If you want to learn how to write a novel outline, then WELL DONE. You’re at the right place.
People constantly ask me how I write so fast and my truest answer is always:
DARK MAGIC. Um, sorry…I just…sometimes my fingers slip on the keyboard and it’s a bit awkward? Anyway. My truest answer is: OUTLINES.
As soon as I say that, the human (or robot, like I don’t judge) asking me immediately follows up with, “Oh so how do you write an outline?”
And I just…
I have no idea.
So in honour of having no idea, I thought I’d write a post on my outlining process. This seems reasonable. Unfortunately for me, about 99% of my “writing process” is just doing. I have a very hard time explaining what I’m doing. But here I am. Sacrificing my weak braincells for you.
Now obviously there are many ways to go about writing a novel.
No you do not have to outline to be a successful writer. I’ll quickly list a few of the other writer’s life options:
- PLOTTER: You write outlines and plan very meticulously. Usually a method used by control freaks and those pretentious people who like to use words like “meticulously”. (AKA IT’S ME.)
- PLANSTER: You write bare-bones outlines. Which is maybe a few paragraphs or a page with a vague direction. Like go forward three paces and turn left at the blue tree and don’t die if you please.
- PANSTER: You write what comes to you as it comes. Just wing it, mate. Something will fly out (tears?) and this process is guaranteed to be full of creative freedom. People who pick this one usually hate rules and never wear matching socks.
- WEIRD COUSIN: You do all three of these methods at once. Usually done by people who have no idea what they’re doing and eat quite a lot of chocolate brownies in the name of “writing”. Ha. I see you. I understand you. Can I have some too.
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Now let me explain my outlining process to you with a lot of tears and existential crises.
(In time for NaNo too! Look at me being punctual!)
Because see I do not go with the Snowflake Method or Skeleton Outlines or Mind Maps or Index Cards or 3-Act Structures. I’m influenced, but I legit have no method except what I like to call:
THE MOVIE TRANSCRIPTION PUZZLE BOX
It doesn’t make any sense, just how it should be.
Please only try this at home with adult supervision when you need to use the oven or stove. Be safe, kids.
FIRST I COME UP WITH THE PREMISE OF MY STORY.
It can be anything from something small…like I want to write about, say, witches. Or something with a little more direction, like I want to write a Van Gogh retelling. But my #1 thing is to PICK something. I don’t generally wait for inspiration to club me in the back of the head in a dark alley. I know people are all for freedom of creativity and letting their characters take over the story. But I’m not like that! And that’s OK! Being different is OK! *
I prefer to use 32% inspiration and 68% decision.
I also will note that I want to make a career out of writing, so I do view things through a business brain. NOT to say I follow trends and such (bad idea!!! do not do this!!), but I do analyse if an idea has potential to be sold.
* Look I know this is true. My mum told me so when I was little and reenacted the fall of the Roman empire with my dolls.
NOW I FIGURE OUT THE PITCH OF MY STORY.
I sum up my book easily and quickly and interestingly. Mostly so I can tweet about it but ALSO so I get a solid direction of what the point and climax of my story is. <— Important.
I figure out:
- what my characters want to achieve
- what’s going to stop them achieving it
- how their personalities will react to the situations I’m about to throw at their cute heads
- where the story starts and ends
Like currently for my upcoming NaNo story, I knew right up front I wanted a stabby girl and a bubbly boy and they’ll be stuck in a dance contest and hate each other.
Knowing that, next I ask:
- how can I raise the stakes?
- whatever I think of: DOUBLE THAT PAIN, SON.
- so they’ll be on live TV…what if that was super dangerous for them?
- why is it dangerous?
- who are they running from?
- we have a Big Badie opposing them, but what little oppositions can they meet?
- how do the characters sabotage themselves on accident?
- what are their vulnerabilities and tipping points and triggers?
I unwind the story like that. But the biggest and most crucial tings I think of are: (a) what does my character WANT, and (b) how can I stop them from GETTING IT?
Authors are so freaking nice.
Also if you don’t have that figured out, there is a 99% chance your story will read like a directionless soup.
WORK ON YOUR CHARACTERS UNTILL THEY’RE CUTE BUT HOT MESSES.
