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Outlining Your Story

Outlining Your Story

One of the most daunting tasks a writer ever faces is to outline their work. We’ve spent so much time creating the fictive dream, developing our characters, crafting dialogue and description, that to reduce it all to a play-by-play, point-by-point overview of plot can seem an overwhelming challenge.

Somehow it hurts to boil it all down. And, let’s be honest, with everything going on in your story, it’s hard to know what to include and what not to.

Ya Gotta Do It

Still, outlining is necessary. Agents and Editors will thank you for a good chapter outline. It helps them give you notes, and sell your story to others. You’ll need a clear, tight synopsis when you’re querying agents and editors, too, and without an outline, you’ll be stuck weeding through your text page by page.

So, fellow novelists, let’s roll up our sleeves and learn how to outline.

cropped-margaret_mayo_mcGlynn_tiber_1260x240.jpg

Outlining Methods

A Quick Method for Outlining

  • Put each story element on file cards
  • put them in the order you want
  • go through and tell the story to several people. Voila—story feedback without having written one word of prose! (From Robert McKee’s book Story)

Snowflake Method

Source: Randy Ingermannson at http://www.advancedfictionwriting.com/articles/snowflake-method/

If you have a limited amount of time and need an outline before you write, this is a great method. I used it myself before my first NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month).

In 10 steps, The Snowflake Method will give you a wide array of useful tools once you’re done. You’ll have an elevator pitch in the form of a one-sentence log line. You’ll have a full page synopsis. You’ll tackle character description, three-act structure, and you’ll really get to know your characters, including your villains, super-quick. Check out Randy’s website above. He also has a full-length book on The Snowflake Method.

Dan Wells’ 7 Points Method

Dan Wells, (author of the John Cleaver series), along with Mary Robinette Kowal, Brandon Sanderson, and Howard Tayler, has a FANTASTIC PODCAST CALLED “WRITING EXCUSES.” He also has a useful method for outlining. You can find it on YouTube here. Using a Star Trek Role Playing game manual, Dan worked out how to outline any storyline in 7 points.

I love this one because it’s relatively easy to remember what the 7 points are, and how they work. It gets complicated when you realize that each of the story lines in your novel should have its own 7-point arc.

Dan Wells 7 Points Genres

Dan Wells 7-points applied to various genres

A Brief Breakdown of Dan Wells’ 7-Point Method

Here are the 7 Points:

  1. Hook – The hero has a sad boring life.
  2. Plot Turn 1 – Hero becomes a NEW ROLE.
  3. Pinch 1 – Bad Guy attacks.
  4. Midpoint – Hero learns the truth about SOMETHING and swears to defeat the VILLAIN/ANTAGONIST.
  5. Pinch 2 – Companions fail the Hero, and Hero is left alone.
  6. Plot Turn 2 – Facing VILLAIN, the Hero discovers the power is within him.
  7. Resolution – Hero defeats VILLAIN

Here are the 7 points, using Stars Wars: A New Hope as an example:

  1. Hook – Luke is misunderstood farm boy who longs to be a star pilot and have adventures.
  2. Plot Turn 1 – R2D2 plays Princess Leia’s distress signal to Luke. Luke brings the ‘droid to see Obi-Wan Kenobi, who gives him his father’s light saber and offers to teach him to become a Jedi. The Force is strong with him, and Luke is now a Jedi in training.
  3. Pinch 1 – Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru are killed by Imperial Troops.
  4. Midpoint – Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru are dead; Luke decides he wants to rescue the princess and join the rebellion and become a Jedi like his father.
  5. Pinch 2 – Obi-Wan Kenobi is killed in a duel with Vader.
  6. Plot Turn 2 – Luke turns off his targeting computer and uses the Force to drop the proton torpedo into the ventilation shaft and destroy the Death Star. The power is within him.
  7. Resolution – Death Star is destroyed. Rebel base is safe. Time to hand out some medals!

Wait, Didn’t A Lot More Stuff Happen in Star Wars?

Now, obviously, there is a lot more going on in Star Wars, A New Hope than the 7 points listed above. There’s Han Solo needing to escape Jabba the Hut. There’s the ‘Droids plot line as they squabble with each other and try to survive on Tatooine, being captured by the Jawas and sold to Luke’s Uncle Owen. There’s the plot line of the Rebels, and the stolen plans for the Death Star. There’s Princess Leia’s plot line in which she is captured and tries her best to save her home planet, but to no avail. Darth Vader even has a plot line of his own, in conflict with the more modern approach to evil represented by Governor Tarkin. Obi-Wan Kenobi’s plot line is important as he faces Darth Vader in an old school sword battle. He represents the entire world of the Jedi Knights. Star Wars was planned by Lucas to be an epic, so its plot lines are sprawling. But you get the idea.

