero in my newest outline came to me first, the heroine came later. You guys all know my obsession with Joe Purdy. I was listening to Canyon Joe and I just couldn’t stop thinking about a man who decides to live in the woods by himself, what his life would be like and what would push him to that. Complete obsession. From there I started thinking about a love interest for him, of course cause that is the kind of story I write, and who could be a foil to him.  Everything builds on these 1 or 2 characters.

2. The Change – I think this is probably where people who don’t plan have a more organic journey, but I don’t trust myself to create that. I know what I like to read. I want to start with a likable but flawed character, throw them in a pressure cooker, and see how they come out. Are they better and stronger? Or are they beaten and broken. At this step I take all my main characters and write out what they are like now, and what I want them to become in the end. I’m not going to share specifics from my novels with you about this point, because some day I want you to buy my books. 🙂 But trust me. Here’s a hypothetical. Laura is 17, painfully shy, an art nerd. Her parents are divorcing. She might have to go to a new school next year and she’s terrified. By the end of the story I want her to be confident, and unafraid. I want her to realize her own power. Now that I know this, I can plan to throw a bunch of shit at her and see what she does.

3. The Pressure Cooker – What am I going to put my darlings through in order to get them from the beginning to the end. This is the plot of the story, the ups and downs that they are going to go through to build character and change. So, dear Laura, a shrinking violet, I know that I want/need to put her in a situation where she needs to save someone, she needs to risk her life, but not only that she has to use her brain, she is going to have to face opposition and stick to her guns. So, poor Laura, is going to overhear a plot to assassinate the president, terrified to risk her life, but knowing right from wrong she’s going to go to the police with her info.

4. Up the Ante – Give them what they want, but not yet – Tension is all about delayed gratification. You have to believe that she is going to win, only to be thwarted. Laura goes to the police but they don’t believe her. She is delayed, but not stopped, she is already growing as a person, she goes to her retired cop neighbor he agrees to help.

5. Rinse and Repeat – You have to repeat steps 2-4 for each of your main characters. Everyone is going to have a different starting point, and a different goal. For example the Retired Police Officer that Laura talks into helping her needs his own journey. Having these subplots cross and join is one of the things that makes the story interesting.

6. First In, Last Out – I read somewhere, I’m sorry I can’t remember so I can give them credit, but know, this isn’t my idea – I just use it, that problems introduced 1,2,3 should be solved 3,2,1. I agree. Laura’s number 1 problem is that her parents are getting divorced and how to deal with that. Problem 2 is the impending death of the President. Let’s say 3 is that she and the retired cop in the process of trying to save the President themselves get stuck in a sewer under the White House. I’ve got to get her out of the sewer before she can save the President, and she has to save the President before she is able to see that she is strong and capable enough to face whatever challenges her personal life is going to throw at her. In this order things make sense and the victories are able to build on each other.  Closure.

Yeah, Yeah, Yeah, you say. I did all that but I still have nothing that looks like a plan for a story.

Oh, but you do. Now all you have to do it write it down. Go get a notebook, or open Scrivener to the corkboard page. Give each scene that you know that you need to have, I think of these as pillar scenes – it has to be in the book. For example, we have to see Laura overhearing the plot, in the police station and talking to the retired cop. Write one line description either on paper, or on notecards on the corkboard. Then arrange them in an order that seems to tell your story best. For me, it’s somewhat chronologically, for you it might be something more creative.

Then I look at each scene and figure out if there needs to be other scenes either before or after it to fill out the story and give the reader all the information. For example, it would be easy to narrate all that Laura is feeling about her parents within an existing scene, but I think a scene of her talking to them would be better, so I’d put that before the eavesdropping. Also, how do my readers know that Laura is shy unless I show them. Maybe a scene at school between the eavesdropping and the police station would really show how scared and shy she is. Etc… you get it, right?

Rearrange until you feel like it has a flow, but don’t worry about this too much. I always find that I move scenes around as I’m writing them, or I think of new ones that I need. With the manuscript that I just finished, when I was revising the draft I found that I needed to write three new chapters to clarify and fill out some of the story lines that were a little weak. The outline is flexible, it has to be. Your story will change, but that’s the fun of writing.

Everyday I sit down at my computer and I have 45 different chapters that I can work on. I can work in order, or skip around. Right now I’ve really found the heroine’s voice, so I’m writing her chapters chronologically. I don’t have writer’s block, I can’t get lost. I have enough of a plan to kick me in the ass, but not one that is so rigid or so detailed that I can’t flex my creativity muscle. I think it is the best of both worlds.

Finally, outlining helps you play the numbers game. I’m the kind of girl who always needs to know exactly how much more I need to do. When I’m on the treadmill I’m constantly watching my time and distance. When I’m on a diet I’m tracking my calories. Outlining helps you do that. I know that a publishable novel for a first time author needs to be between 80-90,000 words. I don’t want too many more or too many less. If I have 45 scenes, I know that I need to plan for about 2,000 words for each scene. This helps a lot. If I write a scene and it is 500 words it’s no big deal. If I write 10 scenes and they are only 5,000 words, it’s a big deal. Watching my outline and my word count helps me manage my time and my pace and produces a more balanced manuscript.