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How I Stopped Resisting and Learned to Love the Outline

No more duct-tape. Here's how to really get your story on the page.

 

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How I stopped resisting and learned to love the outline 

By Elise Loyacano Perl

On September 20, 2017, monster Hurricane María slammed into Puerto Rico, knocking out electricity and communications and putting me out of work.

I did not know I would be unemployed for three months. I did not know that my lights would be off for fifty-seven days. I did not know when the Internet would return.

There were lots of things my husband and I couldn’t do. We couldn’t get fuel or groceries without standing in line for hours. We couldn’t wash clothes except by hand. For the first week and a half, we couldn’t even contact family.

So really, it was the perfect time to write a novel.

 

 

Like many, I’d wanted to write a fiction book for ages.

I had an unfinished novel that I started sixteen years ago. (Technically, I “finished” it once, but it was no more than a collection of skits held together by duct tape. And in case you’re wondering, duct tape is terrible at holding stories together.) I’d restarted that novel a bunch of times, but never again did I “finish” it.

I had managed to get a tiny non-fiction study tips book out in 2014, but I had no clue how to market an independent book. It traded places for last spot in the rankings.

And then, I didn’t write any more books. To be honest, money was tight, and I was looking for a full-time job.

(Only we all know that’s an excuse, because, seriously, all I had was a part-time job, and I couldn’t find time to write another book?)

One day, I attended a webinar on self-publishing. It lit a fire under me to write a follow-up to my study guide. I eventually learned about Your First 10,000 Readers and signed up to learn how to relaunch book one and write a sequel.

But since I had that novel niggling at me, I skipped ahead to Joe Nassise’s interview with Nick Stephenson on planning and structuring a novel

Yes, technically, I was procrastinating. But I am so glad I did, because I got clued into why I had struggled to finish my novel. I had never planned the dang thing.

 

 

Some of you might be thinking that isn’t much of a revelation…

…but to me, Nassise’s video was an eye-opener. I’d heard of outlining novels, of course. But outlines to me were those rigid list-thingies that started with a Roman numeral I, continued with a capital A, and so on and so forth till nausea set in. I could never use one of those to write a book.

Nassise’s system didn’t involve that kind of outline. Instead, he talked about determining the pivotal points common to engaging novels and doing an “info-dump” of scenes on index cards. Then he would order and reorder scenes as needed.

[Note from Nick: for our full video series on Joe’s “Story Engines” process, just register up here]

As I watched the video, I started to get excited about my duct-taped mess of a novel. I took no notes, though. After all, I was in this course to deal with marketing my non-fiction book. I would watch the video again later.

Then the hurricanes hit: First, Hurricane Irma and two weeks later, Hurricane María. The whole plan to relaunch my book had to go on the back burner because there was no Internet.

As I whiled away my time in unemployment, I did a lot of reading. Mostly, I picked books that put my situation in perspective, such as Jurassic Park. (It’s so stinking hot, but at least a T-Rex isn’t gnawing through my leg!)

Jurassic Park swished around in my head, and one day, I said to my husband, “Wouldn’t it be funny if there were a book like Jurassic Park, but instead of dinosaurs, there were unicorns?”

I thought that was hilarious. So I set out to write the book myself.

 

 

At this stage…

…you’re no doubt penciling in a natural disaster on your calendar so you’re blissfully unemployed for enough time to finish your book. Or maybe, since your grasp of reality is better than mine, you aren’t.

Because free time itself isn’t enough to get a book written. After all, I had loads of free time between my two books but didn’t finish another one. What changed this time around?

I stopped using the excuse that an outline would crush my creativity and gave it a try, that’s what.

Since I hadn’t actually taken any notes from Nassise’s video, I couldn’t remember all the specifics of his process. But I had heard of Libbie Hawker’s outlining book called Take Off Your Pants. I had downloaded it sometime between Internet outages.

Five days after María hit, I recharged my e-reader in the car and read through Hawker’s book in a few hours. The next day, it was time to write my own outline. My husband had his sound business to attend to. (We had bought a light-use generator after Irma so my husband could work through power outages. His name is Bruce, by the way. The generator, that is, not my husband.)

Meanwhile, I sat outside his voice booth, tapping away at my little Chromebook (nine-hour battery life for the win!), and by the time we had to turn Bruce off six hours later, I had my initial outline for my unicorn novel. There was no duct tape in sight.

What a difference a plan makes.

 

 

Instead of staring at the walls…

…wondering what my characters would do next, I already knew what would happen. I just had to build a word bridge between the beginning and end. By knowing about the character, I could determine whether he would likely react one way or another.   

Having a plan made writing more fun too. When my computer battery would run out and I had to close shop for the day, I knew my next step. I knew because my outline (sans Roman numerals) told me. I looked forward to writing because I wasn’t lost. I had (gasp!) a goal.

It doesn’t mean I never got off track, of course. But the outline provided a GPS.

Instead putting off writing till tomorrow (and tomorrow and then another tomorrow), when I would magically figure out what was wrong, I could pinpoint the problem right then and fix it.

