Writing Books Review: Outlining Your Novel (and Workbook)

Image from Amazon.com

I’ve run into K. M. Weiland several times on the internet and, I think, in Writer’s Digest. She has an award-winning website for writing help and I believe I have subscribed to her emails in the past. I think that some of this happened years ago when I was self-/indie-publishing, so I still associate her with that, but she has branched out. (Full discolsure: after writing this I did a search and was reminded that I wrote an article for her website a decade ago, “11 Ways Stay-at-Home Moms–and Other Busy Folks–Can Find Time to Write.” Whoops. Forgot.) On a list of books to read for writers I found Outlining Your Novel: Map Your Way to Success. Wanting to get a real handle on this outlining/plotting and structure thing as I write a trilogy and edit a fantasy novel, I picked up this book second (after Save the Cat! Writes a Novel).

I have not read any of Weiland’s fiction. See her page above to figure out if you would like to. Her fiction (fantasy, historical) seems to garner reviews just north of four out of five stars, which is pretty darn good, but it is not widely read, so the reviews are limited. If you sign up for her mailing list right now, you get one of her books free. (Probably electronic copy, but I can’t say that for sure.)

Outlining Your Novel is worth the read if you are looking to outline a novel. In fact, it’s worth the read even if you are looking to write a novel, because the case should be made to you that outlining (as opposed to following your intuition and “pantsing”) is the best option. I actually believe this and I also believe that planning is not the polar opposite of passion, creativity, or great writing, but either way, I think you should give the idea your ear if you are writing long form. Perhaps this isn’t the top book I would give you to convince you to plan/outline, but it wouldn’t be a bad one to begin with, either. (I would probably, at this point in my reading, send you to Save the Cat! Writes a Novel, which is enjoying a heyday and is longer and a bit more conversational). But Outlining Your Novel accomplishes some of the same things: Weiland makes a case for planning, she guides you through the process of planning, and gives writing tips and advice along the way. Even though I have already heard from other authors (Jessica Brody of Save the Cat! and Christopher Vogler of The Writer’s Journey), there were some aha! moments for me. Sometimes Weiland has a different opinion, but sometimes she just talks about a little something that I haven’t yet covered in my studies.

Her advice does sometimes feel random and incomplete, which may be because she doesn’t give me what I always want in a book like this (craft, self-help, cookbooks), and that is an enormous checklist to wrap it up and put a bow on it. I have made this checklist, below, but it is not amazing because I threw it together from the notes that I made while reading; she could have done it better. (I also added my own two cents once in awhile in brackets.) In order to really walk through the process that she writes about, you’d either have to do it as you read, take your own notes, or use the companion book, Outlining Your Novel Workbook, which I’ll talk about in a sec. She also has other helpful books, like Structuring Your Novel and Creating Character Arcs and a workbook for each of those. (I wonder if and how she manages to provide information that is not redundant between these three “systems.”)

Note: the book is self-/indie-published, and I have nothing against that, but it is clearly so. In other words, the fonts, design, feel, and even the editing are not top-of-the-line. While she’s done a pretty good job, I could spot it a mile away and I am—good or bad—partial to aesthetically pleasing, even hip, books. End of note.

The book is fairly short. It is straight-forward (though without my blessed checklist). Her voice is authoritative and clear. I can’t decide if I appreciate her using her own work as examples (because she shows us her process with them) or if it felt like I was being sold her books through her teaching. She does have other authors weigh in on their outlining process and the benefits thereof, which is helpful (but I have to admit I was like, who is this author and why would I trust them?). All in all, the book was full of helpful information for outlining and could be the only book you use to come up with your own method (which is ultimately what like 99% of us do). For me, I’m more curious to sample a half-dozen as I develop my method (which I have watched really morph during my last writing residency into something that makes perfect sense for me and involves lots of notecards and walks in the woods). I also think that if you really want to try out her method, it would be worth purchasing Outlining Your Novel Workbook.

Image from Amazon.com

Speaking of, Outlining Your Novel Workbook is pretty useful, but not very, um, pretty (also self-published) or even that self-explanatory. I’m not sure it has to be, since you could just crash through it answering the questions however you want and it—at the very least—will generate many, many ideas (and therefore scenes) for your new book/project (or even one you’ve already written and needs a serious edit). But there were times when I needed to reference Outlining Your Novel to know exactly what I was supposed to be doing and how that fit into the whole process. In fact, I only really understood the process as a whole when I was going over my notes after reading Outlining Your Novel. Then I was like, “Oh, that’s the big picture.” It would have been nice for her to spell it out in both the books.

But she doesn’t want to force her process down our throats, anyway. She has some advice and plenty of suggestions, but in the end there is a lot of flexibility in “map[ping] your way to success.” Like I said, I stumbled into my own process with the notecards while reading through this book, filling out the workbook, and referring back to the Save the Cat! beats, all while organizing in Scrivener. I did find filling out the workbook helpful for coming up with ideas galore, but it wasn’t the only way I did it. In the end, I think walking through Weiland’s basic process using both the book and workbook is most helpful as a sort of checks and balances. If you can just slow down and fill out every page (making copies for more character interviews, because there aren’t enough), then you know you’ve done everything she thinks you should do. Your bases are covered. You can step up to the writing starting line with enormous confidence. And I suppose that’s part of why Outlining Your Novel is also necessary: among other things, it makes the case that you should slow down and finish an outline before beginning the first draft of a novel, even if you don’t want to or aren’t used to it, because you’re going to save yourself a lot of grief at a later date.

So, yeah, not the sleekest writing book out there, but well worth a read if you are figuring this novel-writing thing out and won’t absolutely get your knickers in a twist (or stick your nose in the air) about planning. Weiland is on creativity’s side; she just believes that outlining is on creativity’s side as well.

