Michele Regenold, Writing for Kids from the Boondocks

A blog about writing for children and the quest for publication.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Novel outlining

I am not an outliner. This may stem from a prolonged and rather painful unit on proper outlining in 5th grade. On the other hand, it may also stem from my inherent laziness. Because outlining is a lot of work, as I have recently discovered.

Last night I completed an outline of my YA mystery novel. I'm sure I would not have stuck to it without my advisor, Ellen Howard, cracking the whip over my head. She was probably horrified at the state of my novel, which I sent her--all 160-odd messy pages--in my 1st packet last month. But that's to be expected, the messiness I mean, when you're telling yourself the story as you go, plus working with a variety of advisors.

But now I have this lovely (12 pages long hand, single-spaced) outline to keep me on track, and I'm very excited about finishing a solid draft of this novel this semester. And I'll get to keep much of what I've already written. I don't consider any of it wasted because I learned more about the characters and the story through the process.

To help me figure out the shape of this story, I used James Frey's 5-act structure in How to Write a Damn Good Mystery. I highly recommend this book if you're trying to write a mystery. I first learned from him some important ideas about getting started with a detective novel. For example, start with your villain. The villain's reasons for committing the crime and his/her back story drive the plot, but much of this is off stage.

So, although Ellen didn't request it, I wrote an outline of what my bad guy was doing first. It took me 2 or 3 days to get this stuff figured out. This helped me determine what my detective was reacting to once I got to my main outline, which took me another 11 or 12 days. Occasionally the progress was swift. Other times, like the night before last, not so much. I was mentally trying out several different actions in a crucial scene--when the detective gets caught by the villain just as she discovers proof of his villainy. It took me an hour to write one paragraph about that scene. (By then I should have expended about 500 calories, if there were any justice in the world.)


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