How to Outline a Novel: A Book Review of K.M. Weiland's 'Outlining Your Novel'

outlining-your-novel-km-weilandOutlining Your Novel by K.M. Weiland ought to be on every author’s bookshelf.

If you’ve ever found yourself paralyzed by a blinking cursor or suddenly struck dumb at the sight of a blank piece of paper, Outlining is your solution. If you believe that you can only write when you’re inspired, Outlining (plus Steven Pressfield’s inimitable War of Art) will have you believing otherwise. And if you think that outlining will snuff out the spark of creativity that writing by the seat of your pants sometimes produces, realize what Weiland writes in her conclusion: “Story is as much about structure as it is about inspiration.”

In her opening, K.M. Weiland writes, “Outlining has transformed my own writing process from hit-and-miss creativity to a reliable process of story craft. Outlining allows me to ride the waves of my story with utter confidence, channeling the art into the craft to produce solid stories. And the best part about outlining? It’s entirely learnable.”

As someone who’s worked on more than a few books by now, I can vouch for Weiland’s motivation for writing Outlining Your Novel: “Making major adjustments in a finished manuscript of 100,000-plus words is far more painful than in a few dozen pages of outline notes.” In fact, when a fourth-grade class interviewed me about their five stages of writing and asked what I thought the most important stage was, I said “Pre-writing,” which was just their term for outlining. I may have heard an audible groan at the answer. But I wouldn’t change my answer.

Doing the work before the work is essential to THE WORK.

And God bless you and your manuscript if you get halfway to a 100,000-word goal and suddenly realize, “I can’t veer this train where I want it to go without removing and replacing miles upon miles of track. I’ll probably have to blow up some mountains too.”

Save yourself the headache and heartache by enlisting your inner engineer to help plot your path before you begin your journey. Before you do that, apprentice yourself to K.M. Weiland via her book. From crafting your premise to creating character sketches and discovering your setting, Outlining Your Novel (and its additional workbook) will help you think through nearly everything you’ll need to consider in order to create a workable, functional, and utterly useful outline before you start writing your next novel.

The singular drawback to Outlining is what I considered to be the nonessential interviews Weiland conducted with other authors after every chapter. Though they certainly provide a brief glimpse into those authors’ styles, their answers were often quite the same. With regard to the question of plotters vs. pantsers, most all were plotters (outliners). I would have liked to see an answer by a pantser who’s experienced success.

But maybe that’s the point. Maybe success is equal to plotting.

However, Weiland makes up for those less-than-compelling answers by doing what most authors would never do: she reveals her own outlines. To provide concrete examples of the exact outlining methods she specifies for readers, Weiland offers up her own early outlines for a few of her books. This is helpful (and smart marketing on her behalf).

Outlining Your Novel can be read in one sitting, but it’s better suited toward reading one chapter and then sitting down at your computer (or with a pen and paper) and working on what you just read.

As for me, Outlining has accomplished its goal: I can’t wait to begin my next book.

Favorite Quotes from Outlining Your Novel by K.M. Weiland

“Outlining is also a surefire antidote for writer’s block.”

“In many ways, an extensive outline is a first draft. The only difference is the outliner’s process takes maybe a quarter of the time.”

“By allowing myself to write down every idea, no matter how crazy, I came up with gems I would never have thought of otherwise.”

“How do you create emotionally resonant stories? It’s simple: Create stories with which you resonate.”

“When you get stuck—and you will get stuck—remember to ask yourself questions. Instead of stating the problem—‘the princess is trapped in the high tower’—phrase it as a question—‘how can I get the princess out of the high tower?’ It’s amazing how much creativity can be unleashed with a question mark. For a squiggly line with a dot at the end, it wields untold power. Periods put a full stop on inspiration. They indicate whatever idea the preceding sentence holds is complete unto itself and doesn’t require further exploration. A question mark, on the other hand, is a swinging door, urging us to step forward and peek through the opening. What’s in there? How can we find it? How can we use it?”

“One of the most common problems I encounter in editing unpublished authors’ manuscripts is a complete lack of conflict.”

“Conflict fuels fiction, and frustration fuels conflict. Every time the character (and the reader) begins to think victory and happiness are around the bend, the author has to find some way to circumvent them.”

“If we’re going to give readers what they want, we have to deny our characters what they want.”

“One of the easiest ways to raise the stakes is to create a tight timeline for your story.”

“Theme is very possibly the single most important facet of a memorable story. Vivid characters, witty dialogue, and killer plot twists can carry a story by themselves, but, without theme, they will never deliver the story’s full potential.”

“Whether your stories are read by two people or two million, your writing is your legacy to the world. Make it worth sharing.”

“I do believe the single most important trick for capturing the sometimes elusive and always ephemeral theme is to pour yourself into creating authentic characters who react to their various crucibles in authentic ways.”

“Before you can tell others your story, you have to tell yourself its prequel.”

“Never ignore the blank spaces in your characters.”

“Don’t just accept that your main character is a cop; find out why he became a cop. Don’t just slap a scar on your heroine; discover where the scar came from.”

“Generally speaking, the inciting event should occur not quite a quarter of the way into your story. Setting it this late in the story allows you to appropriately pace the introduction of your character, his personal problems, and his normal world, so readers will sympathize with him and understand the stakes when the inciting event blasts into view.”

“Sometimes the only person who needs to know the backstory is the author.”

“If your settings aren’t intrinsic to your stories to the extent of almost being a character unto themselves, you’re wasting an important opportunity.”

“A line of encouragement from literary agent Scott Edelstein has informed my writing for years now. He said, ‘If you’re ever at a loss as to what to write about, ask yourself to imagine the one story, essay, poem, or book that you’d most like to read. Then write it.’ So what is your perfect novel?”

“In short, POV is often the single most important factor in determining whether or not a story works.”

“Imagine every scene in your novel is a domino in the grand pattern of your story. If the reader is going to be able to topple the pattern and see every domino fall, the author has to design his scenes so each one directly influences those that follow. Every scene has to matter.”

“One of the most effective ways to make certain every scene matters is to outline backwards.”

“Story is as much about structure as it is about inspiration.”