Tag Archives: novel outline

The Story Idea

This is the second post in the My Novel Writing Process series. To read the first post go here.

Often I would sit down knowing I wanted to write but not knowing what I wanted to write about. Now I know that the process of novel-writing begins before you turn up to your desk: it begins with the idea. The spark, the situation, or the character that intrigues you, the thing that makes you want to follow the path to see where your characters end up.

I know when I have it by the feeling inside me: my heart will skip a beat, I will feel that creative energy burning in my mind, the butterflies start up in my stomach. An idea must excite you. You will need that energy to burn bright to fuel the long process of drafting and then re-writing a novel. And then you have to take time to develop the idea, tease it out, follow the threads. You keep asking yourself “What will happen next?” because that is what you want the reader to do: to keep turning pages to find out what happens next.

You do this by brainstorming. This concept was popular in class when I was a kid, and the word always made me think of the image of a brain on fire with ideas. All it means is that you keep the story idea alive and cooking by turning your mind to it every now and again. Feed it with conscious thought and your unconscious will go to work. I brainstorm best in the shower and when I’m driving. It’s amazing the way your unconscious will continue to collate ideas and grow the story even when you aren’t aware of it. You will begin to have those a-ha moments when a tangled plotline finally unloops itself. The story will begin to have a life of its own.

The Big Overview

Free-writing is the best way to tap into this unconscious process. After brainstorming, free-write about the story idea. Begin with “The book tells the story of…” Write as if you are a spectator in the present tense ie: he does, she says. This can be as long or as short as you want it to be. Just follow it until you run out of story. List any scene ideas as they come to you, some plot points or turning points, and how you envision the ending. During this process, you may begin to hear the character’s voices and what they say. Include this dialogue.

Expanding the Story Idea

Once you have your big overview of events, grab a fresh sheet of paper or a new file on your computer and plonk yourself right in the middle of the action. Live out the story step-by-step. Try to keep this brief, about 3-5 pages. We are not writing a detailed outline (we’re pantser-plotters, remember?) and we are not going to include every scene. Just write what you see happening, the scenes that may unfold. Sketch it out a little by writing about where we are and which character’s head we are in. You can skip around and brush over unclear parts, but the idea is to get down the main beats or pivotal points of action that keep the story moving.

Start asking yourself about the relationship between the characters and observe their interaction and conflict. Again, include dialogue if it comes to you. If it’s relevant to the story, you can also go back in time to detail past events that may be impacting on, or leading up to, the main events. This is helpful if you have flashbacks or past life threads.

Now read over all your notes and tease out plot threads, then list them in dot points. Write down what you see as being the main plot and sub-plots. For example: the main plot may be about a woman’s search for her missing sister, who she hasn’t seen since childhood. A sub-plot may be the woman’s deteriorating marriage which has compelled her to seek out her sister again. Then you may have a series of flashbacks about the events that happened twenty years ago surrounding the sister’s disappearance.

In the next post, we will begin to flesh out our characters.

My Novel Writing Process: Overview

With the first book of the Cloud Sisters well on the way to completion, I thought I would look back at the process which has brought me here.

Firstly, I’ve always wanted to be a plotter. Being a Virgo, I like to be organised and plan ahead. I don’t do well with spur-of-the-moment things, and yet this hasn’t translated to my writing. I find if I plan too much, it kills my creativity. And yet, that well-ordered outline speaks to my perfectionistic heart. I like the idea of having the steps all laid out, just waiting to be fleshed out with description and dialogue.

The answer, I have found, lies somewhere in between. I’m a hybrid, a pantser-plotter. I outline but only the big picture, the main beats. I leave room for the characters to speak through me, to tell me where the story will go next. Without that freedom, it all feels false and forced.

