A great topic of debate is whether to outline your novel or not, and sound arguments can be made for both sides. I've written one novel without an outline, and one with. I've been working on and off for three years on the novel without an outline. The one with an outline was written in 17 days, revised and edited quickly, published and currently sitting on bookstore shelves. Hmmm . . .
Even given my own experience, I have to believe that some stories are just more suited to outlining than others. And outlining can be used for different purposes: (1) traditionally, the outline states in logical steps the progression of the plot; (2) an outline can help organize multiple story lines (see J.K. Rowling's outline for Order of the Phoenix below); (3) ordering events in an outline will often help an author see themes and patterns previously unrecognized.
So whether your outline looks like a flow chart, a spreadsheet, a Roman numeral list, or index cards taped to the wall, SOME form of organization will help you follow your own story. Just remember: an outline is not set in stone. It's always a work in progress.
Homework: As with all aspects of writing, give yourself permission to play with outlining. Look for a form that not only suits your brain style, but your story's style, too. For example, it might track a character's emotional journey instead of the events of a plot. An outline is simply a tool. Find a way to make it useful for YOU.
If you've done some of the homework exercises, you should have a sense of major themes for your story, as well as voice and ways to increase tension. Tomorrow we'll talk about writing an outline, and then the race is on!
Homework: Try your best to imagine as much of your story as possible. For me, that is a visual process: I see scenes like a movie in my head. For you, it might be an emotion you want to capture, or maybe it feels like steps along a logical trail. Whatever your medium, now's the time to bring everything together.
Jewelry, clothing, personal items? Imagine the life of the person who used to own them, and see if a story presents itself to you. It could be an unsolved crime, a romance, a ghost story, or a time-traveling story. Imagine the object has power of its own: does it bring good (or bad) luck? Does it make the holder invisible? The possibilities are endless!
Homework: Search the house to see if you have any family heirlooms, and then let your imagination go wild with speculation. If you can't find any, search for "family heirlooms" on Google images for some amazing pictures!
responses, causes, effects, and consequences that family stories provide, and harness their power in your story.
Homework: Jot down, in quick note form, all the stories you remember of your own extended family. If the list is short, or the topic intrigues you, interview family members to see what they remember. Pay attention to anything that piques your interest.
"I would have been home already if it wasn't for that doughnut."
"I need to get back to the rats."
"How would you know? You've never been to the space station."
"Arsenic or cyanide?"
Homework: Tune in to some conversation not meant for you. Don't eavesdrop on private conversations, but find a public place and listen carefully. Jot down 5-10 curious remarks.
If a bee enters your home, it's a sign that you will soon have a visitor. If you kill the bee, you will have bad luck, or the visitor will be unpleasant.
If you say good-bye to a friend on a bridge, you will never see each other again.
To cure a cough: take a hair from the coughing person's head, put it between two slices of buttered bread, feed it to a dog, and say, "Eat well you hound, may you be sick and I be sound."
It is bad luck to close a pocket knife unless you were the one who opened it.
To kill a raven is to harm the spirit of King Arthur who visits the world in the form of a raven.
Homework: If you're looking for a story idea, play around with one of the superstitions on this list. If you have a story already, see if you can work one of these superstitions (or another you find yourself) into the tale.
Here's the last what-if discussion. This time, think of all the things that DON'T go wrong, a thousand times a day. This might seem kind of weird to consider, but I think it helps you to notice how situations can change in a heartbeat.
For example, think of all the times people cross the street and DON'T get hit by a bus. Or all the people who catch the train to work on time and don't think twice about it. Or the dogs who wander the neighborhood and find their way home, unharmed.
In your story, maybe a careless bus driver hits a kid on a bike. Maybe a man misses his bus and ends up witnessing a crime, which leads to all kids of trouble. Or a dog goes wandering and is found by a girl who, though she means well, prevents him from getting home.
What if the girl who was completely comfortable with being adopted and raised by wonderful parents found out she really wasn't adopted? That is, what if she discovered her adoptive parents were actually her birth parents? What mystery or secret could be so terrible that they would go to the trouble of pretending she was adopted?
What if a boy living in the future and disgusted with the state of his civilization tried to travel back in time to fix things? And what if a girl living in the ancient world was trying to travel to the future? What if neither one of them could travel at all without the help of another boy living in the present? Those are the questions I'm playing around with for my own story!
Homework: Compose at least 3 what-if questions and, if you're brave enough, post them here for us to read!
And of course, when I say "you" I mean your character. Where do these what-if questions lead you?
Homework: Follow the questions I have posed, but then pose your own. If you have the beginnings of a story in mind, pose what-ifs about your character, world, and conflict. Otherwise, make a list of your own fantastic what-ifs. Make a list of at least 10.
Author, writing coach, home school mom; native of the Pacific Northwest.