We’ve all been blinded by the shine of a new idea. It won’t leave you alone. You think of it every time you sit down to work on your current manuscript. It’s begging you to walk away from the project you’ve invested your time and energy in for the last few weeks or months.
Or maybe you’ve written the first few chapters and you still love but you don’t know what happens next.
Or maybe you’ve just lost the spark for writing in general.
Sometimes, for whatever reason, finishing the book is just plain hard. It’s tempting to set it aside to work on a new idea, or on a previously abandoned project. Sometimes, it’s even tempting to call it quits for good. So what’s a disenchanted author to do?
Real Talk Time: Do you want to be an author? Do you want to publish your book someday? You can’t do that with a half-finished manuscript. So the only thing you can do is FINISH THE BOOK.
Write when it’s boring. Write when the other shiny idea is luring you away. Write. Write. Write.
But what if you don’t know what happens next? What if you’re blocked? What if you’ve written your characters into a corner?
Then you stop what you’re doing, take a breath, and start an outline.
Some of you out there are groaning right now. I know because I used to be one of you. I was a write-by-the-seat-of-my-pants author, wanting to be surprised at what happened next. I wanted the plot to unfold as I wrote.
But I changed my way of thinking. Getting stuck in the saggy middle of a book project got annoying and I wanted to stop wasting my time. Outlining, whether it’s a bare bones outline or a more detailed chapter-by-chapter outline, is going to help a writer push through that first draft and reach those satisfying final words: The End.
My outlines are mini-novels. It’s not uncommon for them to be upwards of 20,000 words. I have dialogue, setting details, and plot-forwarding action in every chapter summary. They can take a month or more to write. But don’t worry—you don’t have to do this to have a successful outline. All you need is to know one thing: What happens next?
A chapter-by-chapter or scene-by-scene outline is nothing more than a rope that writers use to pull themselves through a first draft. When you reach the point when you’re sick of your story or it doesn’t feel believable or your main character isn’t as likable as you wanted her to be, that rope is there, waiting for you to just put your head down, reach, and pull.
What does an outline look like? Here is my outlined first chapter for THE BEAUTIFUL AND THE CURSED:
Early December, 1899
INGRID POV: Ingrid Waverly, her younger sister, Gabby, and mother Charlotte de Bruce-Waverly arrive at their new home in Paris, an ancient abbey and parsonage that has lain abandoned for decades. Ingrid is relieved—the more distance she puts between herself and London, the better. She made a ruin of her reputation there after the young man she was in love with announced his surprise engagement to Ingrid’s best friend. Ingrid doesn’t want to think about the spectacle she’d caused afterwards. It’s too humiliating. The ruined abbey, which will be her mother’s future art gallery, provides distraction enough.
The crumbling buttresses and bell towers are covered with at least a dozen stone gargoyles. The winged, dog-headed creatures with their wide mouths and long curved tongues disturb Ingrid. Why would a church have such ugly little creatures upon it?
They reach the adjacent parsonage, across a small churchyard, and discover that Ingrid’s twin brother, Grayson—who has been living at the parsonage for a few months—is missing. He had gone to a dinner, Monsieur Perreault, Grayson’s real estate man, tells them. The guests had noticed him missing and thought he’d left unexpectedly. However, Grayson’s carriage had never been called for. Charlotte isn’t satisfied. Why haven’t the police been called?
“I’m afraid you arrive at a very troubling time for Parisians,” Perreault answers. There has been a rash of unsolved disappearances as well as brutal, Ripperesque murders unfolding in Paris over the last few months. The police are inundated. Perreault advises the Waverly’s to stay indoors at night before introducing them to their staff.
Immediately, Luc, a handsome livery boy, transfixes Ingrid with his pale lime-gold eyes—though his stare is one of loathing. No one has ever looked at her with such pure, unmasked contempt. What could she have possibly done to deserve such a barbed glare? So far, Paris is a nightmare. It gets worse when she looks out a window and thinks she sees one of the horrid gargoyles on the abbey ramparts moving. But that couldn’t be possible … could it?
Not all chapters in the outline are this extensive, but it gets plot, character development, conflict, setting, and more across. When I sat down to write the real, fleshed-out story, the bones of each chapter were waiting for me.
The key is to always be moving forward. Type words. Dig your way through to the end of the draft. And then, when you’re done, think about something author Shannon Hale said:
“I’m writing a first draft and reminding myself that I’m simply shoveling sand into a box so that later I can build castles.” ~ Shannon Hale
Now, if that shiny idea is still talking to you with its sultry voice, give it a few minutes of your time. Write down the basics of the idea. Save it in a file and promise it you’ll return. But right now, you’re in a monogamous relationship with this other project!
Interested in outlining? K.M. Weiland has a book on outlining that you might want to check out. Or you can read author Chuck Wendig’s rather entertaining and informative post on how to outline on his website, terribleminds.
That’s it for now. Write (and outline) on!