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How I outline fiction – the journey of a plotter

This week, to celebrate the release of my debut novel Woken Kingdom, I want to go over my journey from a beginner writer to a 'real author'. It isn't fast or easy, and with publishing being such a mysterious industry, I try to share as much as I can from my experience.

Here's how I went from a confused, aimless pantser (there is nothing wrong with pantsing - I just had to learn it wasn't for me!) to a plotter who could write effective books with more ease and in much less time.

Remember that this is just my experience of finding writing methods that work best for me. I'm not recommending my methods to all writers, because we're all different. And, I'm still learning!

The beginning:

When I first started writing, I had no clue at all about how to actually write a book. I’d looked into some basic three-act structures and seen writing advice on platforms like Pinterest, or in interviews with my favourite authors, but I had no education and no experience.

I studied by reading, reading, and reading. I looked at the way characters were written, the way authors crafted prose, crafted worlds, and where the big plot points landed in my favourite novels.

In those days, I hated the idea of outlining. Living with ADHD, it's difficult for me to ever follow any kind of organisation. I just wanted to have fun and see where my story went!

Unfortunately for me, I’m not the kind of writer who can do that with much success. I threw away the first draft of my first novel and rewrote it almost entirely. But I pantsed that draft as well, leaving it, too, with many issues. Many, many edits later, I adore that book and am so proud of all I learned from it, but I don’t think I would ever publish it.

Sorry, Golden Hour, but you might be shelved for a long time.

The middle:

It was during writing An Enchanted Earth that I first started outlining. I didn’t have much of a clue, still, but I had more education, had read and studied far more books, and had the experience of my first novel in my toolkit. I used a simple three-act structure, mapping out what I wanted to happen in each chapter to hit the right beats.

Still, it turned out wonkier than I’d have liked. The plot, to me, was imperfect and didn't make a lot of sense. But over its many edits, I've come to love that story and its imperfections. Sometimes you write a book that feels like a story you’re channelling from another world, and you can't change some things because it would lose authenticity – that was An Enchanted Earth!

By this point I’d created a really strong outlining sheet for Golden Hour – because it needed so much reorganising and structural editing that without going through each chapter and outlining what happens, which POV the story is in (it has three POVs – THREE), what is happening for each of the characters, when and where the scene is set, and any subplots happening, the story would have always been a big tangled mess in my head. Oh, what a lesson to learn!

This giant spreadsheet also had pages on characters: their personalities, looks, backgrounds, motivations, strengths and weaknesses, likes and dislikes, and character arcs. And pages on the magic system, worldbuilding, timelines, and more. This spreadsheet became the template I would use for all of my following books. I had learned my lesson.

(Remember – this is just MY journey. Many people are great at pantsing and I’m very jealous of them.)

So, after my Golden Hour experience, I outlined An Enchanted Earth in good detail, while leaving room for changes and fun. What was most important was having a strong idea of the characters, the main conflict, and where I wanted those things to go. The world building, magic, scenes, stakes, etc. came to me along the way.

This book was so much easier to write than Golden Hour, because I knew what needed to happen and what I was working with. I kept every piece of important information – like how the magic could be used, the timelines, etc. – in a spreadsheet that could be accessed easily to avoid plot holes.

Many changes were still made in the many edits that followed for An Enchanted Earth. I even changed the gender of one of the main characters; yes, Morgan was originally a teenage boy (I can’t even picture that now). Especially after the beta reading process, I changed the stakes in some ways, fleshed out the descriptions (showing instead of telling is one of my biggest struggles), made the characters and their motivations clearer, and gave them a much bigger showdown at the climax.

Being able to see the entire story laid out in an outline made beta feedback so much easier to work with. Without my outline to show me where each plot point was, it would have been near impossible to see where I could add scenes/character development.

I highly recommend that pantsers also create chapter outlines and character sheets to see the bigger picture of the story and avoid pitfalls like losing track of plots and characters. It won't take long if you do this as you go, but it'll save you a lot of stress later.

The End, or the miracle that is Save the Cat

Sometimes I wonder if I’m the #1 fan of Save the Cat. Truly, it is a life-changing method for an author like me who needs a solid outline to avoid letting the story go all over the place. Even if you're a pantser, it's an important book to study so you can learn why certain plot points work best in certain places.

With the Save the Cat method, I wrote Woken Kingdom (my third novel) in record speed. My edits were quicker too, because I managed to write such a strong first draft by knowing exactly what needed to happen and when. Beta feedback came back mostly positive, because the book was written with a proven method for effective storytelling.

Now, when writing Haunted Princess and Spellbound Empire (Woken Kingdom #3 and #4) I don’t stick to Save the Cat so strictly, because the method is more difficult to enact for sequels. But having that knowledge of how to outline effectively (and where audiences expect certain beats to be) has allowed me to continue writing strong first drafts that need minimal developmental edits.

I've come to love outlining, and find it to be one of the most exciting parts of writing -- especially world building and character creating! I still learn plenty as I write, and change things as I go, but having a foundation is vital for my storytelling.

Will you try some new methods? Let me know via social media :)


Want to read Woken Kingdom? Visit your favourite online bookstore, or get the Kindle copy from Amazon.

Want more help with outlining? Try my fiction writing worksheets for writers.


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