So you’ve decided to write a book. You’ve done exhaustive research, written your character sketches, and fully fleshed out your idea. But now that you’ve done all the front work, you find yourself at a loss. Writing tens of thousands of words just seems too overwhelming, as does weaving all the threads of a novel-sized story together. You sit in front of your laptop or writing notebook, staring at that blank page with dread churning in your stomach.
Not to worry! This Inception to Completion series will take you from the very beginning to the very end of the novel-writing process, breaking things down step-by-step. As the self-published author of two novels, I will offer tips and tricks that helped me to complete those books (as well as four as-of-yet unpublished manuscripts).
Let’s start with outlines. My fellow blog writer, Heather, has already written a fantastic post about outlining templates. But today we’re going to talk about my personal outlining process that I have developed over the years.
I started writing my first story in high school and did not outline at all. As a result, I ended up with a meandering novel full of inconsequential scenes that was over 1,000 pages long.
So I tried outlining with my next novel (and my first self-published book), and the results were much, much better. The book and my next novel both took me years to write, though. I have continued to hone my outlining process and thanks to it, I managed to complete two of my most recent manuscripts in just six months each.
Here are the steps of my outlining process:
Step 1: Write an Overarching Outline
Now that you have your novel idea, it’s time to sketch out the overall plot. This may sound overwhelming, but you don’t need to put too much pressure on this first outline. All you have to do is get down a brief summary of the story’s structure—the beginning, middle, and end. There’s no need to get into nitty-gritty details just yet.
My overarching outlines don’t tend to be longer than two or three paragraphs. I usually write all my outlines (we’ll get into the other type below) in Notepad on my PC so it’s easier to have my outline and Word document on the screen at the same time—but you should do whatever works best for you.
Step 2: Write Some Chapter Outlines
Remember when I said you didn’t have to get into the nitty-gritty details in Step One? Well, now it’s time to start working on those. Unlike the overarching outline, chapter outlines should be highly detailed. I tend to sketch out exactly what will happen in each scene—and even some of the dialogue—in these outlines.
This step may also seem a bit daunting, but having this kind of roadmap to lead you through each chapter is invaluable. It’s worth going through some writerly stress now to avoid much more of it later.
One fun thing about this step is that you don’t have to write all the chapter outlines at once. In fact, doing so is not a good idea. I usually write no more than 5-10 chapter outlines at a time. I’ll get into the reasons for this in Step 3.
Step 3: Try Writing the First Chapter
Once you have your first 5-10 chapter outlines, you should take a shot at writing your first chapter. You may think that all the outlining is supposed to happen before you start writing, but that is definitely not what has worked for me.
Getting the chance to try out your first chapter outline will help you to decide if the course you’ve set out for yourself is the right one. It’s very possible that you’ll change your mind about where you want your story to start, and will end up having to scrap the chapter outlines you’ve written.
Having to scrap chapter outlines can be disheartening—but aren’t you glad now that you only wrote a few of them? This is the reason for writing the chapter outlines in chunks rather than all at once, and for keeping your overarching outline vague; you never know when your story might shift in direction.
Step 4: Wait
After you complete your first chapter, it’s good to try not to look at it for at least a few weeks. I know that can be hard. It’s definitely one of the most infuriating parts of this process for me. You finally have momentum! Why not keep going?
Basically for the same reason you should only write a few chapter outlines at a time—you never know how your story’s tide is going to turn. If you write a ton of chapters in a rush, and then realize you went in the wrong direction, that’s a bunch of cutting and rewriting you possibly could have avoided. This happened to me with Vita and the Monsters of Moorhouse, my second published novel. I wrote six or seven chapters before realizing that I should have started the story in a totally different place.
Giving yourself some time between writing the first chapter and continuing onward will allow you to see your chapter with fresh eyes. Then you’ll better be able to decide if this is really where you want the story to begin.
Step 5: Rinse and Repeat
Once you’re over that first chapter hump, my outlining process turns into a bit of a back and forth. You write more chapter outlines if necessary, write those chapters, then write more chapter outlines, then write more chapters. Batching your chapter outlines will give you the flexibility to stray from your overarching outline as needed.
Once you’ve spent a few months going back and forth between writing chapter outlines and chapters, you will have a completed rough draft. Of course you’ll still have plenty of editing and polishing to do from there (which I will discuss later in this series), but you’ll have a solid foundation to work with.
It’s hard to say if this particular way of outlining will work for you—or if outlining at all will be a good fit. Every writer is different. But outlining this way has helped me to increase my writing output considerably over the years. It’s also made the whole experience of writing a novel substantially less stressful. Hopefully you found at least a few tidbits in here that you might be able to integrate into your own writing practice.
Tune in for the next post in this series, where I’ll be discussing methods you can use to tackle the stress of actually getting words onto the page and writing that first chapter.