Outline, Just Write, or Something In Between

Exactly five years prior to publishing Black Ribisi, I had grand ideas of becoming an author and writing my first novel. I created a protagonist who worked on the campus of a fictitious, but prominent, Historically Black College or University (HBCU).

I worked at an HBCU at the time. I was certain people would’ve been able to figure out the source of my inspiration, even still, I attempted to cook up a little intrigue. In the process of writing, I left details about the school extremely vague. When it was all said and done, my fake intrigue would’ve been useless, considering the working title of the novel was On Hilltop High. Anybody remotely familiar with the school I worked at would’ve known exactly where my inspiration was coming from. It was whatever. I was still determined to write my novel.

I thought about my main characters and every night I carved out time to write. I started with my original thought of an on campus murder. I fleshed out a plot that would bring together a washed up detective who was newly hired to work in the campus police department, and the person charged with enforcing the university student code violations. I even threw in a love plot between two campus colleagues. What’s a good story without a little romance?

I’d write and I’d sleep. I’d get up, go to work, come home and write some more. I’d take the weekend to write even more! One day I looked up and saw that I had over 300 pages of material. I was excited! But that excitement lasted long enough for me to flip back 150 pages to find a couple of details I needed to change in order to fix plot holes and inconsistencies with main characters. It took me hours and all I did was further confuse myself.

That’s when it hit me. I didn’t have the discipline to sit down and type out a novel by the seat of my pants. I didn’t really realize there would come a time when I would have to go back, re-read what I had written, and try to make sense of everything. That required a lot of patience, discipline, and time. None of which I had. I was lazy!

So what happened? I quickly gave up on the project. I threw the 300 plus pages in the trash, deleted the file, and gave up on my dream of being a published author. I know… I can be melodramatic at times. It wasn’t until years later that I came to learn about and understand the writing styles that would move me from melodramatic quitter to published author.

That’s where you must start. There are three distinct styles of writing that exist. Each style offers it’s own benefit and drawback. But it’s up to you to decide which works best for you or if you would benefit from a hybrid of the three. The first of the three has already been alluded to, if you weren’t paying attention, it’s the Seat of Your Pants technique.

The technique’s title comes from the euphemism, “by the seat of your pants.” It describes when a person is acting on instinct versus thinking things through in a logical manner. If this is your preferred writing style, then that’s exactly how you’ll move through your draft. You’ll crack open your laptop, and without a sketch, an outline, or map of events written on a napkin, you’ll start to tap out your bestseller. Some writers excel at this style because it allows them to create their first drafts quickly. It also gives them the flexibility and freedom to go wherever their mind will lead.

This process wouldn’t work for me because as I said earlier, I don’t have the discipline to go back through an entire novel and then make sense of it. It also doesn’t work for me because of my creative thinking process. It requires time to develop plots. I know people who can sit at a computer and type, non-stop, without prior thought being put into what they’re typing. Not me. I need to sit and think, make sense of it in my brain, and then type it out.

Another writing style is Novel by Outline. This is me, all day long. I require a carefully constructed outline that moves my from chapter to chapter. What works best for me is a brief summary describing what happens in each chapter. In an earlier blog, I said that the draft of your novel needs to have a beginning, middle, and end. The same thing must exist for each chapter. During the outlining phase, I can sketch out how each chapter starts, what pivotal things happen during, and how each chapter ends.

This process works wonders for me because it serves as a road map to keep me focused and bring me to the end of my story. I also no longer have to worry about what happens next. I know what happens next! But just like the outline of portraits in a coloring book, I’ve got to use the crayons of my imagination to color in the story.

What tools can you use to make create your outline? That’s easy…Microsoft Word or Microsoft Excel. Each of these programs can be formatted to allow you to outline from Chapter One until infinity! Whether you do it in the word processing format offered by MS Word, or the cell format by MS Excel, you can create the linear progression you need. It will make it easy for you to jump between chapters to flesh out ideas, plots, characters, and leave dialogue clues to ensure important statements aren’t missing.

For the outlining and the writing stages of my novel writing, I use a software program called Scrivener. I strongly urge you to look into the program. It has been the best writing tool I’ve used thus far. I would do a disservice trying to explain all the details, so please click the link for more information. All I’ll say is that it’s an inexpensive way to organize everything you need for the purposes of writing your novel. And then it’s a great platform to easily write and format the book. (FYI…I don’t get paid for any tool or book I suggest! I just truly believe in their effectiveness.)

The Novel by Outline process is a simplified version of the Snowflake Method by Randy Ingermanson. While there are many preferred styles of novel writing, this is the third and final method that I’d like to highlight. Ingermanson takes his readers through the process of outlining their novels in stages. It’s like outlining on steroids! His website will walk you through a summary of what those phases look like.

When I came across Ingermanson’s Snowflake Method, I pretty much got everything I needed to start Black Ribisi through his summary page. He offers a lot of detail! But I ultimately purchased the book to get more information and to support the process that led to the ultimate completion of my debut novel.

I mentioned earlier that you should have a preferred style of writing, but there’s nothing wrong with merging the styles to find something that works just right for you. At the start of Black Ribisi, I had an idea and was a “pantser” for the first 80 pages. I stopped at that point and outlined the rest of the book. I used portions of the Snowflake Method in the beginning, and then leveled off to a regular outline. And guess what? It worked! Now I have a novel that’s averaging 5 out of 5 stars on Amazon!

 

Take your time to look through the resources I’ve provided. I’m certain they will help you start your novel writing process!

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