Ask the Editor: How Can I Force Myself to Use an Outline?
After “pantsing” my way through a NaNoWriMo novel, the entire thing is a hot mess. I’m afraid it’s hopeless—no amount of editing can fix it. Moving on. For my next novel, I want to become a “plotter” and actually use an outline. The problem is, I hate the thought of an outline. I can never stick to one, so why should go through all that work for something that I’m going to abandon halfway through?
Congratulations on finishing NaNoWriMo! Hot mess or no, writing 50k in a month is something you should be proud of. It seems like participating in National Novel Writing Month has taught you some valuable skills, and made you eager to try again with a new story idea.
However, I worry that you’re thinking of an outline as a rigid document. Perhaps you’re thinking of the kind of outlines we wrote for our student papers, with Roman Numerals and indented numbers—the kind of outline you got graded on.
But a fiction outline is for your eyes only. It doesn’t have to be a color-coded spreadsheet with different fonts for each point of view character. You can scribble scene ideas on index cards and then move them around until you find an order you like. You can make a “mind map” with arrows pointing to the relationship between events. You can jot ideas in a notebook as they come to you. Bullet points are fine. In fact, the looser the outline, the better.
As authors, we get very attached to our first ideas, visualizing exciting scenes on a very granular level. But what comes in the first flash of inspiration might not be the best thing for our novel-in-progress. When you’re crafting your outline, only concentrate on what happens. Leave the how for later.
For example, let’s say that at the midpoint of your outline, your hero and heroine—we’ll call them Abid and Josephine—are trapped in a dungeon. You want them to escape the dungeon and have a chase through the marketplace before boarding a boat. Way back when you first thought of this story idea, you visualized this scene perfectly, including Abid charming the guard while Josephine steals the keys. But when the time comes to actually write the scene, none of it fits. Abid isn’t the guard’s type, the guard doesn’t carry the keys, you’ve put the marketplace on the other side of the city, and they’re nowhere near a port.
Does this mean your outline is useless? No. It means your outline was too detailed. Instead of writing all this at the outset, your outline should simply say, “Abid and Josephine escape the dungeon.” This gives you the flexibility to write the best scene, not the first scene you thought of.
But what if Abid and Josephine never end up in that dungeon at all? What if your novel took a different turn and instead, the midpoint scene finds them on trial in the king’s court, having to prove their innocence? Does this mean you’ve “abandoned” your outline?
Here is where some writers get into trouble. They beat themselves up, asking “why can’t I stick to an outline?” Or even worse, “Why can’t I write a decent outline in the first place?” But there’s a better question to ask here. “How can I change my outline to work for me?” An outline is never one-and-done. And changing things halfway through doesn’t mean the original outline was useless. It got you started. It helped you write your first few chapters until the story got up to speed and took on a life of its own.
An outline shouldn’t be a cage to trap your muse in. It should be a comfortable house where your muse has everything she needs. If something isn’t working, go ahead and open the windows, put on a fresh coat of paint, or even knock down some walls. Modifying is not the same as abandoning.
At the end of the day, you might decide you’re happier as a pantser, and you’d rather spend your time revising your “hot mess” of a novel than trying to craft an outline. That’s okay! We all write differently. But I’m glad you’re willing to experiment with this new way of writing, to see if it works for you.
Keep writing. You’re doing great.
Alex Kourvo is a freelance editor with over a decade of experience helping writers. She is the author of The Big-Picture Revision Checklist which is out now.
The Gift Guide for Writers 2021
I’ve seen a lot of holiday gift guides for writers that promise “the most beautiful, unique, and necessary gifts for the writer in your life.” I excitedly open it, only to see notebooks, pens, candles and mugs. Those things are nice, but they are also super generic. And trust me, the writer in your life already has enough pens.
Your writer friend deserves better. Here is a list of ten thoughtful, practical, and fun gifts for writers.
1. A T-shirt That Says it All
Daydreaming? Woolgathering? Lost the thread of the conversation? No! You’re plotting.
2. A Soft Foam Footstool
This soft footstool elevates the legs to just the right height for a laptop to be comfortably perched on the lap. I have one of these under my desk and I don’t know how I ever sat for hours without it.
