First off, I have no agent and no published books. Second, I’ve been in the query trenches for 10 years with three different books. I’m not a prodigy success story, and I won’t ever be one – but I hope to one day be a perseverance story.
I’ve been writing novels since I was 16. I turned 30 last year, but I’ve never actually accounted for my writing process until now. Truth be told, I don’t think I had an actual process until now – and I think this is why I’ve never had much luck in the query trenches (still don’t, mind you). I’ve queried three books at this point and have only two full requests under my belt. The rejections are nice. Personalized, even. But they’re rejections, nonetheless.
It took me a while to see the pattern, but the common denominator in those rejections seemed to always be something like this: “I love your creativity/concept/writing, BUT…”
I’ve now come to the extremely slow realization that the reason for my rejections probably isn’t that my craft is bad – but that I don’t understand storytelling very well. Writing and storytelling are two different skills. We’re taught how to write in school, but we’re not necessarily taught how to tell good stories. I knew how to write (10+ years of practice and a Master’s Degree in English Lit will do that to you), but my storytelling lacked. Fed up with rejections, I started studying storytelling, eating up craft book after craft book, cross-referencing wherever I could, making cheat sheets for myself. I’ve been doing this for about 2-3 years now. Basically, I’ve begun putting my academic background to good use, approaching writing as something analytical rather than purely organic. Best of both worlds, you know?
I’ve also joined the writing community on twitter where I’ve found a handful of incredible critique partners. I daresay critiquing their books have made me understand story structure better than revising my own, so I’m eternally grateful for their trust in me.
I’m hoping that this – my quest in understanding storytelling from an analytical perspective – will be what I need to finally attract an agent with my latest book. If you recognize some of yourself in what I’ve written here, then this post is for you.
An idea is the very antithesis of an analysis, in my opinion, so I applaud anyone who can analytically approach idea conception. I can’t. Ideas are created from life experience, as far as I’m concerned, and from observing the people around you and closest to you, putting yourself in their shoes. Considering how an overwhelming amount of my query rejections highlight my creativity as a good thing, I like to think I’m onto something here. Still, Lisa Cron’s “Story Genius” comes to mind. That book, to me, felt like an exercise in how to generate concepts and creativity. I tried reading it, but found my brain was consistently and automatically ahead of every exercise in the book, so I stopped. I didn’t need a book on how to generate a concept, how to generate creativity. That wasn’t my weakness. I needed the opposite. I needed a book on how to rein in creativity and mold it into something useful.
I needed strictness.
I needed to learn how to outline.
PLOTTING & OUTLINING PHASE
My plotting starts on my phone. In my notes app. I’ll jot down scenes, dialogue, themes, first kisses, deaths, arguments, battle scenes, first meetings, worldbuilding, placenames etc. Then, when I feel I have too many notes, I finally accumulate them into a detailed outline on my computer. I don’t do this until I have a clear opening scene and clear Inciting Incident in mind. Before that, I’m not confident I’ll be interested enough in the story to finish it.
I use a personalized template for my outline. I don’t outline chapters, and will forever be in awe of people who do that, but I work within the constraints of a 3-act/4-act structure based on beats. The inspiration for my outline template is a bit of a mess, really, and probably only makes sense to me at this point. It’s a mix of the beat sheets found in Jessica Brody’s “Save the Cat”, Gwen Hayes’s “Romancing the Beat”, and K. M. Weiland’s “Structuring Your Novel”, “Outlining Your Novel” and “Creating Character Arcs”.
This is what works for me and the type of books I write. I personally think the beat sheets from all these books work phenomenally well together in that they aren’t very hard to combine and follow the same basic skeleton structure. I’ve created personal cheat sheets for each book (save for Gwen Hayes’s who’ve shared her own online), and I write my outline with these cheat sheets in hand. You can see them below here.
For subplots and red herrings specifically, including striking a good balance between surprise and suspense, I refer to Jane Cleland’s “Mastering Suspense, Structure and Plot”. And if we’re talking line edits, I always keep Janice Hardy’s “Understanding Show, Don’t Tell: (and Really Getting It)” nearby.
Hardy’s book has fantastic examples on how to balance showing with telling, and it really helped me understand the difference without glorifying one narrative technique over the other, taking readership and point of view into account. Her book is highly underrated, in my opinion. Since I believe the key to a good book is balance, I absolutely loved how she didn’t fall into the “you must always show and never tell!” fallacy. It’s okay if you write purple prose. It’s okay if you tell instead of show. It’s okay if you have passive sentences. Writing an immersive book is about balance. Versatility. It’s not an either-or thing. Not right versus wrong. But, remember, you have to know the rules to break them, yeah?
As you can see below, I went through several outlines while I drafted my latest book. Not before, but while. There’s still a little bit of a pantser left in me, see?
Below here is outline #1-6, so let me walk you through the process.
