Updated: Oct 31, 2020
Why We Don’t Write Our Books
Lots of us want to write books, but most of us haven’t and won’t. Life gets too hectic. Our minds prioritize Netflix or Facebook or living like a headless chicken. I get it. I lived it. I’m in it. Yet, the desire to create what’s in my head, to breathe life into a world, my universe doesn’t stop, and if you have a similar experience, then that urge isn’t going anywhere.
As a rookie editor, I see all these talented authors as I revise their work, and I’m surrounded by books from hundreds of authors in my room. Their spirits live in their pages, calling me to enjoy (or attempt enjoyment). Almost a million books are published each year, so why has it taken me so long to write one.
We’ve all had the thought while reading a “bad” book, “Well, I could do better than that.” But we didn’t, so it doesn’t matter.
The thought keeping us from writing or creating anything, doing anything, that demon with the most secret and intimate voice tells us, “Well, I’ll never be able to be that good.” And maybe we won’t, but that doesn’t matter either, not when we really want to write.
As Elizabeth Gilbert of Eat, Pray, Love puts it, “Done is better than good.”
How an Outline Can Help
This painful process set me on the road to finding how to cure my stagnant progress. The first few times I tried to write a book, I just wrote. The time spent turned out to be valuable, but I kept getting stuck after the first few chapters. So, the second time, I decided to get some guidance and followed a step-by-step plan.
For those of us with overly analytical brains, a guideline can help keep us moving forward.
What an Outline Won’t Do
Warning: An outline WILL NOT write your book. I know. I know. The news devastated me for years. Still haven’t fully recovered.
In the end, if you don’t also have a plan for making the time, the commitment to writing, it’s not going to happen.
I’m currently combining using a book writing method with committing to a set amount of writing time every day. We’ll cover how to make time for writing (from someone who’s actually written one) in the next couple of articles, but for now let’s go over some paths for those of us who need a little help, and if it ends in failure, well, you’ll have a better idea of what works than you did before.
Also, if you’re not a planner, then this article is not for you. Many brilliant authors don’t plan. In fact, Stephen King emphatically tells writers not to. But, unfortunately, I’m not Stephen King, and neither are you, so know thyself.
For those who aren’t sure if they’re a planner or know 100% that they’re as anal as a rear end, I’ve tried to go over different planning styles, from super-structure to a loose guideline. And, in this article, we’ll focus on fiction writing. But, a non-fiction overview will appear soon.
The snowflake method has remained pretty popular among fiction writers. It is also supposed to be a mixture of a structured and “seat of your pants” direction. However, the detailed steps will hold your cramped writing hand through a lot of the work.
This method is the one I’m following. I’ve enjoyed building my snowflake, but no writing plan calls to everyone. One thing that turns me off about some approaches is imposing a timeline or tallying words like a Buddhist monk counts rice. It’s not for me, but it was for Hemmingway, so it may work for you too.
The snowflake method has a loose timeline but no pressure, so if strict deadlines and numbers raises your anxiety, this may be your path.
One-sentence summation of your book.
One-paragraph summation of your book:
Disaster two: Characters trying to fix disaster one.
Disaster three: Characters trying to fix disaster two.
One-page description of each major character:
One-page summation of your book.
One-page description of major characters & one-paragraph description of the minor league.
Four-page summation of the book.
1-2 paragraphs for each scene (optional).
I ended up combining step five and seven in some places (still haven’t done step six), as I had already written a considerable amount about my main characters previously. I separated these to include personality, appearance, speech patterns, movement, relationship to other characters, beliefs, and response to the aforementioned disasters, physical appearance, etc.
Of course, scenes that appeared to me or dialogue that I wanted to include popped up as I did this process. Many questions about confusing plot points, world-building, and even philosophy popped into my head as I was going, so I kept a “Questions that Need Answers” section at the bottom of the page.
However, I’ve put some of that fun on hold to focus on finishing the snowflake steps.
This approach is old as dirt, and the one I learned in school. Nowadays, you’ll see it more often for outlining screenplays than novels, but it works for multiple storytelling forms. I’m not a big fan of this structure because it’s so old I’ve seen it everywhere. Sometimes, a story screams “Three Acts!”—and not always in a good way—when people focus too much on this literary convention.
I also think many of us will end up with this format without thinking about it.
Why? Western society has intentionally or unintentionally used this storytelling skill for hundreds of years. You may end up with a story parsed into three acts without trying. After all, every story has a beginning, middle, and end.
The snowflake method uses the three-act structure principles, especially with disasters one, two, and three, but incorporates that tradition more fluidly. You could even use the three-act structure together with other plans. And if you’ve never heard of it, fully understood it, or want more control over what goes into your three-act outline, go ahead and give it a look.
Act One (groundwork, includes exposition).
Inciting incident (the happening that starts it all).