This is a little box filled with the most interesting writing prompts you can imagine. You can use Storymatic for brainstorming, writing exercises, cooperative storytelling, or just for fun.
4. Blue-Blocking Glasses
Blue light is the worst light, causing headaches, fatigue, and insomnia. These glasses block glare and blue light from computers and other devices. When I wear mine, I can write longer with less eye strain.
5. Light Therapy
Sometimes, it’s not too much light that’s the problem, but lack of it. Even those of us who don’t suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder can benefit from a few extra lumens in the winter months. Some therapy lights cost hundreds of dollars, but this one is small and inexpensive but still works great.
6. Typewriter Key Necklace
Every writer I know loves old typewriters. Typewriters aren’t practical, but who cares when they are so cool? Many companies make jewelry out of typewriter keys, so we can carry a bit of that retro chic with us. Here’s one of my favorites.
7. A Tote Bag That Tells the Truth
Writers make choices with each word they put on the page. If a book is problematic, that is 100% on the writer. Hold yourself and your fellow writers accountable with this awesome reusable tote.
8. Bathtub Caddy
There are writers who use a bath to relax. There are writers who read in the tub. And there are writers who actually write while submerged in water. Whatever kind of writer you are, this bath caddy will hold all the essentials.
9. Shower Curtain
Eureka moments and showers. The two naturally go together. Maybe our muses are activated by water, or maybe they just live in the bathroom, but either way, this shower curtain will show the muses that you respect what they do.
10. Library Due Date Notecards
These 3×5 inch notecards are the perfect size. You could use these to remind you which of your friends borrowed books from you, or you could turn them over and write notes on the back. Either way, they are adorable little blasts from the past, and a wonderful way to remember the books we cherish.
About the Author: Alex Kourvo is an editor and book blogger who doesn’t need any more notebooks or pens.
This post contains some affiliate links. (The author gets a tiny commission even though you don’t pay more.)
Ask the Editor: What’s the Difference Between a Trope and a Cliche?
I’m writing a young adult fantasy novel. I’ve researched the market, so I know what other authors are writing and I know what sells. My question is this: must I write the one thousandth novel about a “chosen one” who saves the world? It seems like such a cliché. On the other hand, if this is a trope that readers expect, what’s the harm in using it? Maybe I just don’t understand the difference between a trope and cliche, so I guess that’s my real question: trope, cliché, what’s the difference?
A trope is an ingredient. Let’s say your son has asked for a grilled cheese sandwich for lunch. He wants bread, cheese, and butter, toasted up medium well. Think of those ingredients as tropes. They are essential to make that particular kind of food. In romance, you’ve got the meet-cute, the first kiss, the happily ever after. In mystery, you have the dead body, the misfit detective, and the midpoint plot twist. Other tropes, like the chosen one or the fired cop solving the crime anyway or the marriage of convenience are perfectly fine. They are the bread and butter and cheese of our books. You literally can’t make a book without them, just like you can’t make a sandwich without bread.
A cliché is like an ingredient that’s been sitting out on the counter too long. So long, in fact, that it’s gone bad. The bread is moldy and the butter is rancid. It might have been fine once, but now it’s spoiled. If you make a grilled cheese sandwich with moldy bread, it will still be a grilled cheese sandwich, but your kid won’t want to eat it.
Clichés are things that have been done to death, such as the villain’s monologue or the literal saving of a cat. These have been done so many times, in fact, that they are ripe for parody. So when we’re watching The Incredibles and Buddy says “You caught me monologuing,” we laugh because it’s such a cliché that it’s funny.
In short, tropes are good. They are the healthy ingredients that make up our stories. Readers want them and love them. Clichés are tropes that have been on the shelf so long that they’ve gone bad. They are not healthy or good for readers, or for you.
And the terrible part is, we are never sure when a trope becomes a cliché. Here’s my thought. If you’re using a trope and still getting a good story out of it, something that feels like a fresh take (using fresh ingredients) then you’re absolutely fine. You don’t have to subvert the trope or turn it on its head, you just have to make sure you’re bringing something fun and new to the table. Maybe you’re writing the cynical detective story, but instead of a grizzled veteran who’s seen it all, he’s twenty-two. Why such cynicism in one so young? That’s your story.
