The first book I wrote, the Antique Hunters, took six months. I had no idea what I was doing, so I just sat down in front of my keyboard and resolved to write a thousand words of a story per day, until it was done.
It took me twice the time I’d expected, but I still like the book; it’s a lightweight, slightly acerbic ‘clean’ romance about a couple drifting apart during a French vacation. It’s not very good but it started me on a path that I love.
It didn’t sell particularly well, and reviews were kind at three-and-a-half stars, but it taught me at least one incredibly valuable lesson: if you’re going to write something as complex as a book and want it to have any depth at all, you better learn how to write a good outline before you start.
When I wrote “Quinn Checks In” a year later, it took two months to finish the first draft, at 73,000 words. The final version was cut down another 14,000 words, by removing a side plot and character, cutting down on wasted words and following Elmore Leonard’s edict to leave some material to the reader’s imagination.
I’m aware there are exceptions in the book world who revel in the discovery that comes from just winging it.
But I’m also aware that it’s very easy to become caught up in the exercise of style over substance if I don’t know where my story is going.
My father, who is insanely well read, laments whenever a good genre fiction author turns taut, precise prose into stylistic exercise. It typically adds a few hundred pages to a story, but not necessarily any depth.
When planning an overarching plot, it helps to start jotting down notes about character arcs: the various stages of your characters’ life journey over the course of the story and, in some cases, the larger series of books.
This will enable you to avoid missing key plot twist opportunities; you can also go back to your outline and add in exposition, foreshadowing and other elements that will make you wonder about the lives of the subsidiary performers in your tale.
Think of your outline as the most boring, paint-by-numbers book summary in history. Each chapter is a line-by-line description of the actions in that chapter: “maincharacter goes here, talks to so-and-so. So-and-so, admits he always hated the victim but would never hurt anyone, has an alibi. ” This reference will be essential, because it will allow you to develop smooth turn-of-phrase and dialogue. How? By taking your mind off of following the plot and allowing it to focus purely on creativity.
Consider how long a book in your genre should be, and plan an even number of chapters with roughly the same word count in each. These will shift up and down over the course of your work to accommodate the final story, but they’re a good guideline to avoid rambling and maintain even pacing. Consider where your action points — an up-swell in excitement or tension — need to be to keep the person reading.
If you know how you want your story to end, start your plotting at the last chapter and work backwards. Eventually, you’ll start having a ton of ideas about your opening chapter, and how to hook readers in with that first paragraph; so jump back to the beginning of the outline — now you’re planning it from both ends towards the middle.
It takes me at least a few days to plot out a book; Shadow Agenda, the spy novel that runs 532-pages and that I published as ‘Sam Powers’, had a plot outline that was close to ten thousand words itself, before word ‘one’ of the actual story.
People always talk about making your own luck as being one part opportunity to many parts preparation; that’s just as true when writing a book as it is of anything else.
Those are my thoughts on outlines; let me know yours!