Second thoughts: (Harry Potter doubts he should go to Hogwarts.)
Climax (or First Disaster in Snowflake Method): includes the dramatic question about the rest of the story. (Will Harry Potter survive Hogwarts?)
Act Two (includes rising action).
Midpoint (a big twist).
Climax (or Second Disaster).
Act Three (includes falling action).
Climax (or Third Disaster).
Denouement (dramatic question answered): Harry lived. Tie the story’s loose ends in a big bow and take a bow.
If you’re still unsure of all the old terms or how this format works in real novels, Emma Johnson wrote a great article using the Hunger Games as an example here. She suggests making sure each point on the list includes a setup, conflict, and resolution, like a mini three acts within a three-act structured book. Each mini-act is three chapters, and each act is nine chapters in total.
If you’re a complete newbie to this idea, the twenty-seven chapter-length may give you the necessary cohesion.
This system breaks down each day step-by-step. The book has worksheets attached, which might help if you don’t want to write your own design outline. It also has detailed examples of how to do each step instead of a description. However, you’ll have to buy the book to use this method. No freebies.
Day 1: Character Sketches.
Day 2: Setting Sketches and Research Strategies.
Day 3: Plot Sketches.
Days 4 and 5: The Summary Outline.
Day 6: Miscellaneous Scene Notes and Closing Scene Notes.
Days 7-13: Researching Your Idea.
Days 14 and 15: The Evolution of Your Story (expand on previous sections).
Day 16: Starting and Organizing Your Formatted Outline.
Day 17: Incorporating Story Evolution Elements.
Day 18: Incorporating Character and Setting Sketches.
Day 19: Incorporating Research.
Days 20-23: Brainstorming.
Day 24: Creating a Day Sheet and Table of Contents.
Day 25 and 26: Tagging and Tracing.
Day 27: Isolating Plot Threads.
Day 28: Shoring Up Weak Elements in Your Formatted Outline.
Day 29: Filling In the Final Holes.
Day 30: Putting It on a Shelf.
I think these steps are very similar to the snowflake method, but the fundamental difference is it has a timeline, which many find essential to getting their book done. The small monetary investment might also support your commitment. The time it takes also seems reasonable for a first draft outline, depending on your genre, previous book experience, or writing speed.
You could always take the thirty days and stretch it to ninety or however long you’d like, but I think picking one of the other formats might be simpler if you don’t want deadlines.
This Writer’s Edit approach gives a lot of leeway in what you decide to do. Kyla Bagnall’s advice is less about showing you the way than explaining how writers can make their own. You can start off with creating a timeline, which authors like J. K. Rowling swear by, and Bagnall gives three ways of doing that: a list (for shorter stories), a traditional timeline, or a mind-map.
She also showcases an explanation on how to find a goal for your chapters, to pick a narration style, and to understand a character’s arc in a way that the other frameworks don’t give as much guidance on.
Constructing a Timeline.
Technique: Write a List.
Technique: Map the Events on a Line.
Technique: Master the Mind-Map.
Explore Your Character Arcs.
Establish Your Settings.
Choose the Shape and Style of Narration.
Assess Your Plot-in-Progress.
Find chronological gaps.
Identify the Core Message.
Identify 1–4 central themes.
Look at your protagonist’s goal or main obstacle.
Sum up your story in one sentence.
Identify similar novels and their core messages.
Share your story premise with others.
Segment Your Outline Into Chapters.
Essential Components of Your Story’s Beginning.
Essential Components Of Your Story’s Middle.
The Black Moment (darkest point) and Plot Point 2.
Essential Components of Your Story’s End.
Reassess and Reorder Your Scenes.
I think no matter which guideline you end up choosing, a writer must mold every technique to fit themselves, but if you find all the other outlines too strict, this one may allow the most freedom. Kyla Bagnall also gives detailed examples for each of her eleven steps that you can consider or ignore.
Although I won’t be creating my own outline, I found several points she made useful for whichever method you pick. The lovely part about her blueprint is you can paint it in with whichever shade of azul you’d like.
Picking Your Journey
If, while looking at the frameworks above, you’re still not sure which guideline to follow, write each one on a blank flashcard (or any card-shaped paper) and glide your hand over them like tarot cards. Or shuffle them.
Yes, yes, I’m serious. If you dislike what you picked, then at least you narrowed down your choices. While selecting an outline is important, what matters? Writing the book, right?
If you’re still overwhelmed, systematically planning out your book may not be the thing for you. Now, you know.
Finishing Your Book
Maybe these methods have already failed for you. Maybe, a life-changing event happened in your life. Forgive yourself, pick yourself back up, and try again. And if something at some point in your life derails you from working on your book, trust that if you’re a writer, your story will call you back, whether you want it to or not.
“Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout with some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.” — George Orwell.
Let’s harness that demon together.