K.M. Weiland, Outlining Your Novel

Weiland’s outlining process is a combination of guided free writing exercises and a short course in the elements of a good novel. The key advice is that you need to give yourself permission and time to really explore your story world and characters without any of the pressure of writing a “first draft” of your novel. You can do the work using your computer but Weiland suggests, as she does, that you go back to pen and coiled notebooks because you have more freedom to mess around. I am not going to provide detailed notes on her process it is worth buying the book for that, but I will share some of the key ideas that have really helped me.

The first step is to try and get down in one sentence — the premise sentence — what the story is about. It should “convey the characters, setting and central conflict”.¬† Weiland then suggests that you start writing out and exploring “what ifs” that come to mind and let them take you where they might. A few more triggers that Weiland suggests for exploring your ideas:

  • list things that a reader might expect to happen in the story, then try to turn each expectation on its head, insert the unexpected wherever possible
  • list and write about 4 or 5 big moments in the plot and develop at least 2 complications for each of them
  • consider and create main characters that have at least 2 major problems or anxieties, then explore how these will affect the story

There is a lot more and her writing tone is both encouraging and fresh, think about buying the book.

Much of the book then provides a guide to take this mass of ideas you are generating and turn them into a novel. Key ideas covered include:

  • plan the book scene by scene, start with a scene list that includes everything you can think of currently and then add to it
  • make sure that there is conflict that is supported by realistic character motivation
  • develop character arcs for the main characters, they have to change as the story develops
  • work on the theme through character development

I have read the book twice now and have taken 15 pages of handwritten notes that I turn to constantly. As it turns out a lot of that note taking was direct quotes from Weiland and I now find that they are a perfect supplement to this blog (not an initial plan at all) and the quotes will show up in the “Writer’s Quotes” section in the sidebar to the right.

If you can only afford one book this is the one you should buy. And while we are at it ignore or forget all the babble about outlining making the actual writing of the novel a dead and constricted process. This is NOT the essay outlining you may have been exposed to in school with main topics in upper case Roman numerals, then indented topics and sub topics and sub sub topics with first lower case Roman numerals, then the lower case alphabet and finally numbers. Instead it is a dynamic, creative, fascinating write yourself into insights and discoveries you never expected all interacting with each other and generating even more ideas.

Following Weiland’s approach the spectre of writer’s block is almost completely banished because your scene list provides the needed prompts and if one scene isn’t working you have lots of others to work on and then get back to that problem one. Of course there will be changes as you write, whole new scenes will emerge as well as unexpected characters or very different actions from the ones you planned. However you will be thoroughly grounded in your story world and your character’s lives and the novel has a much better chance of being published.

 

 

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