How To Design Your Story Outline

Sample Flow Chart Plan for The Mystery of Chimney Rock

I’m in the middle of planning book 2 of my series, The Chromium Smith, and I thought it would be a great time to see if I can improve upon my story outline process and share everything that I’ve found. When designing the outline for book 1, The Soul Smith, I used a chapter by chapter approach toward planning the plot-based events. However, I found it cumbersome because I couldn’t fit all the chapter’s events I had planned into just one chapter, resulting in continuous revisions to my outline. After I abandoned a written plan, I found that I was able to develop my characters more organically as I wrote. I felt that this was a positive byproduct of the lack of a written outline, but I wasn’t without any plan at all.

With book 1, to compensate for a lack of a chapter-by-chapter written plan, I had conceived of the overarching story line and used proper character motivation to get from A to Z. I added one additional mechanic that I coined as ‘The Logic Test’ which prevented me from having any holes in my story. Lastly, whenever I thought of a great scene for the book, I wrote it down immediately. This list of scenes became my ‘Bag of Tricks’ that I was able to pull from whenever I felt a little stuck, or deprived of creativity. All of this was the same tried and true method that I employed when designing stories for role playing games.

So why even do the extra work to generate and maintain an outline? Well, when I submitted my short story, The Ravenous Flock, for critique at Critter’s Writer’s Workshop, I had one reviewer say, “I suspect a lack of outline.” In that instance, my A to Z approach didn’t work so well, but I blame that on my initial choice of an ending (which has since changed). Plus, with my novel, I had made an embarrassing mistake with a character’s name where I unintentionally changed the spelling of it half way through my book. I could have really benefited from a good character tracker system. Also, some publishers like Xchyler Publishing require a chapter-by-chapter synopsis of your book (among other things) when submitting your manuscript for consideration.

I had asked Xchyler Publishing why they required a chapter-by-chapter synopsis and this was their response: “There are a few reasons. 1. It shows you know your story, which means you have spent time, and at least read back through it. 2. It helps our editing staff know what the main points are. So if/when they need to be edited down, the key points remain.3. It shows you are devoted to the success your book as much as we will be.”

What is the goal or purpose of an outline? It is there to help you flush out any holes in your plot, to ensure that your story is solid, and to help you write your novel. It will help you stay focused, monitor your pacing, and will guide you through your story. It will help you think through your novel, so that you can make any changes to plot or story upfront before you write yourself into a corner. In addition, it will (at times) help prevent writer’s block.

What does an outline need?

  • Characters
  • Places and Scenes
  • Problem
  • Plot
  • Theme
  • Tone

How do you design an outline? There are numerous different methods that work well for different people. It could be as simple as a bunch of post-it notes or as scientific as Randy Ingermanson’s Snowflake Method. After searching the web, I’ll share a few ways below:

  1. Flash cards or Post-it Notes: Great way to stay organized and keep all the pertinent info in an easy to find place. Have a post-it for each character, write down descriptions for reference, who they are related to, etc.
  2. White Board or Mindmapping: I rather enjoy white boards, and I have a simple one in my home office because I like staring at a visual to be reminded of things, or to think through issues. Similarly, you can connect thoughts, or plot events to characters to show motivations, etc using mindmapping. The free iPad and iPhone app called Total Recall is a great tool for this.
  3. Simple Document: Whether you organize everything into a table, or you have a story board process using PowerPoint, or you write down everything in paragraphs of text, a simple document is a great place to start.
  4. Software: There is too many to list, but you can see them (and buy them) all here: Writers Store
  5. Chapter by Chapter: I tend to think that this document should be made as you write your novel, so that it can become a useful reference guide. It will help you remember which chapter introduces what character, what events occurred in what chapter, and can help you take a glance at the pace of your novel. Reader’s dislike changes in pace, so if your plot-driven events are slowing down, it may be time for some revisions.
  6. The Snowflake Method: Created by Randy Ingermanson, this is an incredibly detailed planning process. It was developed around the idea that novels are designed. At its most basic concept, you start small with one idea and then you expand it outward; writing individual story lines for characters and expanding them to full page descriptions, expanding the plot from a one page synopsis to a four page synopsis, create a scene list and grow it into a multi-paragraph description of each scene, etc. You do this until every tacit of your novel has matured, and then you write your first draft.
  7. Combination: I plan to use a simple document to keep track of characters, as well as  a white board to help me think through character motivations, and a chapter by chapter outline to help me monitor the pace of my novel and use as a good reference. Feel free to use your own combo to ensure that you have a solid plan in place.

How to Write a Bio for New Authors

First time authors like myself have it a little tougher when it comes to writing a biography. It’s common knowledge that literary agents want to see previous publishing credit in your query letters as part of your bio. In fact, in my searches I have come across a few literary agents that do not accept unsolicited queries from unpublished authors. I’ve seen others that ask for a cover letter that lists all published works. I know most of my blogs have been about the topic of a query letter, but this one will focus on what should be the last paragraph of your query. So what should a new author say in the bio-section of his query letter?

In the world of the publishing industry, an author’s “bio” is actually a resume. It’s not who you are, it’s what you’ve done. Only if you have some life-experience that relates to your novel will you find that who you are is actually important. For instance, if you are writing a London murder mystery, and you happen to live in London all your life, then it gives credit toward your writing. For writers like me that love world building, there is nothing about my life that is relevant to a literary agent. I could say that I love all aspects of fantasy (books, movies, video games, board games, table-top games, RPGs), but none of that is what they want to hear.

Other acceptable and reputable credentials to add are that you are a member of RWA or SFWA, but those Writer’s Associations don’t just let anyone in. You have to have previously published works or short stories to qualify for membership. I searched for writer’s associations that do not have such high standards for membership and joined one or two, but then it seems that they just aren’t “resume-worthy”. I have also read that it is recommended to mention that you have joined a writer’s critique club. If you do, I highly suggest you join one that meets in person, my experience with an online club has been less than impressive. . . but I guess you get out what you put in. . . I just made a vow to myself to become a more active member! =)

Lastly, there is formal education. But if you didn’t go to college for creative writing or some sort of English major, it’s deemed irrelevant and doesn’t warrant mentioning in your bio. Also in my readings of how to craft a bio, adding that you partook in a writing workshop is not noteworthy either.

So as a new author what should be said? Or what can be said? Nothing. The conventional wisdom is to just focus on the story and wow them with your musings. They understand that new authors are out there and have great stories to tell. So just don’t send up any red flags in your query, don’t stress the fact that you are new, don’t add irrelevant info about yourself. But in an effort to rise above and distinguish myself from the slush pile, I can tell you what my plan is: I’m going to write a short story, set in my world, and work on getting it published in a magazine and/or enter it in a contest. There are a lot of contests for short stories out there. But I will blog about this later.