Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Give me outlines or give me death...

Okay, not really, that's a little extreme but you get the gist ;)

A loyal blog reader has asked me to elaborate a little on my outlining methods for the novels I write. As she hinted at, outliners are getting to be a breed of the past, while seat of the pants writers are multiplying like rabbits. Which is fine, because like I've always said - DO WHAT WORKS FOR YOU!

So if you're a happy panster, feel free to hit "next" on your list of blogs to surf today. :) But if you are considering being an outliner and plotter, or think maybe you should become one, or are coming out of the closet about admitting to being one already, then keep reading and hopefully I can answer any questions you guys might have!! hehe.

Here's what I do as a plotting/outlining writer - the entire process from the beginning:

1. The Idea - this can come from something I hear, something I see, something I think, something I read, etc. This is the general gist of my next story. Sometimes its just a location. Other times its a character or a certain spiritual or emotional struggle/goal. Sometimes its a plot. Or a question - "what if this or this and this happened?" It's the spark that ignites my next novel!

2. The Brainstorm - once I get my general idea in my head, I start fleshing it out. I add characters or a setting or a loose plot or whatever is missing from the initial spark. I fill in the big holes and get an idea of the basic story and its characters. This is sometimes written down, sometimes discussed with a fellow author on the phone or sometimes just thought about it my head until I get a firm handle on it.

3. The Synopsis Stage 1 - I jot down my mental notes onto a Word document, committing them to "paper". This is where I just get everything out of my head onto the screen in a way that makes sense but is by no means polished. It just lets me see it to then brainstorm a step further. Eventually this section becomes my polished, final synopsis for my proposal.

4. The Proposal - once I get the basics written down, I start going over the different elements of my proposal which includes a hook, a tagline, a target audience, etc. This might seem backward for some people but for me, this helps me find the meat of my story early on. Once I write these elements into my proposal, I'm more finalized of my plan.

5. The Synopsis Stage 2 - this is where I start writing the synopsis. I take my original Stage 1 notes and start making them into an acceptable synopsis format, which is hard and sometimes more stressful than fun but it lets me get organized, see where in the story thus far I need more conflict, where it's dragging, where a new thread of conflict or intrigue can be added, etc. This is where the real writing takes place. I bring all the previous aspects together and make a solid, presentable story idea. Usually my synopsis are 3-5 pages though for my last Love Inspired proposal, it was somehow 8!

The neat thing about a synopsis for me is that it gives me an outline to go by when I write the full manuscript (hopefully, see Step 7 ::wink::) but it doesn't restrict me to the point that I can't adjust as I write. My editor will purchase the story (again hopefully) based on the synopsis I gave them but there is always room for changes. Major changes would have to be approved first, smaller changes can typically just be absorbed without incident, etc. But for me and my limited writing time available, I don't have the liberty of staring at my screen thinking "uhhhh what happens next?" which is what I would do without a basic outline to follow. I always know what is coming up and what I need to do to get them there. But I still get the freedom of creativity in that each scene isn't a nail-downed, super detailed description. I just see "oh, this convo needs to happen" or "the heroine needs to mull this over" or whatever, and I can still in the moment create the setting for her to do so, etc. I still get surprised by my characters at times or taken aback when something works out even better than I had planned. It's still fun to write, its just more structured than having no set beginning, middle and end points to reach.

6. The Polish - this is when I go back and read the entire proposal and synopsis, start to finish, and convince myself it's ready for my agent to review and submit. I send it to critique partners first to help me eliminate any potential "uh, this would never happen in real ife" type scenarios, etc. :) I read it outloud to make sure it flows naturally and then...the grand finale...(after writing the first three sample chapters)

7. Hit Send. Pray for contract. Wait and wait. Then hopefully, Ta-da! Contract signed, advance deposited, write full manuscript, sell a million copies...oh wait. ;)

That's me. Any questions?


  1. I think I'm definitely an outliner. But I didn't k ow that till recently. I like having an idea of the most important things that need to happen. I still get a little lost with the in-between though.
    I love to hear more about hooks, tagglines, & filling in the blanks between the most important scenes!

  2. Tonya, hooks and taglines are basically the same thing, different publishers just have different wording and protocol for such, usually listed on their website for submissions. (or an agent's website, now that most publishers are closed to unsoliticated manuscripts)

    A hook or tagline is basically a short summary (sometimes one sentence, sometimes a paragraph, etc.) that just describes your story but in an interesting way to grab attention.

    For example, my previous proposal hooks have been:

    Addison Blakely has tirelessly played the role of PK—preacher’s kid—her entire life. But after Wes Keegan revs his motorcycle into town and into her heart, she isn’t sure she wants to be the good girl anymore… (contracted YA novel, releasing January 2012 from Barbour Books)

    Samantha’s never had a problem roping calves—but lassoing love is a horse of an entirely different color!

    (April 2010 release, Rodeo Sweetheart by Steeple Hill Love Inspired)

    Just something to grab the interest. These types of taglines or hooks can also be thought of as what you read on the movie poster if your book was a movie...or as a one line sentence "elevator pitch" to an editor/agent at a conference.

    Does that answer that question? :)

    Maybe another Scribble Chick can help this week on how "to fill in the blanks between important scenes" My only off-the-top-of-my-head advice there is to be careful of fluff. No scene should be irrelevant. ALL of it should help move the story forward, toward your next big "point" or "milestone" in the story or however you want to say that. If a scene is pointless to the story and can easily be deleted with zero consequence to the plot or storyline or timeline, then it probably needs to be deleted or exchanged for a scene that moves the story forward. This just takes practice and practice to learn/recognize.

  3. Two questions- how do you stick by one story, even if you have an idea for another? And, how do you get to your page and word count goal without stretching the plot to the point of boring the reader?
    Thanks! Love your blog.

  4. Thanks! You did a great job answering. I think there are some books of there that fill in with fluff though

  5. Tonya, yes there are DEFINITELY books out there that are fluffy. And Nicholas Sparks head hops. And Stephanie Meyer didn't obey many rules of craft either. But just because some authors and editors get away with breaking rules doesn't mean we want that to be our goal ;) Twilight was obviously a hit but I feel it could have been even bigger if the craft of writing was as strong as the story was. Same with Sparks - if he didn't head hop and kept a tight point of view per scene with just one character, I personally would enjoy his stories even more. But story always wins. However, you have to learn the rules well before you can decide if they are ever worth breaking... =)

    Glad to help!

  6. Cece, sticking by one story when a ton of others are flying around your brain is sometimes hard! It comes down to two words - Disicipline and Filing. ha. Discipline yourself to start and FINISH one story or else you know what? Publication will always remain a dream instead of a goal. You have to finish a book to have a chance ;) But that doesn't mean your ideas have to be wasted. Write down the gists so you can come back to them later. File ideas or characters or key words away in an email folder or a computer folder or hard copy file folder to visit after you complete your work-in-progress!

  7. Cece, your other question about meeting your word count sort of blends with Tonya's concerns about "fluff." It's a fine line and one that truly just takes practice. First decide which publisher your story is targeted toward. If that's Love Inspired, then you only need 58-60,000 words. That's very doable with one main plot and small group of character. However, if you have a logner story targeted toward another house that is 89-100,000 words, you will need side plots and other threads to your story t help meet your goal. Just be sure your subplots still go with your main plot. You don't want anything to seem contrived or random. If you get stuck, that probably means you don't have enough conflict. If you're writing suspense, that's where one of my fav authors Colleen Coble says "throw in another dead body." =P All genres can do that - not literally, you don't want a dead body in the middle of an epic romance - but you understand the symbolism. :)