Three simple steps to a bulletproof novel outline

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I went into New Yorked, my first novel, without an outline.

It took five years to write. Characters appeared, disappeared, and reappeared. Entire threads were added, removed, repurposes, rethought, and ultimately, trashed.

One of the lessons I learned over the course of those five years was: I’m the kind of writer who needs an outline. I knew the start and I knew the ending, but the middle—that’s where I was getting lost.

The second book, City of Rose, I wrote and delivered to my publisher in six months. Part of that was because I found my voice and my process. But a big part, too, was: I had an outline.

And it was a damn good outline. Because I took a cue from a friend of mine, who has this trick for writing short stories.

He writes the story, then trashes it. A day or two later, he rewrites it from scratch. The logic goes that he’ll only remember the good parts, and the rest, he’s had time to think about.

He trashes the second draft too, waits a few days, writes a third.

The third version is his working version, which gets subject to editing and rewriting.

So for City of Rose, I thought I would give that a try with the outline, because that’s where I was getting jammed up. I outlined the book in a Moleskine after I was done sorting out my notes and character sketches.

I went chapter by chapter, spelling out the place, the characters present, the conflict, and the hook to drive readers into the next chapter. No more than a paragraph for each.

Than I waited a few days. Without looking back, I rewrote it. And I only remembered the good stuff. The places where I hit a wall—I had fixes and answers, since I had time to think them over.

A few days later, I outlined again. That third version nailed the story, hit all the targets I wanted to hit, and guided me through the book.

Simple, right?

Write, trash, think.

Write, trash, think.

Write.

It’s important to note that an outline isn’t gospel. There were a few points where I veered off, or found in the writing that something needed to be moved or added or eliminated.

Think of an outline as a roadmap. You can cut around construction or take a longer route to get in some sightseeing—but you’ll arrive at your destination (the completion of the first draft) so much sooner if you’ve got some semblance of a plan.

What about you? Do you outline? Or do you write by the seat of your pants and hope you find the story in the process?

And you can find New Yorked here.

NEW YORKED eBook now available for pre-order

The paperback edition of New Yorked has available for pre-order for a while. I’m excited to see the digital editions are now up, too. I’m a fan of eBooks! So if that’s your preference, harness the power of the atom and have at it.

Kindle

iTunes

Nook

Kobo

Google

And if you like to nerd out over weird science stuff like I do, check out this post I did for LitReactor a few years ago about how eBooks do add atomic weight to eReaders.

Two new blog posts!

Over at LitReactor, I’ve got a new installment in my Path to Publication series. This time I talk about TV rights, sequels, synopses, and show off the pretty new cover for New Yorked.

And over at the Mulholland Books blog, I’ve got a piece that explores a very important question: What do you do with a giant pile of Jim Thompson books?

Only one of the options I discovered involves body disposal.

Go forth and read stuff!