Should You Outline Your Novel?

“I want to write a book, but I don’t know where to start.” I hear this and read this from aspiring writers a lot. They have great ideas but are overwhelmed. So when it comes to writing a book, should you just sit down and start typing or writing? Organize your ideas first? But how do you organize them? What if you don’t have enough ideas? What if you have too many? Where do you even start tackling this project?

Here’s what you’ll learn in this solo episode:

  • why I think planning and outlining is important,
  • what you should include in your plan, and
  • why creating a plan will NOT, in fact stifle, your creativity.

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“I want to write a book, but I don’t know where to start.” I hear this and read this from aspiring writers a lot. They have great ideas but are overwhelmed. So when it comes to writing a book, should you just sit down and start typing or writing? Organize your ideas first? But how do you organize them? What if you don’t have enough ideas? What if you have too many? Where do you even start tackling this project?
I’m going to be addressing these questions and more in this episode.

I want you to think about an artist like Michaelangelo. He didn’t just start hammering at the massive block of marble to get David. He sketched, studied models, made wax samples, practiced, and planned his masterpiece. Then, he got out his hammer and tackled that giant block of marble.
Did planning David limit his creativity? I think not. It gave him a starting spot to create the most famous sculpture of all time. It’s stunning. I also espouse the idea of planning out our books, and that’s what I’m going to talk about today.

But first, I want to share that next week, Oct. 11 2021 I’ll be teaching a series of classes during Plan Your Book Week. If you’d like to join or if you’re listening to this after it’s run, you can either sign up or get on the waitlist for the next session at amyisaman.com/plan This is definitely something that I plan on doing again because not know where to start or how to start is honestly the number one reason people share for not sitting down and writing their books. Well, that and time, but that’s another episode.

Okay, back to the question of should you outline or plan your book. My answer to that question is Yes. I’m going to share why I think it’s important, what you should include in your plan, and why creating a plan will NOT in fact stifle your creativity.

If you don’t consider yourself a planner, if you LOVE to sit down to write with NO idea where your story is going and you’re totally good with that AND your stories work, they hold together when you hit the end, you probably don’t need to listen to this episode.

However, if you’re writing a longer piece, like a novel, you should plan WAY more than you think.
Plan. Plan some more. And then go back and revisit your plan before you start writing.
Why should you have a plan for your art?

For those of you who feel like this will limit your creativity, it won’t. You can still freewrite and brainstorm to get ideas, but the plan or outline for your novel will give your creativity a framework within which it can flourish. Think bakc to Michaelangelo.

I’ve completed four and half novels, and only published three at this point.

I wrote the first, a historical novel, with an idea and minimal plot notes. I did quite a bit of character development work and plotted the main points, but other than that, I just wrote.

My story and characters took me in some surprising directions, but during the revision process, I ended up cutting over 45,000 words and adding another 20,000 words.

While the overall backbone of the story worked, entire sub-plots and plot layers didn’t work and needed major changes. This was frustrating.
For my second novel, I decided to try and avoid having to cut and rewrite so much of the story, so I plotted every single scene before I wrote.
While some scenes changed during the writing process, I tried to stick to my “plot plan.” I wrote the story much more quickly, but overall, adhering so strictly to my original plan didn’t work. The backbone of the story fell apart. Too much was going on and the main storyline somehow got lost as I focused so intently on each scene.

My third novel is the unpublished one. I wrote that during Nanorimo and did not outline it at all - I tried the discovery writing method. And guess what? I got stuck. I wrote myself directly into a wall. I did end up finishing it but I still don’t love it. If I want to publish it, I need to back up about a hundred feet (or 40,000 words) and get a running start to get over/around/or through this wall.

I think most of us who write have had this dilemma. We have a great idea, start writing, and then suddenly we run out of steam and ideas and either quit or we push through and end up with a mess that needs massive revision.

The solution? Plan your book, familiarize yourself with how stories are put together.

