• Outlines and gameplans matter.
• It’s good to be reminded, I can finish writing a book (a sequel, a first draft, etc.).
• Let books breathe and stretch out on their own (sometimes).
• Books will blow up without being reigned in.
• Outline on a granular level: detailed chapters with triangle formats instead of generalized blobs.
2017 was a great year for writing. I did a number of short stories, revisions, and starts of new books. Above all, I kept my yearly goal of completing the first draft for a new novel. Writing new things keeps me excited and helps release some of the backlog running around my brain. For this year, I decided to do a sequel to a shorter novel I wrote a year ago. Despite writing a bunch of first books, I haven’t done a sequel yet. I figured it’d be better to practice on something “less important” for my first try, and boy did I learn a lot!
Making Preparations Gameplan completion
This year, I decided to do things differently for my goal of writing a new book: (1) I’d create an in-depth outline using the Take Off Your Paths methodology. (2) I would workshop my 12-page outline with my writers’ group, ironing out flaws early on, especially getting clarity on my muddled middle. (3) I would use NaNoWriMo to get the first 50% of the book done. I was excited to hit the ground running. I had my plan (the outline) and my system (NaNoWriMo and beyond) to finish up the draft.
The first lesson learned? Game plans make a HUGE difference. Having all that in place made it run a lot smoother when I actually started writing.
Second thing I learned? I can write a sequel; I can finish a new first draft. It can be intimidating to sit at a new blank page, write “Chapter 1” and wonder if you can actually get it done. Every time I write “Fin” at the end of a new draft, I’m reminded I can. Each time I write another book, the question of “Can I finish this?” becomes easier to answer. The same thing will happen to you. The more you write, you more confident you’ll be in your skills. This is also why it’s essential you finish what you start, or at least you finish some of it. You want to get in the habit of finishing books so you know you can when it counts.
Blowing Up Realizing the pain
There was one huge failure in my writing or at least a huge issue. I’d written my outline in 3 segments, an opener, a middle portion, and an ending. I figured I could write all of that in about 80-100K words. And I figured dead wrong.
I hit an impasse early on: my main character was supposed to interact with various people who I hadn’t outlined yet because I didn’t think they were very important. Turns out they were. I had to know who he was talking with. So I had to create a bunch of new characters, each who had to have their own mini-stories to not seem like cardboard.
The first segment kept on expanding, and expanding, and expanding. I’d hoped to finish it within 30-40K words, but it kept ballooning. Most of it felt necessary since one character’s arc needed a lot of time to complete but I started to worry. This series had already had problems like this. The original book was supposed to be the only one, but it grew to the point that when I reached where I thought the middle was, I called it good for the first installment at 90K words. Now the sequel was threatening to have to be split into another book as well.
Since I was writing for speed and not for quality, I decided to let it go where it wanted and let the book just breathe. I could always cut later. So I wrote what I felt should happen, letting the book be free without me trying to curtail it. I ended segment 1 of my outline around 85K words, another full-length novel.
It was great to be at a point I could call “THE END OF BOOK 2” but it was also disappointing. I’d hoped to finish the series here. Instead, I have to go back and see if it really is book 2 or if I have to trim it back to segment length.
Nitty-Gritty Details Zooming in on the outline
My next lessons came when I started analyzing what went wrong. How could 1 segment of my outline balloon into a full-length novel? The problem is that I didn’t outline enough. I didn’t go into enough detail and I didn’t imagine the ground level.
Have you ever planned a trip and forgotten items to bring? I have. For me, it can be helpful to imagine myself at different stages on the trip: “I’m in the car and need gasoline; better remember to get that; I need snacks too because it’s a long trip; oh and sunglasses and maybe sunscreen because it’s bright out.” I imagine the first night and the first morning, thinking of what I’ll need: “I’m going to brush my teeth, so better remember that; when I shower, do I need a towel or my own soap?” Mentally visualizing the nitty-gritty gives me the details I need to pack well. Otherwise, it’s just a blob of general-travel-items and I’ll forget something important.
The same applies to writing. I didn’t imagine the ground level for my story. I just had general blobs: “main character interacts with other humans, feels nervous about their views conflicting with his own.” But I didn’t think what that would mean, that I had to come up with actual people who have names, goals, and dreams. I didn’t think about how that would add to the story time.
The general blobbing also didn’t have chapter breakdowns, which was another HUGE issue. I couldn’t possibly know how long segment 1 would take because I never tried to estimate it. Had I broken it out chapter by chapter, I would have seen there were a lot more things that had to happen than what I planned. Just having the high concepts isn’t enough to avoid this pitfall. I need the ground level detail. I need to imagine exactly what’s going to take place. Then I can cut and manage before the book explodes.
This is one of the big lessons of Take Off Your Pants that I ignored. The author promotes outlining individual chapters, each with a beginning/middle/end, each with a mini-climax to keep the reader engaged. They should all look like inverted triangles starting with broad options and narrowing into a final point at the end. I hadn’t gone into that much detail and it showed. I struggle with this level of detail because (1) it’s a lot of work, and (2) being a discovery writer makes it harder to go that deep.
In the end, I had a book that I’m not sure should be a separate book. Maybe it should still segment 1 of a story. Regardless, it’ll take a lot of thought and revision to get it where I want it to be. And much of that could have been avoided by going to a granular level.
Conclusion Lessons learned
So there’s what I learned writing my first sequel and 6th book novel:
Outlines and gameplans matter.
I can finish writing (a sequel, a first draft, etc.).
Let books breathe and stretch out on their own (sometimes).
Books will blow up without being reigned in.
Outline on a granular level: detailed chapters with triangle formats instead of generalized blobs.
In the future, I plan on outlining chapter by chapter, making sure each one is a triangle so I can estimate how much space each segment will really take. This should help clean up everything along the way. I had to add a bunch of unplanned conflict that wasn’t in the outline. It would have been better to plan it all along. This was still a great year for learning. And I couldn’t have learned these lessons without actually going through the trouble of writing this story and practicing.
But how about you? What did you learn writing during 2017? I’d love to hear your thoughts and your goals for the future.