A Fancy Spreadsheet For You!

I have used Dan Wells’ 7 points to create a Google Sheet. In it you’ll find the 7 points for Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Star Wars: A New Hope, The Wizard of Oz (the movie), Pride and Prejudice, Othello, and The Telltale Heart. This shows how the 7 points can work for all genres. The only major genres missing here are Mystery and Suspense. At some point I’ll add those in.

Download the Spreadsheet HERE.

Chapter Outline Technique from the Editor of Harry Potter!

The chapter outline is a useful tool for when you are submitting a final manuscript to an editor. It will help them track all kinds of information in your story, from ages, to dates, to conflicts, to plot points. It will make the editor and the copyeditor your friend. You can also use it as a tool to refine and polish your manuscript before submission.

Plot like this on a spreadsheet:

Column headers:

  • Name of Chapter
  • POV Character – only one.
  • Location
  • Day, Date and Time
  • Conflict
  • One-line synopsis
  • Chapter Question – what question keeps the reader turning pages?
  • Key Plot Points Revealed

Fill in each of these for your chapters, one chapter per row, or, if you have complex chapters, one row per scene. Then go back through. It’s going to be easy to see if you don’t have enough conflict going in a chapter or scene. If you don’t, think about summarizing that section of the story, and saving the scene for the more dramatic moments.

For more on this method, see Arthur A. Levine Books Harry Potter editor Cheryl Klein’s Second Sight and her podcast (with knowledgeable screenwriter James Monoghan), the Narrative Breakdown. Cheryl is a rock star editor, and this podcast has wonderful stuff on all aspects of storytelling.

Best of luck plotting your stories! Do you have Outlining methods you recommend? Share them in the comments below!

Happy reading and writing!

–Margaret

Scrivener Program's Interface Margaret Mayo McGlynn

Writing Tools: My Love-Hate Relationship With Scrivener

What is Scrivener?

For those who are saying, “what the heck is ‘Scrivener?'” here’s what it is, in brief.

For those of you who are saying “Isn’t that what Bartelby was?” your English Lit teacher is smiling in heaven, or in the teacher’s lounge with the burned coffee and permanently stained carpet.

Scrivener is a program, very reasonably priced, I might add, that helps writers of all kinds organize their files however they like.

What’s Cool About Scrivener?

It has various kind of templates, for instance, one for novels. It has a template tailor-made for NaNoWriMo.

What’s NaNoWriMo?

If you don’t know what NaNoWriMo is, then click any one of my links herein. NaNoWriMo is a magical internet land that encourages anyone and everyone to buckle down and write the novel that is aching to be born straight from the head of Zeus and begin slouching toward Jerusalem. It is, in short, a wonder of the modern age.

What’s Cool About Scrivener: Take 2

But back to Scrivener. The program has all kinds of useful templates for writing projects, for research papers, for scripts of various stripes and flavors.

The beauty of it is that it helps you organize your book the way you probably think about your book, that is, in scenes, chapters, and parts. And it’s wildly customizable. You can put all kinds of metadata in there. You can tag chapters and scenes with neat codes, notes to self about them, the which you can search later, when your buzz has worn off. You can import entire webpage contents to your research folders. You can color code the crap out of your text with custom highlighting colors. There’s a template for characters, for places, and you can design your own templates.

I love being able to drag scenes from chapter to chapter, willy nilly. I love that each chapter gets its own little index card on which you can put its synopsis. Love, love, love all of this.

Here’s a picture of the interface:

Scrivener Interface, and yes, that is the prologue of my novel Guardian of the Chalice, as it stands today

What’s Sucky About Scrivener?

But the hate starts when I try to sync it with my iPad. It doesn’t yet have its own iPad app, and the folks at Literature and Latte, who designed scrivener, have been promising and promising that the app will be here, any second.

But it’s not here yet. Oh, this novelist is getting so tired of waiting for it. When they finally deliver said app, they might do well to name it ‘Godot.’ Because, damn!

Compile This!

And don’t get me started on the Compile feature. I don’t understand why it’s even in there. Too customizable, and in a way that makes no sense to little ole me. Say I just want to export my Scrivener file of my novel just to a simple Word doc. Oh, the bewildering options that come up when I click ‘Compile,’ none of which work the way I would anticipate. To me, it seems somehow easier to have Scrivener translate my novel into Sanskrit than just to output it with some simple formatting, a page break in between chapters, sequentially numbered chapters, a header with, oh, I don’t know, my name and my book’s title upon it. Woe, woe to Compile. Fie upon it!