The other way to make a trope work for you is to reach deep within yourself to bring the most authentic, heartfelt version of that story into the world. Think of it as artisanal grilled cheese on sourdough bread with local farm cheddar and hand-churned butter. So to take our cynical detective story, perhaps he fits the stereotype to a T. He’s sixty years old, lives alone, trusts no one, keeps a bottle of Scotch in his file cabinet and a loaded pistol in his pocket, and solves crimes between benders. How did your detective get this way? What heartbreaking part of his backstory could you explore? (By the way, if you want to see this done well, read the Matthew Scudder books by Lawrence Block. Tropes galore. Awesome books.)
You’ve got to go deep if you’re taking this approach to fiction, though, and it has to be one hundred percent sincere. You have to write that trope with all the honesty and emotion you have, because the moment you wink at the audience, you’re done for.
However, where things go badly is when you’re using a trope in a lazy way, just coloring in an outline that someone else has made, with nothing new and no sincerity. If you “write to market” in this shallow way, you’re using rancid ingredients and you’re going to end up writing a cliché.
So go ahead and use those tropes! They are the vital ingredients your story needs. Just be sure you’re using the best ingredients you can find and you’re treating them with respect. And then, cook them up and serve them to a happy audience.
Keep writing, you’re doing great.
Alex Kourvo is a freelance editor with over a decade of experience helping writers. She is the author of The Big-Picture Revision Checklist, which is out now.
Ask the Editor: How do I Make the Stakes Meaningful?
I got some disappointing feedback from my beta readers about my fantasy novel. They said they had a hard time getting into my book, and it didn’t hold their interest. I understand that story stakes are the way to make readers care, so I made the stakes as big as possible. If my heroes don’t prevail, the entire kingdom will fall. So why didn’t my readers care about my story?
I’m sorry that your betas couldn’t get into your fantasy novel. I’m sure that feedback wasn’t easy to hear. But looking at the story stakes is an excellent first step toward a solid revision.
I admire your commitment to making the story stakes as big as possible, but the paradox is that bigger isn’t always better. As humans, we have a hard time wrapping our heads around mass suffering, and we tend to go numb when an entire kingdom is at stake. One death is a tragedy. A thousand deaths is a statistic.
Instead of trying to go bigger, I suggest the opposite approach. Bring your story stakes down to a human level. Make the stakes matter more by making them more personal.
Some genres have personal stakes built in. Maybe you’re writing literary fiction where the stakes are the heroine coming to grips with her family’s history. Maybe you’re writing romance where the stakes are a couple’s true love. Maybe you’re writing a YA novel about a kid overcoming a learning disability and finally getting that college acceptance. It’s awesome when the stakes are on that personal level, because when readers connect with the characters, they will care intensely about the outcome of the story.
But that’s not the kind of novel you’re writing. You’re writing a fantasy with much bigger things at stake. That means you’ll have to work even harder to make those stakes personal.
The only way that stakes matter to readers is if they’re brought down from the global to the human level. Do whatever you can to tell us why the fate of the whole world matters to this hero. Who is he fighting for? His family? His parents? His lover? In what way will those people have their lives ruined if he fails? Get very specific here. Give the readers enough details to truly understand how important this goal is to this very small number of people that the reader has come to love.
The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien is a sprawling, epic adventure where the entire fate of Middle Earth is at stake. If Sauron takes over, everyone will suffer for generations. That’s huge. But why do readers care? They care because of Frodo. He’s walking to Mordor with barely any resources, trying to destroy the One Ring, and for what? For all of Middle Earth? No. Frodo cares about his family and friends. He cares about the other hobbits. He cares about the Shire. That is who Frodo is fighting for.
You absolutely should have stakes as big as the world if that’s what your genre demands. Readers of fantasy love to see epic battles and political intrigue and great evil ravaging the land. But make sure that you’ve also made these things matter to one person, or a family, or a small group of heroes.
Keep writing. You’re doing great.
About the editor: Alex Kourvo is a freelance editor with over a decade of experience helping writers. She is the author of The Big-Picture Revision Checklist, which is out now.
Ask the Editor: How Can I Make my Heroine Three-Dimensional?
