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Planning my First Book – a Learning Experience

[Note: I have no idea what that image is. I found it in my archives, and it looks like something one of my kids drew. Seems to fit.]

When I started writing my first book, I didn’t exactly know what I was doing. To be clear, now that I’m on my second book, I’m not suddenly an expert, but the method I used for my second book was based on learnings from the first, and was a MASSIVE improvement. Depending on how things go, it may be my method moving forward. But we’ll get to that. For this article, we’ll talk about the clunky method I used to get my first novel done.

Oh – before I get started, this isn’t an article about what it means to be a “pantser” or a “planner” or whatever the hell you want to call yourself. Personally, the terms annoy me. Wite how you want to write. Clearly, this is for people that want to at least plan out the structure of their book before they start – and I have a hard time believing that even those that “write by the seat of their pants” (groan) don’t have some sort of outline in their brain somewhere. If not – they’re just far more clever than I am. Good for them!

Anyway, I feel that structure is pretty key – especially if you want to have some twists and turns, or if you want to follow multiple story threads, and so on.

But when I started? I had no idea. I had an idea that popped into my head and I had to get it down on paper, and suddenly that was chapter one. I then developed the overall idea of what the story was going to be, and who the main character was (very light on detail), and… then I was at a loss.

So I did a bunch of Internet searches, and watched a bunch of videos on YouTube – and I recommend you do that too. There’s a lot to learn out there, and you will need all the help you can get, no matter how great you might think you are (and you may well BE great, but nobody’s perfect).

Anyway, there ended up being three methods I used to build my story, which culminated in a chapter outline. I found these three methods in different places across the web, so I apologise that I am now unable to credit the original individuals.

Three methods

A few pertinent questions: this first method was quite simple, but helped me flesh the idea out a little, and that was that I needed to be able to answer a few questions, which would help drive the story. These questions were:

  1. What fear or struggle must your protagonist overcome?

  2. What decision do they make to put them in this situation?

  3. How will they defeat or escape their adversary, if at all?

  4. What are the ultimate consequences of their actions?

Four simple questions. Interestingly, the answer I put down for question 3 was… not used. But this helped, initially.

Simple story outline: the second method was also very simple, and that was to understand the basic course that a good story needs to undertake. You should know this already, but if not, it may help you. Looking back on this now, I think this is lacking, but again, it helped for my first book. The steps:

  1. Set up

  2. Inciting incident

  3. the rising action

  4. the climax

  5. the falling action

  6. the resolution

One Sentence, One Paragraph: and lastly, a method I’d not heard of before, but have heard of a few times since. Some even recommend this method when writing a query letter, to help distil your completed story down to a few basic sentences, but I haven’t got there yet.

Clearly, this method was simply to outline your story in one sentence, then add to that and build upon it, until you can outline the story in one paragraph. This would allow you to understand the things that are really important to the story (in the one sentence) and the major story beats that play out over the course of the story (in the paragraph).

Looking back on this, I found it all a little lacking. It helped me to write a simple story, and perhaps that was all I needed. For many of you out there, perhaps all you need is the one sentence, and from there you can write the story that’s in your head. But as a fantasy and sci-fi writer, I do want my stories to be far more grand in scale, with more characters to follow, and (hopefully) original worlds and ideas that drive the narrative.

Still… I’m proud of the book that I’ve written, and I only got to finish it because of these three steps.

Oh… and one more, which I added afterwards.

Chapter Outlines

OK! For my first book, this was all I needed, and it worked perfectly. But keep in mind that the story (mostly) only follows a single character. Any more than this, and this method gets out of hand.

And the method? Very simply, I wrote out a series of numbers, one per line, descending down the page. Then beside those numbers, I wrote an outline (initially, it included the words from the “simple story outline” above, but as the story took form, I replaced those words with words that had meaning in the context of the story).

From the start, I had wanted to aim for twenty chapters. I got there in the end (it ended up being well beyond twenty chapters), but it was helpful to visualise what this might look like. It also enabled me to determine what my first 5-10 chapters would include (I initially worked on a “5-10-5” three-part story, with Act 1 consisting of 5 chapters, Act 2 ten chapters, and Act 3, five chapters).

Initially, there were many gaps. I knew where the story was GOING, but not necessarily how we would get there. At certain points along the way, I had to stop writing — sometimes for weeks at a time — so that I could fill in how the next few chapters would proceed. Eventually, all chapters had an outline (usually only one or two words, like “Aftermath” or “Cemetary” or “Chase”, because that was al I needed).

And in the end? I ended up with a story that included death, betrayal, loss, stopovers in multiple countries, and, ultimately, a win… and a loss.

Anyway, the point is, while I was happy overall with where this got me, I knew it was insufficient for my needs to outline a more complex story. One day I’ll get around to writing about my NEW outline method, but until then, I suggest watching Brandon Sanderson’s writing lectures on YouTube. I built the method based on tips he provides in there.

As always – this is only one method. My method. And I built it out of other people’s methods, and in some ways I made them my own. Your method is yours – it doesn’t HAVE to look like this, or anything else. It just has to work for you.

I hope this helps, in some way.

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