Outlining for a Strong Manuscript

The writing process is messy and complicated. I know a lot of editors who have started writing books, but were unable to get past the first chapter because they couldn't take their editor hats off long enough to write that first, messy, mistake-riddled draft. And that's where everyone needs to start.

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Before you worry about sagging middles and the perfect first chapter, you have to get the story onto the page. You have to tell the story to yourself and figure out what story it is that you want to write. As Shannon Hale said, “I'm simply shoveling sand into a box so that later I can build castles.”




How does an outline help you?

Each day that you sit down to write, you need two things: the motivation to do the hard work and the direction to keep moving forward. Without both of those things, you're likely to get lost. You could fall into the depths of writer's block. Or you could write pages and pages of unusable side story and never make it to the end of your actual manuscript.


There is no right or wrong way to go about planning out your book. There are a lot of ways to shovel sand into your first draft and still end up with a castle. But sometimes it can be daunting to imagine writing 50K, 70K, or 100K words. And sometimes it can be daunting to imagine taking those words and editing them into a final draft. It can help to know you're moving in the right direction. So here are some "sand" things that you can pile into your first draft to give your castle a good start.


What is Your Inspiration?

What is your reason for writing this book? That reason will make the difference between a book that you finish and a book that you casually ponder. When you have a week where you can't find a spare moment to sit down at your laptop, that inspiration will get you back in your seat the next week. If you have a day that you can't come up with the next 1200 words, your inspiration can guide you to a scene that makes the words flow again. When you get around to the part where you have to reread your sandy draft and start worrying about building your castle, that motivating reason will help you keep editing.


But that reason is not necessarily going to be why a reader picks up the book. So once you know why you are writing the book, you need to know why the book is going to appeal to someone else.


Who will your book appeal to?

Some people choose a person to write the book for. Their autistic nephew, their sister who is struggling with a divorce, their mother who loves mystery novels, or their ten-year-old self who is still hoping to find the doorway to Narnia. Each moment as they write, they can picture that reader and it reminds them why they need to keep writing and what they need to write. Their words are a gift to that specific reader, real or imagined.


Other people choose a genre and an age range. If you are already familiar with these distinctions, then they can help guide you as to what sort of humor is appropriate, what characters the reader will relate to, and what themes you want to tackle.


What is the premise?

For some writers is it helpful to focus less on who they are talking to and more on what they are talking about. A theme, a question, or a premise can tie the whole book together. It will shape the heroes weaknesses, the villain's goals, the weapons they have at their disposal, and the victories they seek.


The central idea of a book can take a lot of shapes and sizes. In the tv show Once Upon a Time, everything circles back to the theme of family. The main plotline focuses on two women fighting over their son. The main character struggles with ideas of self-worth and love because of her own lack of family growing up. The villain is motivated by her mother's mistakes. The final victory comes because of the love for a child. The numerous side plots tie back into another character's child: Cinderella's, Rumpelstiltskin's, Snow White's. Family effects each character and plotline in the show.


Stories can also be framed around a question. What would happen if people could fly? Each page of your story would address another situation in which flying is good or bad, a character who handles flying differently, a dilemma in society caused by the ability of flight.


What is the structure?

Some writers will choose their favorite plot structure, like the Hero's Journey or the Three Act Structure, and plan out specific moments of choices and conflict leading up to the final victory. These set in stone moments keep them on track as they draft and make sure that they end up with a completed and cohesive storyline.


How does the book feel?

Is it serious? Silly? Sad? Angsty? A book should show more than one emotion, but it should have an overall mood that is consistent from beginning to ending. You don't want to start out with a light and fluffy book and end up with a sad and gory one. A story that starts out as How to Train Your Dragon can't end as Game of Thrones.


What types of drama is your book going to have?

Is it an action novel filled with spy missions and defusing bombs? Are the characters navigating the dangers of high school? Are conflict resolved with words, punches, or magical powers? Whatever type of drama you are going to have, you want to keep that consistent throughout the entire book. That way someone who likes chapter 1 is also going to like chapter 30.


What is going to be the end of your book?

This can be as vague or specific as you want. You might say the book ends when your main character finally learns to stand up for themselves. Or perhaps it is when the Big Bad is defeated. Or maybe it's not about what has been destroyed, but what has been created. A couple gets together. A king has been crowned.


Maybe the end of your book is not defined by what the results are, but by the confrontation itself. The victim comes face to face with their attacker, fresh out of prison. The army reaches the capital. The woman chooses between the love interest and her career. Maybe you don't know how things will turn out yet, but you know what the big conflict will be and you'll find out what the characters do when they get there.


Using Your Plan to Draft Your Book

You don't have to know all (or any) of these things before you start writing. But as you write, maybe on days that you get stuck or days that you don't feel inspired, you can stop and check in on these questions. When you consider your reasons to continue writing this book, the places you have yet to go, and the pages that you have already written, a clear plan can appear. These questions can guide you towards a finished first draft, and then a completed manuscript.


Whether you take these ideas and write them down into a firm chapter by chapter outline or just refer to them when you get stuck, having a game plan can help keep you aimed in the same direction for however long it takes to get from the first page to "The End."


Happy drafting!

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