I’m so all for character-driven books, but I think up my premises first. Then I fit in characters. BECAUSE CHARACTERS ARE HARD. And once you’ve been an idiot like me and written 25+ novels *…your eye twitches and you then cry when you have to think up new people.
THINGS I THINK ABOUT:
- I like making my two narrators personality-opposites so they’ll argue and sass each other to death
- I think up their backstory
- #Make #It #Tragic
- I weave in diversity because that’s important to me (at this point, I mostly pick things I have experience with)
- I develop how that diversity affects their lives
- I NAME THEM WHICH IS SO HARD I CAN’T EVEN WITH HOW HARD THE NAMING THING IS
- I figure out how they’ll change by the end of the novel.
Currently? I have 78% of my outline worked out but no character names. This is the kind of organised structure I have.
Why are you reading this post.
Run while you can.
* So I literally just wrote “25+” because I have no freaking clue how many books I’ve written?????
OKAY SO I GOTCHA PREMISE + CHARACTERS…NOW I NEED TO MAKE STUFF HAPPEN.
Here is where the “movie transcript” part of my plotting method comes in.
I do not write anything down yet. I do not break out the index cards or systematic rulers or use the oven for singeing my hair. (ALTHOUGH THAT SOUNDS FUN.)
I proceed to write a “movie” in my head. Epic soundtrack playlist. Cinematography angles. Director commentary. Scene cuts. Blooper reel. The works. I build things as a TV series would, because novel chapters = TV episodes = surprisingly similar.
TV series = you need to have interesting arcs in every episode.
Book = every chapter needs to matter and 500% bonus points if you end each with a mini “cliffhanger” to keep you reading.
I also usually am moving while I do this. Because I think better when I’m in motion, so running, walking, etc. But remember: make !! time !! to !! think !!! Books don’t happen if you don’t MAKE them happen.
“OK, Cait,” you say while firing up the oven because I brought it up so why not, “but how do I come up with the ideas???”
I find that if you cry enough, your tears will form patterns which might look like words and you can use them.
But yet failing that….
I generally work like this:
- Start with imaging action scenes that go with the far-too-upbeat music I’m listening to at the time.
- Ask: “can a contemporary have explosions?”
- Rework contemporary so the answer is: yes.
- I play out a scene and see where my imagination takes the characters.
- If the characters are dUMB GOATS and the scene gets stuck, I rewind and go in a different direction.
- I think of things that amuse me, excite me, or interest me and work them into the story.
- This changes ALL THE TIME, so my books are always full of interesting things. Like right now I’m think of masks, abandoned dance studios, an old pizza place with blood stains on the floor, a dumbly adorable golden retriever, a rich kid who hates being rich, coffee addictions, Instagram, knee injuries and boys doing ballet.
- You can TOTALLY go on pinterest and get inspired by an aesthetic photo and work that in.
- JUST THINK UP STUFF HONESTLY.
- THE POSSIBILITIES ARE ENDLESS.
- USE YOUR GOD GIVEN IMAGINATION.
You can be inspired from what you read and watch too. But bE cAREFUL. Don’t steal. If you find your idea looking suspiciously like something in another book you’ve read…rework it.
Or a leviathan might eat you.
I mean, I don’t know mate, but do you want to take the risk.
But don’t freak out. I read a book about dancing = I want to write a book dancing. They will be NOTHING ALIKE but obviously I was inspired. See?
GET STUCK AT LEAST 54 TIMES.
Because haha haha HAHAHAHHA.
Your brain loves you and wants to see you suffer. Um, excuse me while I get an umbrella for when you cry all over me.
And if you get stuck? Read more books. Watch more movies. Actively DON’T think for a day and then tomorrow actively DO think until you smash that block.
But the delicious thing is: you might get writers block now, but when you’re actually drafting? BOOM. You won’t.
That’s how I write so fast. Because I do the bulk of my “writing” without ever touching my laptop.
[crowd gasps and whispers paperfury is a genius]
By this point I’ve imagined up a lot of scenes. And I haven’t a heckin’ clue where they go.
I do plot out of order. But I never write out of order. I’m about as logically consistent as what happens when you throw a box of marbles in the air.