I got started, but now I’m stopping. Because I’ve decided to do a fast on complaining to clear my psychic space, if you know what I mean. And this sister from New Jersey, she can do her some complaining! Oh it is a major vice of mine.

There’s the Rub

In any event, I love Scrivener’s computer self so much that I can’t give it up, even though I want open a can o whup ass on its mobile “features” and its “Compile” excrementiness. Am I in a shame spiral? Possibly. Send your dollars today.

Any-hoo, below is a post I placed upon the Literature and Latte forum in which they innocently asked for feedback on the Mac version. I don’t think they saw me coming, do you?

Do you use Scrivener to work on your writerly stuff? If not, what do you use?

Please do scroll down and tell me all about your travails, and the little moments of your process, won’t you?

Thanks for visiting my blog. Comments more than welcome, if that’s possible in this space-time continuum.

:)Margaret

I have a love-hate with Scrivener, and here’s why:

Nothing else helps me organize and update my novel so well while I’m working on my laptop. But when I want to go mobile, oh then, dear reader, do I end up in a spot of difficulty.

Syncing with Simplenote doesn’t do it for me. The sorting files alphabetically thing would be great except I don’t want to inject extraneous chapter numbers in my chapter titles which I will then have to delete by hand in my final draft. And update manually when I change my order of chapters or add a new one. Over and over again.

I don’t like that when I rename a chapter or add a new one, I then have to go through the long checklist and make sure that I check the box for that new item when I sync. My world moves fast, and again, I wish there were a simple idiot-proof way to sync without all the time-consuming customizable stuff.

And I know this isn’t Scrivener’s fault, but I find that when I make changes to a Simplenote file in a browser, it doesn’t always transfer over to the same Simplenote file on my iPad.

Last night I was at my weekly writing class, and not once but twice I was not able to read the proper file, the most recent version, to my teacher, to whom I am paying a certain degree of cash in exchange for time. I found it to be an untenable situation.

My ideal scene is that the fine men and women of Literature and Latte really buckle down and get that gosh darned iPad app up and rocking. This year.

Or I may be looking for other options. Just sayin.’

And if you, lovely reader, have a bit of advice, an easy fix or even a medium difficult fix, which might solve my woes and result in smiles and relaxation on my part, oh, please do chime in!

Many thanks!



Margaret Mayo McGlynn
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Chelsey_Monroe

My Writing Process Blog Tour

Many thanks to the mellifluously funny and gifted writer Chelsey Monroe, a truly amusing gal I was lucky enough to meet at the San Francisco Writer’s Conference, for tagging me in this hullaballoo. Please to enjoy her talk about her writing and its process here.