I once wrote a detailed outline for a novel using the book First Draft in 30 Days. I became obsessed with details. Nothing was left to chance – each character was analysed and each of their actions was carefully thought out. There were no surprises. And so imagine my surprise when I sat down to actually write the book based on the outline and I couldn’t even put down one word. Not. One. Word. It was as if with my obsessive focus on the outline, I’d forgotten how to write. I was no longer a writer, I was an outliner. But unlike what was promised in First Draft in 30 Days, the process did not leave me with a first draft, but rather a very well-researched guide on how to write the book. It’s easier just to write the damn book!

Over the years, I have established my own process. Before I started working on Enchanting Elodie, I wrote this process down step-by-step to make it concrete in my mind and also to ensure I remembered how to do it next time! I share it here in this five-part series in hopes that it might help any fellow pantser-plotters who tend to think they should be firmly in either camp.

Overview of My Process

Step One: The Story Idea 

A story begins with the spark of an idea, a setting, or a character. After that point, it’s just a matter of asking “What will happen next?” and following the story through to its completion. It’s always good to have a vague idea of how the story will end, even if this changes during the course of writing it.

So I find it helpful to begin with free-writing a broad overview ie: what the book will be about. Then as the story develops in your mind, expand on the plot points scene-by-scene (although not every scene will be there yet, just the main beats).

After that, we turn to the characters. Don’t worry pantsers, I don’t advocate completing a detailed analysis for each character (I find it so tedious, although others might enjoy it so do it if you love it!). Once again, it’s all about the free-writing using a Character Prompt Sheet as a guide.

By now, you should be getting an idea of the setting or places that appear in your novel. It’s important to place the reader into the story by painting a picture that they can visualise in their minds. Spend some time creating this world. Once this is done, it’s time to turn back to the plot and conduct any research that would help flesh out the story. It also helps to plug your plot points into a Plot Paradigm to see if the story fits. I will go into further detail about this in another post.

Step Two: First Draft

This would have to be my favourite part of the process and the most creative – letting your muse take over and your imagination carry you wherever it will! The best advice I ever read, and something that freed me from my unceasing internal censor, is to let yourself write a Shitty First Draft. This concept first sunk in when I read Bird By Bird by Anne Lamott and I will cover it in more depth in in this series.

Also – word count! Setting a word count goal for each session will help you get the story down as quick as you can while the idea is still fresh and you still feel that spark that started you writing.

Step Three: Rewriting (Second Draft)

And now we get down to the nitty gritty. You’ve finished your first draft – hooray! What a massive achievement! I bet you can’t wait to read it – but, wait. Let it rest for a while. A few days, a week, however long you can bear. And then print out a hard copy and get ready to pull your baby apart.

I always thought I would truly dislike rewriting (which is why I so longed to be a plotter and have all the kinks worked out beforehand), but I have found when I pushed myself through it that it’s a very rewarding process.

See this post for more details on the wonders of rewriting!

In my pantser-plotting style, I find it too difficult to work out a timeline for events before I’ve actually created the events. Working backwards and creating a timeline after the first draft helped me to see if scenes were in the wrong order or would work better at some place else in the story. More on this in the series.

Step Four: Editing (Third Draft)

My final posts in the series detail the final step in my process – the last chance to make your manuscript shine! This is where you finally get to pull out that red biro in your mind and edit your novel with a fine-tooth comb. 

If you really want to go in-depth, you need to look over each scene individually, checking that it serves a purpose by propelling the story forward and that it has a beginning, middle and end. The characters also get another going over by taking a hard look at their GMC’s (Goal, Motivation, Conflict). Basically, you are making sure that everything makes sense and is as correct as it should be.

The last stage focuses on grammar and punctuation, dialogue, description and sentence structure. All the things that would make your high school English teacher proud! Read your finished product, re-read and continue making changes until you are completely satisfied (or cross-eyed).

Your story may now only loosely resemble that first expanded overview, but that’s ok.

You’ve written a book!!

** Note: I found Elizabeth George’s book Write Away invaluable in formulating my own process.