I love K.M. Weiland’s blog, Helping Writers Become Authors, with its helpful articles on the craft of fiction. I also loved her book, Dreamlander. So it’s reasonable that I would buy her Outlining Your Novel Workbook: Step-by-Step Exercises for Planning Your Best Book, the companion to her manual, Outlining Your Novel: Map Your Way to Success.
I am a person who gets into trouble when I try to write by the seat of my pants. I really need to plan out my story pretty much from beginning to end—not that I won’t follow any brilliant idea that comes to me spontaneously, but just so that my plot doesn’t die from the dreaded lack of destination. Without an outline, my characters just wander around aimlessly until they hit a dead end.
In the past, I’ve used The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Storytellers and Screenwriters by Christopher Vogler with its archtypes and twelve stages to outline my novels, but it’s only taken me so far.
Since NaNoWriMo of November 2014, I’ve been struggling to get my (hopefully) first publishable novel, The Unicornologist, into shape. It was missing something, but I couldn’t figure out what. I decided to take it through the steps in Weiland’s book after the fact to figure out where the holes in the manuscript were. She suggests exercises that help you brainstorm in specific ways. For example:
Ask yourself every “what if” question that pops to mind regarding your story. Some of your ideas will be ridiculous; most will probably never make it into your book. But don’t censor yourself. By allowing yourself to write down every idea, no matter how crazy, you may come up with story-transforming gems.
Weiland uses illustrations from her own books and others’ to explain what makes plot compelling. She asks questions that make you dig deeper into your characters:
What Lie does your character believe that is keeping him from the Thing He Needs while prompting him to believe he must gain the Thing He Wants?
How can your protagonist demonstrate determination?
How can your protagonist show kindness to others?
I have used questionnaires to build dossiers on my characters, but I don’t really like questionnaires, because so many of the questions seem immaterial to my story. (My main character’s favorite color really doesn’t come into play in my mystical fantasy.) Weiland includes “interview” questions, and many of them don’t help me. However, the questions like the ones quoted above make me think about the characters’ personalities and visualize their actions and help me figure out how to portray them.
Weiland has authors focus on six important aspects of their novels: premise, scenes, character backstories and interviews, setting (including world building, if necessary), story elements, and structure.
Every writer has to find his own approach to outlining (or else do without, as Stephen King and many other successful storytellers have). Rather than reinvent the wheel, as it were, most of us try out multiple approaches and keep the aspects that work for our projects. Reading through Outlining Your Novel Workbook in tandem with revising my work-in-progress did help me find holes in my story, and add detail and emotional impact to my scenes. I will use many parts of it for outlining my future stories, but I will probably skip over the parts that don’t apply to my story or resonate with me.
What about you? Do you follow a method of outlining when preparing to write your novels? Or are you a pantser (one who writes “by the seat of one’s pants,” or sans outline)? Can you recommend a book on this topic that you’ve found particularly helpful? Please share in the comments below.