Outline #1 is undoubtedly the cleanest one, but then it gets messier as I start to write the book while I adapt the outline. As you can see, I work with 4 acts, although they can just as easily be modeled into three acts. Act IIII (mustard yellow) was basically entirely unplanned in this outline. This is because I adapted the outline as I went along, allowing the script to go off on a tangent if it felt right, the ending developing organically. But, while I didn’t have an ending planned, I did have my Inciting Incident and my related Midpoint down 100% before I ever began drafting.
And this is, without a doubt, my most helpful tip of all: focus on the Midpoint when you plot your outline, not the Climax.
By basically ignoring the Climax entirely and focusing on the relationship between the Inciting Incident and the Midpoint, it forced me to write a strong middle rather than the dreaded “sagging one”. For that reason alone, I’d recommend focusing on your Midpoint when you start your draft and leave the Climax as loose as you can. It seems to me that many people find it more organic and easier to focus on the Climax – and I don’t blame them, truly – but I believe you save yourself a lot of revision trouble if you try to bypass that urge and initially focus on the Midpoint. That will go a long way in streamlining your pacing for your first draft. And I say this after I rewrote 70% of a book by deleting my original Midpoint and making my old Climax the new Midpoint, so perhaps that’s why. That revision of mine was an extreme lesson in pacing, lemme tell you that.
Outline #2 start with the green Act II – because, at that point, I had drafted the orange Act I without updating my outline. The story hadn’t gone off on a tangent, so there was no point in updating the outline.
Outline #3 starts with blue Act III – because, again, Act II went off without a hitch, the script following the outline perfectly. Then, of course, as I start to draft Act III, past my solidly planned Midpoint and towards my very loose ending, everything goes off on a tangent…
Outline #4 is basically me re-organizing the entire blue Act III while I’m drafting it. Pantsing at its best, you can say. This is where you can truly see that I had my Midpoint down pat before I ever began writing the book, but the ending was never clear to me. I’m struggling to find it, even now, while I’m closing in on it. Same goes for the next outline.
Outline #5 is basically me still trying to plan and pin down the blue Act III while I’m drafting it, trying to figure out where the story ends as a true pantser.
In Outline #6, I’ve finally moved onto the yellow Act IIII and the ending of the book. Act III was the hurdle I had to cross, purely because I’d planned my Midpoint perfectly, but left the ending up for grabs, trusting the Midpoint to lead me there eventually – which is did! And, like I said earlier, that’s my tip for avoiding the dreaded “sagging middle” of a book: put all your initial bets on the Midpoint, not the Climax, and I promise your pacing will be a lot smoother because of it.
While I don’t technically outline my chapters before I start drafting, I always work with notes for the upcoming scenes in my drafting document itself. These notes are at the bottom of the drafting document, so I don’t need to have my full outline open in a separate document while I draft. I basically copy-paste Act I from my outline into my drafting document before I start writing Act I. Then, while I draft and get ideas, I flesh out the Act I outline at the bottom of the drafting document, but not in the outline document itself. When Act I is drafted, I repeat the process with Act II. Rinse and repeat.
It’s also for this same reason that I personally don’t benefit from using Scrivener over MS Word. I tried – and I failed. I’m a very visual learner, so it doesn’t work for me to visually separate my drafting in different documents/scenes/acts/etc.. I have to see the complete picture at all times while I draft, uninterrupted by clicks and flashes of the screen. You can see an example of what the end of my drafting document looks like below here:
For years, I approached revision in the same organic way that I approached drafting – meaning I basically floundered my way through each and every case, losing precious time I didn’t have. But revision is also a process and it is possible to structure it. It only takes a bit of self-awareness and prep work, in my opinion. For that, my best and simplest tip is this:
For each book you write, note down what major developmental elements you’ve had to revise
Writing this down makes you more aware of these issues when you draft your next book. Ideally, it’ll help you internalize these issues in time for your next book, so you’ll make less of the same issues. Then, when you start revision for this new book, you already know what your weaknesses were in your last book, so there’s a good chance these weaknesses will also show in this book (though hopefully to a lesser extent). This also gives you an immediate focal point for your revision, so you don’t feel intimidated by the transition from drafting to revising.
To be completely transparent, my weaknesses have always been pacing and character agency, so these are the two major things I focus on when I first transition from draft into revision. To streamline my pacing, I use a reverse outline, so I highly recommend that (I use this and this as guidelines). Then I also make specific revision rounds based on magic system, political system and worldbuilding/setting. I’m also an underwriter, so I never put in enough internal reactions for my characters, meaning this is also a specific revision round of mine.
As you can tell, I have a lot of revision rounds before I ever send out my book to beta readers. My critique partners are (un)lucky enough to read my sad, pitiful first drafts because I desperately need them to validate me before I go into revisions – and I’m not ashamed to admit that. We all need validation. It’s the human condition.
I send out my books to beta readers in interspersed batches of 4-5 people, so I can better implement the feedback and always have fresh eyes on the revised material. I’m lucky enough to have a solid set of beta readers, but that’s not without having gone through a lot of trial and error, so don’t be fooled by that.
And… I think that’s the end of it?
If this helped you in any way, I’m happy to have been of service.
Now, please go (re)write that book of yours, so I can pick it from a shelf in the future, yeah?