Guest Post: Outlining a Novel is Like Planning a Cross-Country Road Trip

Since my friend Erin is a little preoccupied with writing for NaNoWriMo right now, and since my own blog ( is aimed more at readers of Inspirational Fiction than at writers, and since I’ve had this idea for an article burning a hole in my brain (no, not literally) for a while now, I thought this would be a great opportunity for a guest post here.  Boy that was a long sentence.  Let’s catch our collective breaths a moment, and I’ll try not to do that to you again.

While I’m no expert on outlining a novel, I have done it and found that it helped me immensely with the writing, so this post is meant to share my perspective on outlining.  I’m not aiming to convert any die-hard pantsers out there.  Only to share why I think outlining has benefited my own writing, and if this post helps someone out there who may be struggling, awesome.  I’d love to hear from you.  If not, at least I’ve had a chance to douse that metaphorical fire in my brain.

Outlining a Novel is Like Planning a Cross-Country Road Trip.

Yes, there are people who get in the car, gas up and go, with little more plan than a compass direction.  Much as I admire your free spirit and envy your lack of time constraints, that approach would never work for me.  Here’s why.

I want to know my end goal.  What city am I going to wind up in when I arrive?  I want to know at least a few of the main attractions I’ll be hitting along the way, so I don’t drive right past someplace I’ve always wanted to visit without recognizing the turn off when I get there, and wind up having to lose time retracing my steps.  I want to know the main highways I’ll be taking that will get me from Point A to Point B, so I can be sure I’m on track to hit my intended destination eventually, and not just wandering in circles.  Much as I like driving, adding extra hours at the wheel without any extra payoff in terms of sights seen or places visited is not on my agenda for a long road trip.  I know my back will be aching badly enough by the time I get there without putting in all those unnecessary hours along the way.  In short, I’d rather spend a little extra time up front thinking about where I’m going from the comfort of my own home than put in those extra hours lost on the side of the road.

So I’ll map out my route on Google Maps or Mapquest or even on a paper atlas or collection of road maps, and I’ll print my route out or write it all down.  I find that getting it down on paper is important for me, because it frees up my brain from having to remember those big details.  Instead, I can refer to my written plan only when needed.  That helps me turn my attention to the smaller details, and focus on where I am at any stage of the trip, more fully enjoying the sights, the sounds, and the crazy characters I meet along the way.
Once my plan is in place, I know that if I see a billboard along my route advertising an attraction that I’d love to see, I can consider it in the context of my written plan.  I’ll check my map to see whether a given detour would take me so far out of my way that it might not be worth stopping, or whether it represents an equally effective yet more interesting route to my next intended plot point, er, attraction.  Then I can decide whether to adjust my route accordingly.

To those who say “Outlining squelches creativity,” I would say, “Not if you’re doing it right.”  My route is not written in stone.  It’s written on paper, and for crying out loud, I do have a GPS in my car to fall back on if my original route turns out to have too many construction road blocks along the way or is otherwise not all that I’d hoped it would be.  At several points during the writing of my current novel, I stopped to reevaluate and rewrite my outline, when I discovered that the detours I wanted to take just didn’t match up with the original route any more.  And there’s nothing wrong with that.  The important point is, I stopped for further planning when I needed to instead of trying to adjust on the fly, or worse, continuing on a route that just wasn’t working.

So how do I outline?  Sequential bullet points in a word processing document, with as little or as much detail at each bullet point as I want, and as many or as few bullet points as I think I need to get where I’m going.  Outlining can be as simple as that.  The outline exists to serve my needs, not the other way around.  Yes, there are lots of theories on the best way to outline, and exactly what your outline should include.  You can get as crafty as you want with index cards, bulletin boards, software based storyboards, snowflakes, etc.  And if it’s working for you, great.  Go with it.  Personally, I don’t feel like I need or have the time for all the bells and whistles, so I put some ideas on paper, pack my bags, and head out on the road.  And yes, I’m very much enjoying my journey, and rapidly approaching my destination.  And hopefully, by planning ahead I’ve saved myself some headaches and cramped muscles along the way.

Wishing all you writers out there a happy road trip, whether it’s carefully plotted or by the seat of your pants.  I’d love to hear about other writers’ travels.  To what extent do you (or do you not) outline, and why?  Is it working for you?  Please comment below.


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NaNo, Seconds to Success

NaNoWriMo offers something to writers that I equate to steroids for athletes. An edge. Let’s make that an Edge.