Now here’s my thang:
What am I working on? 
Young Adult Fantasy Novel Guardian of the Chalice. 
Here’s the logline: 
16-year old Avery Dickenson discovers the has magical powers and inherits a magical chalice that makes her the most powerful witch on the planet. A cabal of dark immortal magicians want to use her power, so they take her father hostage and steal him away to Rome. To get him back, Avery must sail to Europe with her friends and her hippie witch aunt, learning magical combat. But can Avery resist the ultimate temptation—to bring her dead mother back to life—in order to save her father and friends from the ultimate evil?
How does my work differ from others of its genre?
  • Two Kinds of Magic: A key conflict in my novel is between two different ways of doing magic—the Left Hand path, which derives power from causing pain and extracting energy from others, and the Right Hand path, in which strength comes from being in harmony with nature and ones true self.
  • The Eternal City: Rome used to be called the navel of the world in ancient times. Rome is the center of magic in my novel, which gives my work a DaVinci Code feel. Avery’s italian heritage and the Italian witchcraft she learns from her Aunt Nina are unusual and culturally rich motifs in my novel.
  • Time Travel: One of Avery’s key powers is traveling in time and space. So my novel has special fun with time travel, issues with paradoxes, and timelines across centuries that affect each other.
  • A Tiger in Your Tank: Oh, yes, and Avery can shape shift into a tiger, but only when she’s particularly angry.
  • Creepy Decaying Historical Bad Guys: My bad guys are real historical magicians who made themselves immortal in the past. Every 21 years they must renew their immortality by an especially brutal ceremony. But every once in a while a witch like Avery comes along, with so much power that if they can use her, they can make the immortality permanent. All previous attempts to do this have failed but they all believe this is the time it will work. As it gets closer and closer to the time of renewal, which is Midsummer Eve, the bad guys’ bodies start to fall apart a bit. It starts with peeling and cracking skin, and gets yuckier from there.
  • The Knights Templar: Oh, yeah, and wrapped up in all of this are the Knights Templar, and a conflict which stretches back to the Crusades and the Inquisition. 
  • Modern Goths: But also, Avery and her friends are Goth teenagers at a fancy prep school with normal teen issues like staying loyal to friends, getting good grades and trying to get into the college of their choice.
  • Team Neither! And since all of this is going on in this book, the first of a trilogy, it’s a darn good thing there are no vampires or werewolves in sight!
Why do I write what I do? 
  • Thank you, Harriet The Spy! Children’s books were my best and only friends in elementary school. I write books for tweens because I want to do that for someone else. 
  • Who are you? I really like challenges that come into play with Young Adult fiction. I’m fascinated by questions of identity. The process of choosing who we will become, what contribution we will make in the world, how we will use our strengths—I find all of that fascinating and mysterious. It’s such an important time in life. And yes, I think I’ll always be fourteen inside where it counts.
  • Burn, Witch, Burn! I was, for a time, a practicing pagan. There are so many different kinds of magical systems and pantheons and ways of practicing. I met people who worshipped the Hawaiian gods, the Norse Gods, the Faeries. I met people who practiced Kabala, too, and alchemy, and Freemasonry. I still love the idea of a spirituality connected to nature that balances masculine and feminine, that honors the earth. There’s a book called The Chalice and the Blade that most pagans have read, and it tells an alternative version of Western History with a feminist slant. It may not be great scholarship, but it’s a great idea.
How does my writing process work? 
  • I did Nanowrimo in 2012 and revised my novel for 2013 Nanowrimo.
  • Knowing I was going to do Nanowrimo, I came up with a rough outline.
  • I am an outliner, not a pantser.
  • During Nanowrimo I wrote for 45 minutes every day at lunch. Most days, that got me up above the minimum daily word count of 1667 words. If I got behind, I’d catch up on weekends. I just wrote like the wind, letting it all come out and not revising at all as I went. I still think that’s the best way to get stuff down on paper. Just go.
  • My novelist husband has this motto for writing: Make it crap; fix it later. It works.
  • I like writing in public, with lots of distractions, but I do turn on my White Noise app and plug in my earphones.
  • I can’t write with the TV on.
  • If I get stuck, I skip that chapter and go to something that happens later in the story.
  • I work on Scrivener, but please O Scrivener Literature and Latte Folk, My Kingdom for an iPad App!
  • Sometimes I procrastinate.
  • But usually I put the meat in the seat and write, no excuses.
Next on the Hit Parade:

Stay tuned for these wonderfully talented tagged writers, Posting on May 12, or thereabouts:

Back in the roaring eighties, Peter “Stoney” Emshwiller was the managing editor of six international magazines (including Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone Magazine, Night Cry, and Gallery Magazine). Since then he’s had two science fiction Bantam Books novels published (The Host and its sequel, Short Blade), an original TV sitcom pilot produced, and numerous movie options taken out on his work by the likes of Jerry Bruckheimer. When he’s not writing, he’s acting — particularly as a voiceover artist. Yes, that’s Stoney you hear resonating mellifluously in radio ads, making silly voices in cartoons, and dying a thousand horrible deaths in video games. (Hey, it beats working for a living.)



Just What I Need: Revision and Self-Editing for Publication

Revising a novel is a lonely business. It gets overwhelming.

Last Friday I went to a reading at Skylight Books, a Los Feliz neighborhood gem, and in their sparse but well-curated Writing section, I found James Scott Bell‘s book, Revision and Self Editing for Publication: Techniques for Transforming Your First Draft into a Novel that Sells.

In my experience, books on writing can be full of fluff, throat-clearing and nattering to beef up content that might fit into a half-hour PowerPoint presentation. This one, happily, has almost no non-nutritive filler. Mr. Bell’s tips start in the introduction—including a great little exercise on how to sharpen your sense of plot.

Books on writing sometimes contain only uninterrupted prose, paragraph upon paragraph with few bullet points, sidebars, or headings. This one isn’t like that. It’s got headings and bullet points aplenty, so you can read it front to back, or you can scan it for the bit you need right now.

And the prose is beautiful, with lots of varied sentence construction. I really appreciate that. If you can’t write great prose, please don’t try to teach me how to write.

I also love all of the examples from books and movies I already know. And, if you don’t know these examples, Mr. Bell lays out the plot or sets the scene so you will get it.

I was around page 24, and I already felt so grateful that I tweeted the author to thank him. He tweeted me right back. So this guy is also savvy about social networking. A definite plus.

