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Episode Notes

How do I outline my novel in lockdown?

In the previous episode, we talked about the basic setup that will get you going with your lockdown novel.

If you haven’t tried episode yet, you might want to go back and check it out.

I talked about having a basic text editor or word processor and setting up three documents: one for notes in which you blast ideas down, another for plans, and a third one for your first draft.

In this episode we’re  going to concentrate on that planning document.

Now I ike to call it a plan rather than an outline, but you can call it what you want. You could spend the next three months reading books on how to outline a novel, or we could just get on and begin it. I know which I prefer. So let’s get cracking!

I mentioned that a section with a timeline is useful and just to elaborate on that a little more, it’s worth considering whether you should jot down a simple sequence of events in the order they happen. Some types of work benefit from detailed plotting, for example, in a mystery novel, you’d be well advised to note things like dates and times of day for many of the events in your story. This  will help you later on when your sleuth is putting together the clues and piecing together what happened.

The same would go for a police detective in a crime novel.

In all kinds of novels, it can be very useful to know who was where at each point, for example, in a romance, you might need to know where everyone is located as you build towards the meeting of your romantic couple. In a thriller, this level of detail is useful in helping you to take the reader on an exciting journey, building suspense and elements of intrigue as you go.

But as well as these mechanics, which are starting to sound dangerously like admin, we want our plan to enhance our work. So let’s take a step back and decide what we are actually trying to achieve.

To my mind, we are trying to establish a workable system that will help and guide you as you construct your novel. People will sometimes argue that writing some kind of outline will stifle your creativity, and there are times when I’ve thought that myself. But I don’t really buy that argument. This objection seems to be based on the idea that having a plan will make you wedded to it, and I just don’t think that’s the way it has to be.

You should regard your plan as rough and ready, and only put into it those things that will help.

If your planning is getting in the way, then maybe your going about in the wrong way.

Your approach should be personal and tailored to build on your strengths and address your weaknesses.

Some people like to have everything laid out before the begin, just as many cooks or home bakers like to follow a detailed recipe. I think that even those keen cooks will, over time, adapt those recipes, substituting one ingredient for another or adding something extra for a bit of variety stop. I’d encourage you to take the same kind of approach with your plans.

Your planning progress is in itself a work in progress.

So let’s look at the aims of your plan.

One of the things that were trying to avoid is a long, rambling narrative doesn’t go anywhere, because that will bore you to tears and leave your readers frustrated. We want to write something that has some kind of sense of drive, partly to engage your readers, but partly to keep you excited and engaged as you you write it.

It’s going to take quite a while, to put this novel together, so you need to keep that motivation going. If we stacked all the unfinished novels in the world on top of each other, how far would they reach? To the moon and back? Further?

So how will we bake that sense of narrative drive into our first draft?

Let’s start by breaking the novel down into its constituent parts.

Starting at the top level, we could break our story into acts if we wish. Personally, that’s not something I do, but if it helps you, then go ahead.

After that, we are all familiar with chapters. At the chapter level, we can start to note down the dominant point of view, and other information such as location and time.

Each chapter may consist of one or more scenes. And the scene level is where a lot of our planning needs to take place. To make our draft work, we need each scene to have some kind of significance. Some people say the scene has to ‘turn’, others like to talk about the shifts in polarity that occurs within that scene, e.g. a negative situation is altered and becomes a positive one or vice versa.

In putting this podcast together, it occurred to me that what most people are interested in is change. We’ve evolved to take notice of the new, the unusual, the suddenly absent. Give people a sense of change in each scene, and they’ll keep coming back for more.

Those changes may be in terms of character development, for example, something significant can be revealed about a character. Or the change can be expressed in terms of action, or it could be a significant change in the emotional impact of the situation, your characters find themselves in. For example, it might be a heightening of tension, a deepening of emotion, or a more relaxing interlude following a tense scene.

By planning for these changes, we can give the reader a pleasantly varied experience. Action is great, but if it’s relentless it can become dull. Sometimes, a gentler scene can be useful in that they allow characters to regroup and the reaffirm their aims. For example, we often see action heroes hiding away for a while, tending to their wounds and swearing vengeance, so that their reemergence is all the more spectacular. Sleuths tend to get stumped and retreat to get their heads together. Hardened detectives pop home so that their neglected partners can scold them for working too hard.

We’re planning these changes to make sure we get them into our story, but we can also use the planning stage to eliminate boring scenes. Sean Coyne, in his book Story Grid, refers to what he calls shoe leather scenes, and I find that phrase useful to bear in mind. The shoe leather scene is one in which characters simply go from place to place. It’s easy to put these sho leather scenes in by mistake because we’re keen to tell the reader everything that happens, but unless something significant happens on the way, leave them out. A shoe leather scene might creep into your first draft, but that doesn’t mean it has to make it to the second one. You might well find you can curtail these scenes by starting a new chapter and simply having your characters arriving at the place they need to be.

If you think about Harry Potter, and yes, I know it’s a bit tiresome that everybody uses these books as examples, but they are widely read, and even if you haven’t read one of them, you are probably aware that each novel takes place over an entire academic year. If we had every lesson and every homework assignment spelled out in detail, the books would totally lose their pace.

How much you record in your plan for each scene is a personal choice. It can be as simple as one sentence, e.g. it might say Jim fights the dragon. But many people find that a thumbnail sketch in the present tense helps them to visualise the scene. This is a trick borrowed from screenplays, and they’re often called beats. For example:

It’s lunchtime in the coffee shop. We see Brian sitting alone at a table. He’s moody on account of his argument with Deb. Sally comes in and cheers him up. They get on well and she invites him to dinner and he accepts.

That took me a few seconds to record, yet it could make a scene of around 2000 words, because if I wrote it, I’d have lots of dialogue, thoughts, description and detail.

Importantly though, even though this was off the top of my head, as I wrote it, I was beginning to see the characters and the coffee shop, and I’m starting to wonder whether Sally hasn’t always had designs on Brian. The schemer! And what about poor Deb? Once she’s had time to cool down, how will she react when she finds out about Brian’s dinner date?

In other words, the act of writing that little paragraph sparked my creative process. It’s fun, it’s playing with ideas, and if you can make your planning into that kind of imaginative game, you’ll enjoy it, you’ll come up with all kinds of great ideas, and you’ll be more productive. And while you’re at it, you’ll be getting an insight into the beating heart of your story. What will make it work? What will make it better? What will make it great?

These are the questions we’re dealing with, and tackling them will help your work to shine.

Writers’ Toolbox

Keep Going by Austin Kleon

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