Ever wanted to write a novel? Of course you have. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be reading this right now. I mean, the title of this blog is what brought you here in the first place.
Writing a novel is a secret dream that many have had and still do. My wife’s aunt was telling me about her sister-in-law and how she wrote her first novel last year. She’s in her fifties, but talked about it since her thirties. What kept her from writing all those years? Time is the usual excuse. We don’t have time. On the contrary, all we have is time. But, I work full time. So did a lot of writers. Actually, most writers work a full time job. They still find the time, though. How about fear? That’s a good one, but still just an excuse. You’ll never know if you have the chops unless you sit down and actually write. I know one and this will sting. Laziness! Oh, yeah, you’re lazy. Let’s face it, watching The Godfather on AMC one more time is better than actually sitting down and working out a story. Get off your butt, man… er, or woman!
So, how do you write a book? To put it plainly, you just do. Write a thousand words a day and in 75 days, you’ll have a first draft. 75,000 words is the bare minimum when it comes to a novel. Or, you can write a couple dozen short stories in 75 days, send them out and hope someone will publish one. But we’re here to talk about books. So, how do you get to that point where you’re laying down a thousand words a day? Outline.
Yes, this is an article on outlining. Many hate it, some preach against it, but the ones who do it actually write books. Oh, there are the select few that fly by the seat of their pants and just start writing with nothing but a vague idea bouncing around in their head, but they are not the norm. They are freaks of nature. That’s not to say that it can’t happen to you. My first novella, There is a Season, was a fly by the seat of my pants type story. I had a general idea, knew some key plot points and scenes, and how I wanted to end it. That’s it. Along the way, I did research and talked to people to fill in the blanks, but for the most part, I just wrote my little heart out. It was fun and a bit frightening at the same time. The fun part was discovering what was going to happen next. I had no idea. I had plans, but they changed in the heat of the moment. The scenes and characters dictated the path. The scary part was that I had no idea when it was going to end and if I had anything left in the tank each day I sat down at my computer to write. Everything turned out okay, but I decided that I would outline my stories… forever.
How do you outline?
It’s a good question, because I had no idea how to outline a story when I first started writing. It’s a discipline, one that is learned by doing. There are three stages to outlining: big picture, plot points, then chapters.
This is the fun part. You have an idea: an FBI agent’s brother is killed in Sudan while on a missionary trip and his sister-in-law is kidnapped. Great! sounds exciting. At this point, you lay out the foundation, the beginning, middle and end. Don’t bog it down with a lot of detail, just get a general feel for it. Don’t sweat over it too much. It’ll change when it comes to the second stage.
Think of stage one as a globe and stage two as a map. You have your world, now you need to build some cities. This is where you figure out the nitty-gritty. Ask yourself questions. How does the kidnapping happen? How does our hero find out? What obstacles does he face? Who is the bag guy? Where does this take place? Spend as much time on this as you need. It is very important. You’ll need a good map once you start writing. Be detailed, throw in some dialog to get a feeling across, explore viewpoints, and write down research questions as they come up. Once you have your map, you can plan your journey.
If stage one is a globe and stage two is a map, then stage three is the itinerary. This is where you plan your trip, all the stops, all the sites, everything you want to see on this journey. You’re not writing the chapters, you’re outlining them. That’s right, you’re making smaller versions of the first two stages for each chapter. If you created your map well enough then this will be a simple process with some minor changes as you go along. Each chapter must have a purpose, so make that a priority. This is where you answer a lot of questions from the second stage. You’ll also have some new ones. When you’re done, you should be happy with the concept and you should be excited to actually start writing your story.
Does outlining make it easier? To a certain extent. For example, I know where California is and I can probably drive there without a map, but having one will make it easier. Be prepared to get off target while writing your story. While travelling, you might see something that sparks your curiosity. Don’t be afraid to make an unscheduled pit stop. You’ll come up with new ideas for another chapter or two. Go with it. You can do it with confidence and without fear because you have your outline. It’s something you can always fall back on if you get lost. Just like a map!
Note for the GPS generation: A map is a folded piece of paper used to get from point A to point B, the beginning and the end. Until they make a GPS system for story telling, you’re going to have to learn how to create an outline and read an outline. Now go write that story!