Early in my writing career I was a big believer in outlining. I still am. But I’ve changed my focus on what I outline. I used to outline plot. Why? Because I was good at it. We all like doing what we’re good at. The problem with that, was I putting double-work into my strengths and winging it with my weakness, which was character development.
That’s backwards thinking.
For my current WIP, The Long Gray Line: Duty, I spent an entire month developing my characters, both fictional and non-fiction. For the non-fiction I read biographies (you know, those thick things called books) of major players in my book like Ulysses Grant, Tecumseh Sherman, John Fremont, etc. I also watched numerous shows and DVDs about them. I re-watched The Civil War series by Ken Burns. I watched a video about re-enactors at the battle of Shiloh.
For my fictional character, I invented two families. One in Natchez, MS and the other in Norfolk, VA. I sat down and talked about every member of the family. And, of course, the ancillary fictional characters, such as the slave family at the plantation in Natchez and the proxy of the antagonist, who is the overseer at that plantation. I made sure I knew their backstory. Why they were doing what they were doing and what their goals were.
I also bookended the story: the inciting incident was finding out a woman was pregnant and the book covers from 1840 to the battle of Shiloh in 1862 where the child she is pregnant with is –well, that’s a secret. That character is the core thread of the book. You must have a core thread.
A key part of this was I also knew what everyone’s secrets were. What each knew about each other and what they didn’t know. This is where a lot of conflict can be developed in your manuscript.
What I spent that month doing was front-loading the weakest part of my writing. I was reading my manuscript last night and it suddenly occurred to me that all these people felt real to me. I knew who they were. Knew how they would act.
Here is a key point though. I could do the character front-loading because I picked a genre where doing that was conducive to filling out a story that was already written: I’m writing historical fiction. I can’t change the dates or major actions of history. I can change why these events happened via my fictional characters, in fact, on one of them caused Ft. Sumter to be fired on. But I didn’t have to sit down and invent a plot from scratch.
Something to consider is take a hard look at the genre you’re writing in. How does it support your strengths as a writer, your passion, but also, how does it help you shore up your weaknesses as a writer and allow you to focus on them? This is a concept of Warrior Writer.
My outline always starts with my one sentence original idea.
That goes on a blank word document.
Then I break out sections:
Then I research. I fill in each section. I don’t worry about having the whole story yet. I focus on one thing at a time. This document grows quickly. You put in a lot of stuff that ends up not being used, but you never know.
I focus on things that strike my interest.
About half your outline will be backstory that you need to know but the reader doesn’t necessarily need to know. With the other parts, you begin to see your story grow. You find turning points. Major parts of the plot. Then you tentpole them. Then fill in the gaps between the tent poles.
An outline is a living thing. You update it as you write. I’m 100k into my WIP and I know tomorrow I have to sit down and go through my historical timeline once more to make sure I am accurate and then redo what’s left of my outline to write.
As an aside, thing are moving fast in publishing. At Who Dares Wins Publishing, we’re now moving into the iBookstore. Royalties double at the end of this month on Kindle to match what Apple is offering– 70%. We now not only have updated the Novel Writers Presentation and Warrior Writer Presentation on six CD sets, we also can send them as MP3 downloads to people who purchase them, which is pretty cool. Our latest addition from Kristen Lamb: We Are Not Alone: The Writer’s Guide to Social Media will be live soon.
This weekend I’ll be in Cincinnati to present Warrior Writer to the Ohio Valley Romance Writers.