My critique group says that my heroine is too perfect and therefore unbelievable. I tried giving her some flaws in my next draft, but now my critique group doesn’t like her at all. How do I balance it out so my heroine is neither a goody two-shoes nor an unlikable witch?
I sympathize. Making a character three-dimensional is tough.
Nobody wants to read about someone who never makes a mistake. In fact, the entire point of a novel is to watch a heroine grow and change. She can’t do that if she’s already perfect. And if all the other characters in the novel already love her, there will be no conflict.
Most writers realize that their heroine needs some flaws, but they aren’t sure what kind of flaws to give her, so they choose things at random. Suddenly, their heroine is clumsy, or short-tempered, or her house is always a wreck, or she’s late for everything. Any flaw that sounds interesting or fun gets thrown into the book.
The problem with this? Readers will feel the randomness. Your character won’t seem well-rounded. She’ll seem scattered, and therefore, readers won’t believe in her.
Instead, look at your heroine’s strengths. What are they? Make a list on paper. Now turn them upside down. What are the downsides of those wonderful positive qualities you gave your heroine? Is she extremely independent? That probably also means she isn’t good at asking for help when she needs it. Does she see the best in everyone? That can also mean she’s naive, and lets people take advantage of her. Is she brainy? In what ways can you make her “too smart for her own good” as she only sees the high-minded, logical answer to a problem, never the down-to-earth practical one? Is your heroine very athletic, winning every race or match? In what ways is her competitive nature going to be a problem for her?
You can also flip this. If you’re having trouble thinking of the downsides of your heroine’s strengths, you can also look at the upside of her flaws. Perhaps you have a character who is very cynical, always looking for hidden motives or waiting for the other shoe to drop. That’s the person who will spot danger first, long before the other characters see it.
You can give your heroine any strengths. You can give her any flaws. But it’s crucial that you make one the mirror image of the other. If you want to make a well-rounded character whom readers will believe in, you need to make these positive and negative qualities mirror one another. Her good traits are her bad traits, and vice-versa.
Keep writing. You’re doing great.
About the editor: Alex Kourvo is a freelance editor with over a decade of experience helping writers. She is the author of The Big-Picture Revision Checklist, which is out now.
My First How-to Book is Here
Like a book coach in your pocket.
It’s here! THE BIG-PICTURE REVISION CHECKLIST is available in ebook, paperback, and hardcover everywhere books are sold. You can order it online or at your local bookshop. I don’t think any libraries have it yet, although it wouldn’t hurt to ask. The point is, the book is published and you can get your copy today.
One reader compared THE BIG-PICTURE REVISION CHECKLIST to a high-priced book coach. I don’t know if I’d go that far, but…
Wait. Yes I would.
For five bucks and a hundred pages, you can have your own guide to novel revisions. THE BIG-PICTURE REVISION CHECKLIST is the guide you need to revise your novel. It will help you make likable protagonists who are flawed in exactly the right ways, and antagonists that readers love to hate. You’ll crank up your story stakes and pinpoint the five crucial scenes every novel needs.
I wrote this book to help writers who struggle with revision, but all writers will benefit from taking a second look at their drafts.
book coach pocket guide to revisions is here.
The Big-Picture Revision Checklist
How to Revise Your Novel the Easy Way
I have a new book coming soon! THE BIG-PICTURE REVISION CHECKLIST is going to be published in paperback and ebook October 1st, and the ebook is available for pre-order now!
I’ve been teaching writing workshops since 2014, and have talked to hundreds of new writers. All of them love to write. None of them like to revise. Revision is overwhelming, frustrating, and messy.
But what if it didn’t have to be? What if revising a novel was straightforward, with step-by-step instructions to get it done? What if there was a checklist for revision, with good examples to follow and great instruction along the way?
The Big-Picture Revision Checklist is the guide you need to revise your novel. It will help you make likable protagonists who are flawed in exactly the right ways, and antagonists that readers love to hate. You’ll crank up your story stakes and pinpoint the five crucial scenes every novel needs. With in-depth chapters and examples from contemporary fiction, this clear-eyed manual gives you all the tools you need to bring your book to the finish line.
The book is short and to the point, so you can get to revising your novel right away.
