Novel Writing Workshop
Hey y’all! If you’re seeing this, you’re probably working with the novel workshop. I speak with volume and velocity, but the point of the workshop is to get your book outlined, so all those things I mentioned in a blur are below.
The particulars of my outlining process changes a little with each book, but the basics are the same. All of this is assuming that you’ve done or at least started the work of brainstorming, thinking about characters, w0rld-building, etc.
- Write a few sentences about what kind of story this is. “A teenage girl who can speak to dead people has to solve a murder.”
- I then try to write several points that describe the major story beats:
- Bridget encounters the ghost of a girl who is believed missing. (Inciting)
- Bridget discovers the girl’s killer intends to kill again. (First plot point)
- Bridget must stop the killer after he takes a new victim. (Second plot point)
- At this point I’ve probably brainstormed some other ideas. Creating your “tent pole” scenes first is key, because you can always work backwards to see how you got there, and you can work forward to see what happens after those. For instance:
- How does Bridget meet the ghost of the girl who is missing? (The ghost shows up in her bedroom first, but Bridget freaks out and scares her away.)
- What does she do when she realizes the girl is not missing but dead? (She tries to help the girl find her body so she can call the police. This leads to whole new set of scenes – how does she look for the body? How does she use her special ability to find where the girl is buried when the girl herself doesn’t know?)
- I try to get at least a rough idea of beginning to end at this point. My questions aren’t necessarily written out, but that’s how I “problem-solve” through it.
- This pre-outline is usually in paragraph form, and it may get rewritten half a dozen times as I go through.
If I have my tentpoles but I don’t really feel the story yet, I like to play with index cards or Post-it notes. You could do this on the computer, but there is something really satisfying and freeing about doing it on paper. With the basic premise of the story in mind, start brainstorming. Write down anything that could be a scene in the story, a discovery, any element you think would be fun. For instance:
- Bridget meets a ghost in a bathroom stall but has to be quiet
- She meets the ghost of a cop
- Prom dress shopping!
- Bridget sucks at driving
- Bridget meets another medium
- Bridget fights with her mom
None of these are scenes yet, but you may start to get ideas. Don’t stop to think about any one card too long, and DON’T JUDGE YOUR IDEAS at this point. Get a good stack of cards, and then start laying them out. Some will stand out as being great moments, and others you’ll throw away. You may also combine cards. Bridget might meet the ghost of a cop via another medium. Or she might fight with her mom while prom dress shopping.
- Using one of the beat sheets below, I start filling in the major points and connecting them with other scenes. Please note – the scenes in between the tentpoles are NOT filler. These are the scenes where you move the story along, you explore who your characters are, give them little hints and tidbits to keep moving. If a scene can be removed without affecting the story at all then it needs to go.
- My outlines are long but relatively simple. Each bullet point is about a paragraph describing what happens in the scene, including important character developments or discoveries. Sometimes as I write, I realize that what I originally described as two separate scenes/chapters really could be one. Remember that in each scene, the character should come in wanting something, try to get it, have varying degrees of success, and come out the other end with another goal. (Goal, motivation, conflict!) It’s up to you how much you detail this process in your actual outline.
Outline in Action
Here’s the first piece of my outline for Phantom Touch. (Names have changed, and some of these I don’t think even made it into the book as written.)
Conceptual hook/appeal: Bridget White can see and communicate with the wrongfully dead.
Theme(s): self-sacrifice, self-imposed guilt over reality, atonement
Through-line: Bridget is racing against time to find a missing girl before a serial killer takes her life, and before she is stuck with the ability of seeing the dead forever.
Act 1 – Setup
- (hook) Bridget is doing a sending with a ghost in a graveyard.
- Bridget is walking home from school one day when she sees posters for Natalie. She realizes she knew the girl from school, but doesn’t think much of it other than that. The gossip is that she ran away, considering how troubled she was.
- During lunch, Bridget and Emilia are doing research on another one of Bridget’s ghosts. Emilia doesn’t know the truth; she just thinks Bridget is really into creepy shit. While they’re working, Bridget is musing about the weirdness of her life.
- After her cell phone goes off noisily in class, Bridget gets detention. While in detention, she meets Michael, who is Natalie’s younger brother. She notices his stack of fliers and asks him about his sister. He’s hostile at first, but she gets him to open up.
- Bridget and Emilia make plans for her birthday. Bridget encounters the Watcher, the one spirit she can’t explain. It reminds her that her birthday is coming up, and she talks about how she’s already got everything she needs.
- During school the next day, Bridget talks to Michael again. He drops a pen as he’s leaving class, and she means to give it back. Bridget wakes up late that night and encounters a very gory ghost, who scares the shit out of her. She’s not used to such violent deaths; most of her spirits have been long dead and are usually calmer. This is a straight-up poltergeist. She banishes it with a salt line, but hears it rattling around outside.
- The next day, the spirit appears to her again and corners her somewhere near a poster. She realizes it’s Natalie and tells her to calm down, but Natalie is newly dead, still full of rage and anguish.
- Bridget contacts Valerie and asks for help, but Valerie seems troubled. She suggests using electronics.
- FIRST PLOT POINT (The moment when something enters the story in a manner that affects and alters the hero’s status and plans and beliefs, forcing him to take action in response, and thus defining the contextual nature of the hero’s experience from that point forward, now with tangible stakes and obvious opposition in place.) Bridget finally makes contact with Natalie through her sister’s old laptop. Natalie appears via the webcam, and she reveals she doesn’t want to rest; she wants Bridget to find the Runaway Killer before he kills again. He has killed his previous victims on the full moon, and he’ll do it again.
Editable Word Documents
story-basics – very basic questions about genre, what it’s similar to
getting-to-know-a-character – fundamental questions about who your character is; know these before you start your outline
story-milestones-worksheet – Has the basic tentpoles – you should know most if not all of these before sitting down for page 1!
blank-beat-sheet – This is what I default to for my outline template. Just a couple notes – the 50 is arbitrary. I tend to end up with 30-40 chapters, each around 2k words. The important part is that the big points are balanced. If you want 20 chapters, then First Plot Point should be 5 or 6, Midpoint should be 10 or 11, and Second Plot Point should be 15 or 16.
Stuff from Way Smarter People
blank-bs2 – Beat Sheet based on Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat! – good for nailing down the key points (HIGHLY RECOMMEND)
master-spreadsheet-story-structure-and-beat-sheet – created by Jami Gold – has a great but slightly daunting breakdown of the story