Then, BEFORE you write even that first word, create an outline of your novel.

An outline or a plan allows for a few things:
You have a guide for your writing sessions so when you sit down to write you know what you want to say which is super important in keeping going, especially if you’re NOT a discovery writer

You can see major plot holes or missing pieces in the overall picture and fill those in

It cuts back on the amount of revision you’ll need to do after you finish. Certainly it won’t remove the revision step, but it will help with not having to cut tens of thousands of words and only to have to write tens of thousands of new words

It saves time in that you can play with ideas in lists and snippets rather than in scenes of thousands of words to get a sense if they’ll work in your overall story structure

It creates a backbone for your story, a solid narrative arc that you can use as a compass as you write. Even if new ideas come up, your plan will help you decide if those ideas are worth following in this story or if they go in your idea file for another story

What should be in a novel outline?

Believe it or not, there is a form for writing a great story and virtually every successful story (that people actually read and enjoy) follows this form. In some ways, it is a formula, but don’t let that scare you or limit you in any way.

It’s actually somewhat freeing. It gives you a road map, a guide to keep your story on track. It’s your sketch. The other reason to familiarize yourself with story structure is because readers like it. It’s what they expect.

So, what is this form I’m talking about?

It is NOT a traditional outline with Roman Numerals that you might have had to make for a research paper assignment in English.
It includes:

Your genre and the conventions of that genre - what must you have in your book according to the genre you’ve chosen?

The theme or point of your story - what’s the big idea you’re tackling here

your main characters, their goals and the internal transformation they’ll make through your story - if you’re writing a novel, this is your characters. Memoir - the goal and transformation is about you. In non-fiction or self-help, it’s about your reader.

For a novel, you also need your setting or world - where is your story taking place
Next, you need the necessary plot points that good stories have: At the most basic, this is a beginning a middle and an end

hook, inciting incident, plot points that include major events that move your character through their character arc and internal transformation, increased tension, a climactic moment, and a resolution.
Major moments noted and how they’ll impact your character

This is the part that most people think of when they think of an outline - the plot points but all of the plot points must also relate to your character’s narrative arc and growth which is the foundation of the plot

You might feel like having all of this information down before you start writing might limit your creativity – it won’t. Trust me.

Creating your outline is a truly creative process. It’s one of the really fun parts of the process. I always have a blast coming up with ideas and then figuring out where they fit into the overall structure of my story.

As characters reveal themselves to me, I get a better idea of how other characters will change and grow which gives me more ideas for situations and scenes. Right now, it’s all in the brainstorming, get every single idea down on paper (or screen), but it’s highly creative.

This is the stage where yu also look at your ideas. Do they fit what you’ve come up with? If so, plug them in. If not, save them for another project. If you need more, start brainstorming and dreaming - that’s the fun part of this process.

What if you want to change your plan as you write?

Then change it. It’s a plan. Unless you hiked to the top of a mountain and God handed you stone tablets with your outline carved on them, feel free to change. This is your art. But look at your overall plan and see how much your detours will impact the rest of your book.

Note your ideas and maybe follow that thread to see where it takes you. You might find you love it. You might find you hate it. The key is to be flexible and allow yourself to explore your story. You’ll find more out about your characters and their world, so don’t be afraid to play. But also remember that you created your plan and your plan worked before you started writing.

Okay, are you ready to plan your book? If you’d like to share your thoughts, head on over to amyisaman.com/podcast. This is episode 76, and leave a comment on the show notes. Let me know what you think when it comes to outlining and planning your novels.

You can also sign up for Plan Your Book Week, either the live event or the waitlist, depending on when you’re listening to this.

Thank you so, so much for listening in. I appreciate you. Hit that subscribe button if you haven't already. And I’d be ever so grateful if you would give the podcast a rating and review so others can find it.

Have a super great day. Keep writing. Keep imagining, Keep creating, and as always, have fun. See you in the next episode. Bye bye.

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