Pre-orders are available wherever books are sold, including Kobo, iBooks, Barnes and Noble, and Amazon. When the book is published, local bookstores can order paperbacks for you.
Get The Big-Picture Revision Checklist for a step-by-step guide to a polished and professional novel you’ll be proud of.
Three Books to Bust Writer’s Block
Three very different authors each tackle writer’s block their own way.
The other day, someone asked me about writer’s block. Did I ever get it? Did I ever blog about ways to cope with it? Did I have any advice for him?
Like I usually do in such circumstances, I recommended a book. Three of them, in fact.
If you want to know why you’re blocked, read The Courage To Write. Ralph Keyes takes a deep dive into the fears that all writers experience. Why are writers afraid? Because a good novel is an intensely emotional experience. In order to make our readers feel things, we have to feel them too. Few people want to face their own deepest passions and then put them on a page for everyone to read. But Keyes will show you that you’re not alone, and that your anxiety is totally normal.
If you’re looking for the kind of compassionate wisdom an older sister would give you, read Make Your Writing Bloom. Shonell Bacon is frank about obstacles that get in the way of writing. But she overcame those obstacles and is absolutely sure that you can do the same. With a positive outlook and gentle encouragement, Bacon reminds writers why they love the craft so much.
On the other end of the spectrum is Break Writer’s Block Now. Jerrold Mundis is serious about writing, about hard work, and about getting out of your own way to get those words written. He wants writers to stop loading writing with a bunch of emotional baggage and just get it done. Mundis advocates forming a habit and writing no matter what.
So there you go. Psychology, sisterly love, or a kick in the pants. If you’re suffering from writer’s block, one of these should fit the bill. At different times in my career, all of them have helped me.
About the Author: Alex Kourvo is an editor-for-hire. She reviews how-to books for writers at the Writing Slices blog.
Five Books for Writers that Aren’t About Writing
Sometimes the best how-to books don’t look like how-to books.
On my other blog, I review how-to books for writers. I learn a ton from them, and I love sharing what I’ve learned. But there’s another kind of book I review: the ones not written for writers that writers can learn a lot from anyway.
Here are my five favorites.
Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me) by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson
This book explains all the different ways humans justify our actions. Our brains can trick us into thinking everything from bickering with our spouse to going to war is perfectly rational. We all work very hard to maintain our positive self-image, and when we do something that’s not in keeping with the great person we think we are, we are quick to think up excuses that make perfect sense in our own heads. This book taught me how to write convincing villains who do all the wrong things for what they think are the right reasons.
The Introvert Advantage by Marti Olsen Laney
Introverts may have the perfect temperament for writing, but we do not have the perfect temperament to deal with the rest of the world. Our culture values extroversion to such an extent, it’s considered the norm, and introverts are considered oddballs. We can’t quiet the whole world, but we can cope with it, and even thrive.
Switch by Chip Heath and Dan Heath
This is a book about change. Most writers want to change something about their writing life, whether it’s working at a different time of day, trying a different genre, or simply turning off the internet and putting butt-in-chair. It turns out, change is driven by three different things: planning, motivation, and the environment. People can achieve remarkable changes by working on just one of these, but lasting success relies on all three.
Better Than Before by Gretchen Rubin
I’m interested in anything that can help me be more productive, and cultivating better habits is the number one way to do it. I have often said that it’s not inspiration that makes a writer. Nor do you have to have a lot of free time, a set schedule, or a deadline. Those things help, but are nothing without the consistent output of words, day after day. In other words, what a writer needs is a habit. This book takes you through every step of habit formation, from initial inspiration to follow-through.
Eat that Frog by Brian Tracy
Years spent trying to cram writing into overstuffed days has led me to read dozens of time management and organization books. This is my favorite. It’s less a time-management book and more an anti-procrastination book. By focusing on priorities instead of to-dos, I’m able to get the most important things done without over-scheduling myself.
I love diving deeply into the craft of writing, and that’s where I focus most of my attention when reading how-to books. But these five books have helped me become a happier, more productive, and better writer, even though they had nothing to do with writing itself.
About the Author: Alex Kourvo is an editor-for-hire who is passionate about helping writers.