How to Write Your Book: Outlining

During the San Francisco Writers Conference in February, I attended an amazing master class given by poet and author Victoria Zackheim and international best-selling mystery novelist, Anne Perry. The course, titled “How to Write Your Book,” took authors through five main elements that all work together to form a great story. The steps include: Outlining and how to begin writing your book, character arcs, writing your various characters, formulating plots, and developing the scenes that make up your plot. I’ve written a blog post on each area as Zackheim and Perry imparted a wealth of information that is helpful to all authors.

Not all authors outline their books, some simply see where the narrative takes them. But I learned for many authors, whether it’s a book, essay, short story, online piece, etc., outlining really pays off. Anne writes a very detailed outline of all her books. The outline she develops is scene by scene. Then she checks off each scene once it’s completed. Because of her attention to details, Anne’s novels have been deemed “meticulously plotted” more than once. This may sound like a lot of work, and it is. But it also can pay great dividends.

In writing my next mystery novel, I created a basic outline. I knew how the story would end, but was having trouble getting there in a way that would intrigue readers, keep them guessing, make sense, and give them satisfaction in the end. Constructing the outline with a fair amount a detail wasn’t easy. That probably is due to the fact that novel was half completed before I took the seminar and realized an in depth outline would help me iron out important elements before I typed another word. But having an outline can simplify your writing process. The author needs to know the beginning and the end, but you also have to outline the steps of how to reach the outcome. Anne’s outlines are also linear. You need to know what the story is about. As an example, mysteries usually ask: Who killed so and so, and why?

As part of the outline Perry emphasizes the importance of knowing who your characters are and what purpose they serve. She generally provides a list of characters at the beginning of her novels, which is something I will do in future books. In developing a list of characters before you start, the author decides what happens to each. Another point Anne mentioned is that as an author, you have to care about happens to a character, regardless of whether you like them or not. For the audience, listing characters helps them keep track of who’s who.

I learned that once you get started, an outline is much like filling in the blanks of your story. In the future, I’ll definitely outline my book before I type that first word. It is well worth the extra time and effort.

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