Coffee & Chat # 9 – Do you work to an outline or plot or do you prefer just see where an idea takes you?

Happy Monday! I’m hoping to get back to our regular Coffee & Chat visits. Between life and work it’s been a little cray-cray around here so I’ve needed to limit my time on the computer when I’m not writing. One of the questions I’m asked often is whether or not I outline. So today I thought I’d answer that question. I have a full cup of coffee so lets get chatting.

There are a few schools of thoughts on outlining. There’s a group that doesn’t outline. There’s a group that does outline. And there’s a group that does a combination of both processes, which means they loosely outline so they have an idea of where the story is going. Me? I outline. The outline for the Uninvited Corpse was about 20 (single-spaced) pages long and the outline for book two came in at 23 pages. I cannot imagine writing either book without outlining. Just typing that gave me the chills.

Why do I outline? Outlining gives me a clear direction of where the story is going and lays out the plot which includes twists and turns and defeats and triumphs for my amateur detective, Hope Early.

How do I outline? I begin with Michael Hague’s six stage plot structure. This method also serves as a template for writing the synopsis of the novel. Yes, even after selling your first book you need to be able to write a synopsis for your next book. Lets look at an example of how I incorporate this structure into my outlining.

Act One: First 25% of the novel

0-10% – The Ordinary World 

This part of the book is her ordinary world, it’s Hope’s life before the murder and where I hope that readers will connect with her and want to follow her along the journey. I usually just write a few sentences with very few details.

Here’s what I wrote for the book I’m currently working on (the second in the Food Blogger Mystery series):

Hope Early is the publisher behind the growing food blog, Hope at Home. Her current project for her blog is a series on stress-free meals so she’s developing recipes for slow cookers and pressure cookers. She’s also continuing to remodel her antique farmhouse and the big project now is building a new garage on her property. The book opens with Hope arriving for the first day…I’m not giving any more away. 🙂

Now I’ll continue to go through the whole six stage plot structure and when it’s complete I’ll set it aside for a few days. When I return to the document I’ll add a few spaces to each section and elaborate on what is happening at that particular point of the story. Each section now will have several sentences which are a bit more detailed and the basis for the next step of outlining the novel.

When I begin outlining I include the chapter number, the scene number, the day in the story, the time of day, and the location. I also include all the details of that scene, snippets of dialogue if they come to me as I’m typing, descriptions of characters or locations or objects, and links to online research sites. My outline is jam packed with a lot of stuff. Here’s a snippet from the outline I’m currently using:

Day One – late afternoon

Hope arrives at home and is greeted by her sister, Claire Dixon. She didn’t expect Claire to be waiting for her or having to explain why she’s late getting home. Bigelow, her dog, comes racing to welcome her home. Claire is in a huff because…you’ll have to read the book to find out why she’s upset. 🙂

Writing the outline can take weeks and I honestly don’t remember how long it took to write the outline for book 2. I completed it last spring. Some writers feel writing an outline sucks the joy out of writing the novel. They’re not surprised by anything when they sit down to write the novel or they feel the outline structure is too rigid. Valid points. However, I don’t feel that writing an outline hinders the novel writing process. The outline isn’t carved in stone and can be adjusted accordingly as I write the story. During the draft writing process (I usually go through 4 drafts) I have changed things such as eliminating a scene – I did that in the first draft of book 2, the scene was flat and I was totally bored by it so I cut it and brainstormed a new scene to replace it – or adding a character or re-arranging scenes. Doing any of those things can be nerve-wracking for a writer but since I have a detailed outline that is guiding me, it’s like a safety net, I can make those changes on the fly.

If a new writer asked me if he/she should outline I would say “yes” and share my reasons why. But does a writer need to outline? No. Every writer writes differently and no one should impose his/her practices on another writer. But I think writers should outline. 🙂

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