Having a plan also doesn’t mean that every single word I wrote was brilliant. At times I was flinging poo on the page. But I could compare the novel to my model and fix it instead of giving up and letting my book rot on my hard drive like I had done oh, so many times before.

[Note from Nick: for our ultimate guide to writing a novel in 30 days, check out the article here]

Another great thing about outlines is that they can be super specific or super loose, depending on preferences. Here are a couple of examples.

Super-loose, as recommended by Norm Stahl (recounted in The Story Grid by Shawn Coyne.)

  • Choose the inciting incident
  • Write out climax
  • Fill in the middle

For those of us who benefit from more planning, Libbie Hawker suggests outlining like so:

  • Choose main character and flaw
  • Is flaw overcome at the end? Does the character get what he wants?
  • What does the character want?
  • Who are the antagonist and ally?
  • What is the theme?
  • Then fill in plot points, such as inciting incidents, obstacles, and the rest, and tackle pacing.
  • You can determine each scene or not, depending on how specific you like your outline

Even if you love flying by the seat of your pants, outlines provide the wiggle room to let you do that. You choose.

 

 

The whole adventure reminded me of something else.

Taking action is great. Use the right word choice, and you can even make the “take action” spiel sound inspiring. But all those years I beat myself up for not completing a novel, and the real problem was that I rejected planning because it involved an outline. Perhaps it’s easier to tag inaction as a character flaw. But having the right tools can turn even the biggest procrastinator into a doer.

What were the concrete results of this practice run with outlining? Five weeks after starting my outline, I headed to a coffee shop with generator power, plugged in my computer, and typed in the final lines to my novel.

And still, there was no duct tape to be seen.

It wasn’t perfect, of course. I still had a lot of editing to do. But the novel had a beginning, a middle, and an end. This practice run turned out to be solid enough to put it up for sale. On January 25, I officially launched The Veterinarian’s Field Guide to Rabid Unicorns.

If you, like me, have had trouble finishing your book, it’s worth playing around with planning. If you’ve already used outlines and didn’t like them, try a different sort. As author Scott King points out, not everything works for everyone.

Do some research and experiment with plans that work for you.  And like me, maybe you can quit resisting and learn to love the outline.

 

Elise Loyacano Perl holds a Master’s in French literature from Bryn Mawr College but has never made any money in a career related to her studies. She lives in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico but still says she lives in San Juan because she doesn’t deal well with change. She is clumsy and drops her phone a lot… find out more about Elise right here.

 

And if you’d like to learn our seven-step process for writing blockbuster novels in as little as 30 days, check out our free “Story Engines” video training series here.

In the meantime, we’d like to hear from you! How do you get your word-count for the day? Do you use a plan or do you write by the seat of your pants? What do you think you could improve? Leave a comment!

 

8 Comments
  1. Robert Chris says:

    The guideline thing is a great way to start. Finding something that defines your step so that when you are lost you can always retrace your step.

    However, on a personal note I have a deferent idea on how I write my fictions without trouble. First, I create a movies in my head from the story. I watch this movie every night in my head, knowing where and how it started and how it ended. In the process of playing this movie I am able to identify all the sceneries and my characters and the theme. No doubt, I love series movies and I watch a lot of it. Most times I read less and watch more, helps try to understand the writer and help me put my characters in my book in check. I can writer a longer story today since I now understand how film writers are able to elongate sceneries and keeping the thrill (suspense) very much alive.
    The idea may not make sense, but I drafted my second book from it and my publist says it’s good.
    My first book will be put sometime in August and hopefully my second won’t take long.

    Thanks.

    1. Elise Loyacano Perl says:

      Interesting!

  2. Gabriela says:

    Hmmm, almost made me think to write a novel. 🙂 Loved the article, merci de partager Élise! 🙂
    Question: does this ‘outline’ idea works for memoirs too?
    Nick?

    1. Elise Loyacano Perl says:

      Thank you, Gabriela. I have read that outlines work well for memoirs too. 🙂

  3. Gayle Mullen Pace says:

    Hi, Elise. You and your family went through a tough time. I’m glad you made it and found a way to jump start your duct taped book. It’s amazing what wonderfully good things can come out of not so good things. I had a hard time finishing my first book. It was bad. I shelved it for 10 years. I was a panster–lots of writers are. I knew how the story started and how it ended. Everything else was up for grabs. It wasn’t fun wandering around in that overgrown wilderness. I needed something else, and I found it. Your First 10k Readers and story engines. It changed how I write (thank you, Nick!). My outlines now hit the major plot points and some of the critical in between scenes. I write every day and have a minimum word count I shoot for. I’m a much happier writer.

    1. Elise Loyacano Perl says:

      Isn’t it nice, Gayle? The part about being happier is one of the best perks.

  4. Hida says:

    Thank you for this! Same with you, I don’t like planning or outline. I tend to do almost everything spontaneously. Planning is boring for me. But after I read this, I want to give myself a try. You know, every time I make a schedule, I mess it up. Every time I make an outline, it never finished. Are you an introvert? Just ask out of curiosity

    1. Elise Loyacano Perl says:

      Yes, I am very much an introvert. Are you, Hida? I imagine scheduling and outlines alike require some trial and error!

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