Thank you, thank you, everyone, who came downtown, and parked, and made your way to the third floor of the Main Library, to the very, very back, down a hallway to the huge and beautiful light-filled room where we held our Writer-in-Residence workshop on Drafting the Manuscript. Talking with all of you was the best part of my week. I’m already looking forward to being with you again in September.
In the meantime, I’ll repeat my routine from June and will put chunks of the presentation here on this blog for the next three posts. I hope you’ll find the material useful, if you couldn’t come to the workshop. And always, please, reach out to me with questions: firstname.lastname@example.org. I’m here.
June 23 WIR Workshop: This Won’t Hurt a Bit
The concept is the first step toward the manuscript. A concept is very simply, the idea of the story distilled down to – let’s say one paragraph. It describes what this book is about: this is the story of a man’s relationship with a service dog and how each helps to heal each other. This is the story of one night in the lives of five teenagers. Then say what’s going to happen, in the most basic sense, and they read like the back of a book blurb.
But who are you writing this concept for? Unless your book has been sold, the answer is: yourself. This concept is the core of your book, and will remind you what you are writing about. You’ll need to know your concept before you start your book, if you want to finish it. It’s easy to start a book without a concept. It’s hard to finish it.
To Outline or Not to Outline?
You’ve got your concept. It’s the core of your book. From here, we just start expanding – we expand the concept into an outline, and the outline into a manuscript. So, let’s talk about the outline.
An outline is your friend, your guide and your map.
I think that outlines feel intimidating to some writers – we’re having terrible visions of incomprehensible list-like things with Roman numerals, and letters here and numbers here, all in a very specific order, that we probably had to do in “Library” in middle school – at least, that’s what I had to do.
But a story outline is different—at least the story outlines I use. There are entire books devoted to book maps and outlines, but the outlines I use are simple.
And I love them.
Now, let’s pause for a moment and discuss not outlining. We are creative people, right? And some writers do feel, totally legitimately, that outlining a story stifles their creativity. What if they want the story to go in a different direction than their outline takes them? What if a previously minor character starts seeming much more major and needs more room in the story?
Guess what: That’s fine.
An outline can be just a suggestion
Think of the outline as a security blanket. It’s there, you’ve got it, you know that if you follow it, you’ll have a really excellent and complete manuscript when you’re done. But guys, you made the outline. If it’s starting to feel stifling for you as you write, tear it up. Write a new outline. Write fifty. But here’s the recommendation from me: have an outline you’re working off of.
An outline is your story, in miniature
So what should your outline look like and what information should it contain? There are so many ways to outline and none of them are wrong.
The Chapter Outline
The chapter outline is nothing to get worked up over. It’s where you’re going to hammer out your plot, and your character’s motivations. The motivations will help you decide what plot actions will take place. Make a rough decision on about how many chapters you want to have. I can’t emphasize enough that this is rough. You can change it at any time, and you should. But let’s start from somewhere.
Make yourself a nice plain list that says: Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3. Then write a paragraph about what you envision happening in each chapter. Include all the characters, and the basic points of action. And remember that when you write a good chapter, your protagonist should have moved forward from the beginning of the chapter to the end. So when the reader finishes that chapter, the character should be in a different place – physically or emotionally—than when he or she started. This is just for you, so say anything you want. Write little notes to yourself. Make the paragraphs as long or as short as you want, but when you’re done, a stranger could read the outline and understand your book pretty darn well.
The Acts Outline
The other type of outline is an acts outline. This is for people who get nervous with too many parameters. An acts outline is the same as a chapter outline, except that instead of the story broken down by chapters, it’s divided by Act 1, Act 2, Act 3 – chunked up into three bunches. I often start by chunking my plot into actions, and then divide it into chapters once I’ve got it clearer in my mind. When you’re writing from an acts outline, you’ll know that by the time you reach what you think is the end of the first third of your book, you better be at the end of the Act 1 action on your outline.
This will keep you on track, hold you accountable and give you a great chance of finishing your manuscript.