This revision stuff scares me like Mrs. Brody is scared of Quint. There is much to do. I have to delete delete delete sections and stitch the remaining scenes back together in a way that doesn’t leave the manuscript all effed up like the skin of the Frankenstein monster. I can get into a downtrodden frame of mind about it. Mr. Bell’s book tells you up front that this dark mood will come. It gives you several techniques to help combat it, like a little post-it somewhere in your space that says ‘I can fix it.’

Yes, darnit! I can!

I think this book is going to be my best friend as I tromp all Hobbit-like through the revision marshes toward the distant burning mountain of Draft Four.

Hooray, I say!

San Francisco Writer’s Conference 2014 – Day 1

I am dog tired and it’s only day 1. This is intense. Lots of energy. Trying to learn how to pitch your novel rapidfire with only 5 clear bullet points, and networking like crazy, bonding as quickly as possible with folks doing the YA Fantasy genre thing. Many business cards were given, many gathered. Hope to God I can put faces with cards when it’s all done. Already building my YA Fantasy cohort.

Things I learned from the Children’s, Midgrade and YA Pitchathon

Who was there:

  • Natashya Wilson, Editor at Harlequin Teen (Editor of Julie Kagawa’s Iron Fey series)
  • Laurie McLean, Forward Literary Agency
  • Pam van Hylckama Vlieg, Forward Literary Agency
Gems and Nuggets:

Elevator Pitch:
  1. Just give them enough to interest them.
  2. Four sentences, 25 words or less.
  3. They really like the high-concept pitch, aka, it’s like Silence of the Lambs meets Charlotte’s Web, except good, because that would be sucky and what the heck does it mean, anyway? For this, use movies, books, and even video games that everyone knows.
  4. Never claim your novel is the next Harry Potter.
  5. It should be punchy.
  6. Don’t tell the end.
  7. Only tell the A plot.
  8. A YA Fantasy should be from 85 to 90k words.
  9. Another formula for the pitch “Who fights who to get what?”
Speed Dating:
  1. Your name
  2. Genre of your novel
  3. Title of Novel
  4. Word Count
Query Letters
  1. Don’t make me scroll
  2. First line is your logline high concept, aka Indiana Jones meets The Mummy (The Hook)
  3. Second paragraph is your back of book copy (The Book)
  4. Third paragraph is about you (The Cook)
  5. Another formula to describe the above is the The Hook, The Book, The Cook
Things I learned from Pitchcraft by Katherine Sands, Literary Agent
  1. In any pitch you only have time to cover 5 points, so choose them carefully
Basic Novel Pitch Formula
  1. Place (also time, era, modern day? 1066 Hastings? What?)
  2. Person, for instance, Bill, a 45-year old accountant who has always wanted to be an opera star
  3. Pivot: The dynamic moment that sets the whole story in motion.
General Notes About Pitchcraft
  • Set off sparks
  • Get interest
  • Show, don’t tell
  • Comparisons to other books, for example, “For readers who loved “The Hunger Games and the mortal instruments, my Contempory YA Fantasy pits the heroine against real historical magicians and alchemists who are seeking to use her power to make their immortality permanent.
I also attended a great talk by Rusty Shelton about ‘Discoverability in the Age of Social Media’ lots of great way to leverage social media to build ones brand, even as a novelist.
But as I am now a steaming pile of OMG, I must rewrite my pitch, asta la bye-bye for tonight!

I am a Writer

I’m almost done with my second draft of my first novel, Tigers Slow Awake. I’ve been thinking I should have a blog about writing and process and how the heck do you get from just a few vague ideas to 160,000 words. And how do you get from there to something you actually feel confident querying an agent or editor about?

I don’t know yet what that will be like, but I know I’m going to do it.

I’m writing a synopsis, something like you’d see on a book jacket, something that tells the story and sells it, too. But it’s scary to face the task of putting all my plot in one place. I suppose there’s something daunting about every phase of writing a novel.

I’m using the program Scrivener to wrangle this draft, and although I like it, I find the Compile feature was not at all intuitive. I had to do a deep web search to get it to come out the way I wanted, and it’s still not quite there. I’m so ready for Scrivener to have its own app. Apparently they have been working on that at literatureandlatte.com for more than three years. This is supposed to be the year they get there. I wish them the best of luck! I could really use that app!

And I’m working with a great writing teacher in Sherman Oaks, Claudette Sutherland. I’ve put her website link here. She gives great supportive feedback and I think she’s helping get my prose into line, among many other helpful things!

One thing I’m struggling with is how to inject imagery into the action so the reader knows exactly where they are and can really picture it. It’s quite a discipline to write that way, a good challenge.

Wish me luck! I’ll keep you posted!