I feebly glue all my scenes together and filling in the gaps. Usually if you have a gap TOO big, you can fix it by putting all your characters in a kitchen and making them argue their life plans out over lasagna. 10/10 recommend because this is delicious.
IT’S TIME TO ACTUALLY WRITE!
Because, you know…you’re a writer! Maybe! We hope!
TURN THE OVEN OFF, YOU CHILD, I TALKED TO YOU ABOUT THIS WHY AREN’T YOU FOCUSING.
So the first thing I do is open up Scrivener and cry over it because it’s beautiful.
Yes I have a whole file just for outlines and story ideas. I’ll start a new Scrivener file for the actual project when I start to write it.
Now obviously YOU DO NOT NEED SCRIVENER TO WRITE A NOVEL. And obviously if you talk to me I’m just going to rant about how much I freaking love it. So do whatever, mate. I’m only here to tell you how
far gone my brain is I’m doing things
I also have a lot of files for names which helps me 0% when picking one out. I usually just wait for a lightning strike. Which will give me character names or death. Either is OK.
Firstly I write:
- Out that horrid pitch we talked about. So just like 2 sentences or so. DOESN’T HAVE TO BE GOOD. Just functional.
- Then I write a “blurb” or “query”. I write blurbs because I already have an agent hallllllelujah no querying for me.
- But, dude, if you write the blurb BEFORE THE BOOK, you automatically can identify your climax + the thing that makes your story cool. If you DON’T know what makes your story cool or stand out —> your story needs more work.
- Then I might write out a teeny tiny character profile. Mostly stuff like “HE HAS RED HAIR AND BLUE EYES” because I will no doubt change his eye-colour 84 times because I have no memory.
- Obviously I sort my characters into Hogwarts Houses. #Crucial
- I do any specks of teeny tiny research I might need and make notes.
A SMOL WORD ABOUT THE RESEARCH:
I don’t research a lot before first drafts. This is because (a) I don’t know if this draft is going to be any good???! Why waste time on research?!? and (b) I don’t want to bog myself down in details and then NEVER WRITE.
Obviously I’m sensible about this. If I’m going to put someone in hospital, I research their wound a bit. But otherwise I skim where I know I’ll put details later.
THIS IS FIRST DRAFT STUFF. IT’S SUPPOSED TO BE CUTE TRASH.
BOOOOYAH. I write out my outline in bullet point lists.
Because I love lists. Are you reading this post.
Also good time to mention: my outlines are extremely detailed. Not all outlines are! But since this whole blog is about me, here we go.
My outlines look like this:
- Detailed explanation of what goes on in a scene.
- Yes, I’ll even note people’s emotions and maybe a line of dialogue.
- I use bullet point lists because you can’t use knife-point-lists which I think is discriminatory to knives.
- I include the most SALTY AND SASSY COMMENTARY on my own book you can imagine. This is because outlining can be “boring” so I make it more amusing than the actual book.
- IF YOU’RE NOT HAVING FUN, WHAT R U DOING M8.
- I also plan out my first sentence in advance. Because those are hard.
- I usually finish up around 20,000 words which will equal a 100,000 word novel. Which I will then edit the living heck out of because I prefer books to be around 70-80K.
EXAMPLES OF SOME OF MY OUTLINE
From different novels. Not the current one because I’m writing this post instead of outlining it. #ProcrastinationQueen
You sit back and realise you are PREPARED.
I actually have written 10+ outlines this year and only written 6 books. THIS IS NICE. I outline in such detail that I can come back and write the book later. Like….12 years later. TWELVE YERAS IN AZKABAN LATER.
A lot of writers hate outlines for crushing their creative limbs — which is cool. But I personally NEVER get stuck while writing if I have an outline like this. I can also spit out 30,000 words per day. WIN FOR ME, YES?
SO I HOPE YOU ENJOYED THIS TOUR OF MY MIND.
Yes, it’s OK if you are shaky and need to take a moment. Me too though. The important thing is to find your OWN process and make everything fit with you. But if something here inspires you or you’re delusional enough to say “Yeah I’ll give this a go”…then well done. I’m glad I helped.
(Are you even OK?)
Go forth and outline! There is at least a 4% chance you will not not bite your head off while doing so.
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