STEPS TO OUTLINING: (Sorry, with the latest WordPress update I canNOT figure out how to change all the stupid “1”s.)

  • Brainstorm:
    • Explore story possibilities with a mind map, pictorial outline, mapping, or a “perfect review.” What is the story you would like to read? [See other suggestions from me HERE.]
  • Before You Outline:
    1. Get your tools in order like pen and paper, yWriter [or Scrivener], or a calendar. [I would like to add notecards, colored notecards, a box to put them in, sticky notes, and possibly a corkboard with pins.]
    1. Write your “What if…?” questions and “What is expected?”
    1. Write a premise sentence.
    1. Ask Weiland’s pre-outline questions (p53-54).
  • Rough-Draft Outline [The whole time I’m doing this, I write scenes on notecards and occasionally get them in order. I leave plenty of room to add to notecards. I also insert colored notecards to mark the “beats” in the story, to make sure the structure makes sense. This time I am using the Save the Cat structure, but I have used the Hero’s Journey before. There are others. I don’t add notecards for things like character sketches, but I do for scene ideas or plot point that are generated from these things. Sometimes my card starts extremely vague.]
    1. Summarize the scenes you already know about.
    1. Mark scenes that need elaboration.
    1. Ask questions to fill in the plot holes.
    1. Spend time with the protagonist, starting with imperfection and tools, then revelation and change.
    1. Think about your stakes, looking for lags, making the conflicts huge, varying the intensity, touching every scene with frustration.
    1. Make sure the opening scene grabs the reader with conflict.
    1. Identify areas of foreshadowing.
    1. Strengthen the theme by identifying the internal conflict, how and why the character will change, how they will demonstrate their views at the beginning and end, symbolism (and repetition), and subtext.
    1. Work on the inciting incident: it’s location in the novel; what caused it; how the protagonist reacts and why (from what past experience); and what unresolved issues will continue to spiral them?
    1. Create a backstory. Hint at it and reveal at the last possible moment and quickly.
    1. Do character interviews (pp116-119) or do it freehand or with enneagram
    1. Make a settings list. Streamline them by combining or deleting and use them powerfully and descriptively.
    1. If writing speculative fiction, world build using Patricia C. Wrede’s Worldbuilding Questions [or a workbook].
    1. Revisit favorite movies and books to identify the moments that grabbed you.
    1. Identify your audience (age, gender, ethnicity, worldview)
    1. Choose your POV and POV character(s) based on who is most affected by the “news.”
    1. Hone your beginning: start w/ MC and his normal world in a characteristic moment; Begin w/ movement; give your readers a reason to be sympathetic; give the MC a desire/goal; lock in the inciting event; make that MC react to the event.
    1. Hone your middle: trap the MC in a spiral of events outside their control; move the original goal out of their reach; provide new complications and goals; force a decision that moves the MC to attack mode.
    1. Hone your ending: make that MC come to know themselves better; stretch their resolve and revive them at the last moment; have them rise to the challenge, a real hero, but in a unique way suited to their gifts; bring that protagonist-antagonist battle to an end; let the MC reach their (amended) goals.
    1. End the whole thing with a memorable line.
    1. Include humor, relationship, and action.
    1. Consider framing, foreshadowing, and outlining backwards from events.
    1. Eliminate unnecessary scenes and combine scenes.
    1. [Note where you have pre-written scenes or partials.]
  • Abbreviated Outline.
    1. Make a short outline with bullet points and pertinent info. [This is great for writing your synopsis later.]
    1. Divide into chapter and scene breaks, keeping readers asking “what next?” (p166-167 for how to do this).
    1. Note where you will want to quicken pace and where to slow it, using sentence form, etc.
    1. Cut the transitions and other “fat.”
  • Write the Story.
    1. Write forward.
    1. Keep the long and short outline handy. [I like to use sprints, word-count goals, and sometimes remove myself to a public location.]

QUOTES

“Our subconscious …. Feeds our brains with images, sounds, smells, tastes, and feelings, which our conscious brans translate into words” (p55).

“As much as we want readers to intellectually appreciate our writing, we need them, even more, to react with utter, unthinking emotion to the underlying pull of the story and its characters” (p66).

“Few skills are inherent to the writing life. Most are learned along the way, as they become necessary. But the one absolutely necessary trait is an unabated sense of curiosity” (p69).

“Readers want to understand this person by seeing what he does. Often, however, it’s what a character wants to do that matters even more” (pp75-76).

“…what we find at the core of a story is the main character’s desire for something” (p78).

“One of the easiest ways to raise the stakes is to create a tight timeline for your story” (p84).

“Before you can tell others your story, you have to tell yourself its prequel” (p100).

“The backstory of your novel is necessarily the composite backstory of all your characters” (p103).

“…this kind of in-depth background information provides an incredibly strong foundation. And the bits of backstory that do make an appearance will add extra sparkle…” (p107).

“Outline in the way most natural to you and your characters and your story, and even allow it to change from book to book if needed” (p124).

“Writing is way of organizing experience, or of organizing something imagined, of making something perfect and beautiful—even something as small as one sentence—in a world that can be, at times chaotic, wretched, ugly, and upsetting” (Patricia Highsmith, p137).

“…ask yourself to imagine the one story, essay, poem or book that you’d most like to read. Then write it” (Scott Edelstein, p142).

“The outline is the tool of the responsible author who understands that story is as much about structure as it is about inspiration” (p176).

“Scene breaks are do-or-die territory for novelists …. If your chapter and scene endings leave readers no reason to turn the page and find out what happens next, all your hard work on the other aspects of your story will be wasted” (p165).

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