The Edge is that you have to write everyday at 1667 minimum words to “win.” Oh, yes. Winning. Seems that arbitrary little deadline has quite the effect. I know it’s self-imposed, but, with the whole world “competing” against/with you to win, there’s a goal, a desire, a need to WIN. It also forces you to tell the story in one rush of writing. I think that makes us more connected to the raw material swimming in our heads. Thus, the Edge. You are close to your work for 30 glorious days of unfettered crafting and creating. It hurts, it stuns, it works. At least, for me it does.

I’m a very competitive person. I want to win. It pumps along my veins, hissing victory to my mind, filling my fingers with faith. Yes, elusive faith. I can do it. I believe. And really, that’s all there ever is.

Wishing you a happy Nano from the Edge. 🙂

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Does Writing Make My Butt Look Big?

Simple answer, yes. Because I’m spending a lot of time on it. After hours and hours of labor invested in studying craft, researching mythologies, and writing here and there, I came to the conclusion that this career is making me fat. And not just physically. I feel like I’m lugging around a freshmen ten in my brain.

This shouldn’t surprise me. I’ve certainly been feeding it too much lately. With all my focus on filling in any gaps I might have as a writer, I failed to consider that maybe, just maybe, I could be, um, biting off more than I ought to chew. Granted, I need to study and research. And write. Butt, yes, my metaphorical brain butt is squishing out of proportion. It needs more rest. My body needs more exercise. And my dog looks at me like I’ve taken away his favorite squeaky.

So, today I’m out in the cold, wiping at my nose with my coat sleeve and letting my dog drag me wherever his nose takes us. I hope this helps my brain butt, but really I hope it will help my sagging middle. Of my novel, that is.

Here’s to taking a break. Salud.

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How to Become a Better Writer, Part I

To become a better writer. That’s what we all want. To paint worlds with the sweeping and deliberate brushstrokes of our pens, to render real people that will live on in audiences’ imaginations, to tell the truth but tell it slant. We aspire to lie and lie and be a writer, because we can tell the biggest lies to get to the greatest truths. And getting to tell our truth is our goal.

To this end, we are constantly seeking to improve. Why? Because we live through our work. We are judged by its success or failure, by the content of its pages, by the words and worlds we have built. Published or unpublished, whether from a critique partner, your mom, or the critic from the Times, the fear of what others will say has the power to stagnate you, put you in a crippling stasis and still your pen (and steal your joy).

You cannot allow this. No matter what someone says, no matter how much your dentist knows about writing, you cannot give anyone the power to control your self worth or crush your dream. So what if someone rips your work? Swallow the bile and take a moment or a week and evaluate. If what s/he said was true (and if many people are telling you the same thing, hearken), analyze what went wrong and then you’ll be less likely to make the same mistake again. If it’s just one voice that’s discordant, do the same, but take the comments with that proverbial grain of salt. He may be right. He may be wrong. Decide for yourself. If there’s any chance the motivation might be anything but helping you become a better writer, find a new person to read/critique for you. You need people who will give you hurtful feedback when necessary, but you don’t need destroyers who delight in inflicting pain. You need constructive people. Cultivate them.

Cultivating is hard. It may take some time to build a foundation, but it’s worth it. Good readers are invaluable. They can be your first line of defense against rejection, but they can’t always teach you what you need to know to improve. That lies with you. Craft study can mean the difference between publication and obscurity. Many good books and classes are out there to help tip the scales in your publishing favor. And we all know that practice makes perfect sense. The more you write, the better you understand your chosen medium, the better you can craft a story, the better to hear you with, my dear. And hearing is what it’s all about.

Your voice could be out there. In print. In perpetuity. Let it resonate. Let it ring. Let it rouse up the audience to a frenzy. Make your words count. Craft books and classes can’t teach you everything. They can get you closer, but much of what you need rests on your own shoulders. Get up from in front of the television and put pen to paper or fingers to keys. You must be active in your own destiny. Like I said last time, if you’re not the hero of your own life, something’s wrong. Go, be your own hero. Just lose the spandex.

Helpful resources:

Other writers. Make friends.

Amazon. Search amazon for the best books on craft. Some wonderful books are available. Look to K. M. Weiland, Robert McKee, James Scott Bell, Christopher Vogler, and others.

Web. Visit some of these places.

*I’ve never taken a class, but the following look promising:

What has helped you the most in your writer’s journey? Books, sites, people? We’d love to hear your take.

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