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How to Write a Novel in Six Months, Week 6: Outlining

Updated on August 27, 2008
Photo: nuanc,Flickr
Photo: nuanc,Flickr

Now's the time in the novel writing journey where I start to get really nervous. I stare at my stack of index cards terrified that what I've written are nothing more than a collection of stupid ideas that will never come together into a coherent outline. Okay - now that that's out...

The way I approached my outline was to transfer my index cards onto a spreadsheet. I know, but I really love spreadsheets. You could do it in a word processing program, by hand, or just keep it on the index cards - whatever works for you. I like spreadsheets because I can see everything all all at once more or less and I'm still able to move things around. You can also use the section sheets that Evan Marshall developed and presents in his book, The Marshall Plan for Novel Writing. I just need to see everything all together without having to flip through pages of notes.

The Marshall Plan

I have mentioned The Marshall Plan for Novel Writing before, and it was actually one of the first books I ever read on writing. I have to admit, I may not have gone back to it if not for a good friend of mine who's on this journey with me and using it with great success. After breaking down and buying a copy, I remembered why I had liked it so well in the first place. In truth there's very little actual plotting information in the book, but what is there is substantive and Marshall also provides a lot of great writing advice too.

Once I started poking around, I decided to go ahead and attempt four viewpoint characters as Marshall suggests for my word count (100,000 words/mainstream fiction). I had been planning to stick with one viewpoint character, but what the heck. I always enjoy books with multiple viewpoints. If it doesn't work out I can always cut it back to the main character, but I think it would be really difficult to add viewpoints after outlining.

Marshall goes into a lot of detail with his outlining technique (using section sheets) and I'll get into that in the next article, Week 7: Detail Scene Beats.

Spreadsheet Outline

In case you wonder how I set up my spreadsheet, it's pretty simple. I have one row to represent each scene (or section as Evan Marshall refers to them), so 80 numbered rows. Then I have columns for viewpoint character, setting, goal, result, and a few notes to remind me what is taking place during the scene. There's more, but I'll get into that later.

The neat thing about the structure we learned about earlier is that now I can plug that into my spreadsheet too. So I have another column with headings like ‘call to adventure', ‘crossing the 1st threshold', and ‘approach inmost cave'. These sound completely cheesey if you haven't read Vogler's book, but they make sense to me. Whatever labels your structure uses, plug them in at the right place. That is the skeleton of your main character's story arc. Of course you have all these plot points already jotted down index cards so at this point it's just a matter of shuffling and filling in the blanks.

Then I used Marshall's guidelines on weaving in other viewpoint characters and the lead's subplot. It may seem formulaic, but every decision that was made for me made outlining easier.

Warning: My initial plan was getting all hosed around during this process - or so I thought. I started to panic because things weren't going as I had planned at the initial stages. However, when I look back, the story is essentially the same, but now it's fuller and more cohesive. By no means is it complete, but each process I'm doing is another layer.

Just wait until you see how bad I freak when it comes time to draft!

How to Write a Novel in Six Months, One Writer's Journey

Week 1, Mapping Out the Six Month Plan

Week 2, Resources on Structure

Week 3, Index Cards Are My Friends

Week 4, Sketching Characters

Week 5, Researching Agents

Week 6, Outlining

Week 7, Detail Scene Beats

Week 8, Writing the Synopsis

Weeks 9 - 18, Drafting Updates

Week 19, Sanity Break

Week 20, Transitions

Week 21, Reading the Draft

Weeks 22 - 24 First Revision


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  • SEXYLADYDEE profile image

    SEXYLADYDEE 3 years ago from Upstate NY

    I start from an Outline and Characters. But I am getting ideas from your writing. Thanks for sharing your journey. All the links are broken in this hub after number 6. Going back to the first one to find them.


  • profile image

    AndreasvanHaren 7 years ago

    Hi Lela! Nice to read how you are working out your novel. I am outlining my 3th novel at the moment in YWriter5, a very nice program to use as well. I tried to download your template but the link is dead. Would it be possible for you to put it up again?



  • camlo profile image

    Camlo De Ville 8 years ago from Cologne, Germany

    Have just found the other Hubs in the series ... am reading ...

  • camlo profile image

    Camlo De Ville 8 years ago from Cologne, Germany

    Hi Lela!

    I have just read all the published Hubs in this series (hope you'll be continuing), and find them very useful indeed.

    My ambition is the same; I want to write a novel, although I think my first long story will turn out to be a novella.

    Like you, I've tried before. Like you, my first attempt was a plotless novel -- but mine never got finished ...

    Having read a number of books on Novel Writing, and religiously followed their advice, I generally got bored before even commencing the 'real writing'.

    And my last, almost completed, novel was written on my old computer that crashed and died, taking all my work with it.

    I'm ready to try again, and will be using your Hubs here for inspiration.

    Please hurry up and write more ...

    By the way, I never thought of researching agents at that point, but now realise how totally logical that is. Thanks for that.

    Have enjoyed reading, look forward to more, and I must say, these Hubs are beautifully written. I'm sure you'll have every success.

    All the best, Camlo

  • Cubbie profile image

    Cubbie 8 years ago

    People tend to think writing anything is easy. For some perhaps it is. Putting words together that makes sense is not easy. When you take on a task like writing a novel takes longer. You put a whole lot into it. Much is sacrificed in time and energy.

    My dream has been to write a novel someday. I have taken books and studied courses on the different ways to map out what you want to write about. Creating characters is the hardest part. Puting out the outline of what they are to do is probably the most complicated part of all. Face it, people are complicated. Putting them in the formate of a story. Is harder still.

    No ones been able to come up with a pattern for that, that will work for everyone.

  • sheenarobins profile image

    sheenarobins 9 years ago from Cebu, Philippines

    Oh Lela,

    I wish I can write my own novel someday but whenever I start thinking about a character my mind turns into chaos. It's still difficult for me to imagine it right now.

    Excellent hub. thanks for sharing.

  • Strephon profile image

    Strephon 9 years ago

    Lela! Nice to see you working so hard and revealing all to us about how you are actually writing your novel using writing systems to help plan out your writing.

    My take on 'writer's block' is craft and more craft. (your week 13) Also, it's psychological. We just drain ourselves of creative energy and need to switch to something else.

    I don't go through walls. I go around them!

    Outlines seem to work best for me when I based the outline on the archetypal forms inherent to novels and story-telling.

    Much encouragement in your full labor to bring a work of fiction to life.