How I outline a novel

Admittedly, I started out as a pantser, (one who writes by the seat of their pants, with no regards to outline or planning) but that was many years ago, and I am now firmly an outliner. Some authors argue that outlining a novel strips creativity away and leaves no room for making up some magic along the way. To that I say: writing a book is really freaking hard even if you’ve previously decided what happens in each chapter and trust me, there’s 70+ thousands of words for you to add some magic during the process.

Okay, let’s begin.

I follow the 7 Point Story Structure when I outline a book. I’m not going to explain that in detail here (since you can Google it and find really articulate definitions/examples). I also know that I want my books to be around 70k words, roughly. Since my chapters are anywhere from 1500 to 3000 words, that’s (roughly) 30 chapters for me. Yours may be different, and every book IS different, so the great thing about this template is you can change it up as needed.

When I first start brainstorming a book idea, I grab a stack of index cards (or sometimes Post-its) and write out every thing I think of. From scenes, to dialogue, to things I want to happen, to those juicy dramatic parts that I’ve been daydreaming about for days. I write down any and everything I see happening in the book. Then I put them in chronological order, adding or throwing out some as needed. It’s fine if you don’t have the whole book yet. You just needed to get out those awesome ideas in your head. Now set them aside and open up a Word document.

You’re going to type up your index cards into separate chapters, sometimes grouping a few together into one chapter, sometimes using one index card as a whole chapter. You probably won’t have every chapter or even every plot point decided at this point. Just skip. For example, if I know the story starts with A and then some stuff happens and then B happens, I’ll put the contents of A in chapter one, skip one or two chapters, then fill in B on the next one. Once you’ve transferred all your index card ideas, go back and read over it, adding more for each chapter. You’ll eventually get them all filled in. This usually takes me 2-3 days or sometimes FOREVER.

For starters, I pick 30 chapters and fill them in, adding or subtracting along the way as I figure out my story. Some of my favorite books have 80 or more chapters, and this can totally work for those, too, you just add more columns to the table. (Word’s table function makes this nice and pretty!) But I know myself and my book and this is a good guideline for how I’ll write it.

outline

BOOM! You’re done! All that’s left is hundreds of hours of creative writing agony as you bang out the ideas in your head, transforming them into a terrible first draft that will require months of editing to even slightly resemble a book!

WASN’T THAT EASY?

Ahem.

So, if you’re anything like me, you can’t remember all of your character’s details. That’s where the character sheet comes in handy. I fill out each character’s name, age, physical description, personality description, and special traits. I print these out and use them as I’m writing because I can guarantee I won’t remember anyone’s eye color, and probably not hair color, and definitely not their dog’s name because I have autoimmune problems and the brain fog is real. This character sheet will be your lifesaver.

charactersheet

At the top of the whole document I write a summary (or a query when I was unagented) that isn’t perfect or even worthy to show anyone yet, but it’s a good reference to remind you what you wanted the story to be about when you first thought of it.

I print out each outline and put them in those clear plastic page protector things inside one of those plastic folders for reports, and then I carry them around with me when I write. After each chapter is written, I put a shiny star sticker over it and move on to the next one.

Since I write full time, my goal is 1 chapter a day, which means I usually finish a first draft in about a month. I prefer quick drafting, because as they say, you can’t edit nothing. I like to get that draft out there and ready for me to tear it to shreds in editing.

But that’s a post for another day.

If you’d like to try out my method of outlining, I’m including a download to a Word file of my template. Click here and it’s all yours: blank-outline-template

Happy novel writing!

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On Writing and Publishing

Recently, my writer/vlogger friend Avianne was asking me questions about writing & publishing, and since they were pretty great questions, I got her permission to use them for a blog post. Check out her lovely blog here: http://www.xoavianne.com and I’d like to thank her for letting me ramble on about myself, seeing as that’s one of my favorite things to do. 😉

Onto the questions!

What does a average day consist of for you? 

I’ve been a full time writer for 1 year and 6 months. (And yes, I’m counting! It was the greatest job transition of my life.) The absolute best part of being a full time author is getting to do all of my work in my pajamas. Between drinking coffee, doing house chores, packing the kid’s school lunch as well and driving her to and from school, and taking pictures of my dog, my average day has only about 3-4 hours of actual writing time in it.

I use a Passion Planner and spend every Sunday organizing my upcoming week. I plot out my novels and schedule how much I will write per day to get a draft done on time. Typically, I spend 2-5 days plotting and outlining a novel and then my writing goal is one chapter a day, which is around 2500-3500 words. If the chapter turns out shorter, I’ll write two. If, for some reason, it’s not a good day, I might not write at all. In the end, I always manage to meet my deadlines, which is about 30 days from start to finish per finished first draft. (I haven’t always written that fast, but over the years, and with going full time, it’s become a lot easier.)

How did City of Legends get published?

I originally published City of Legends myself. I didn’t seek traditional publication for it because I was unsure of the book’s genre and its ability to find success since teen superheroes weren’t a big thing back then. (They still kind of aren’t, even though superheroes in general are.) I plotted out the 3 book series, published 2 of them, and then got a magical email from my lovely editor at Alloy Entertainment.

It was magical because of several reasons. For one, Alloy’s manuscript submission website had been bookmarked on my computer for about 2 years. I can’t tell you how many times I stared at the screen, wanting to submit them my book, but was ultimately too chicken to do it. When I first talked to my editor, I’ll never forget what she said when I confessed that I’d always wanted to submit to them but feared rejection: “You should always submit. You never know when it’ll work out.”

The second magical thing about this email was that it came just a couple of weeks after I quit my job and moved to another town for my husband’s work. Getting that email was like a massive sign from the universe telling me that choosing to walk out on mechanical engineering and pursue my dream was worth it. And with all of the editing that came after I signed my contract, I know I wouldn’t have been able to maintain all of my deadlines if I still had a full time day job, so it really worked out well.

The third magical thing about the email was that it came in a time when I was really doubting myself as a writer. Honestly, I wasn’t even sure I’d finish the trilogy I’d set out to write when I first self-published City of Legends (back then it was called Powered). I was doubting every single thing about myself and my abilities, and I was this close to cancelling the entire thing. Alloy’s email changed it all. I finished the third book (wrote it in 27 days), we revamped the entire series, and it’s now better than I ever imagined it.

Can you explain the whole publishing/ agent thing? How does it work? How do you get an agent? Do you have to have an agent?

Gladly! Publishing is generally broken into 2 categories: self-publishing and traditional (or trade) publishing. I’d like to break it up into 3 and add small publishers to the list.

With Self-publishing, you simply do everything yourself. You can hire editors, cover artists, formatters, etc–trust me, there’s a ton of them just waiting to be hired–and then you can publish the book through Amazon, Nook, and the likes, all for free. I won’t go into the pros and cons of it because that would take too long, but the simple fact is that no matter what anyone says, self-publishing isn’t the same as trade publishing. Anyone can put anything out there and it doesn’t have to be good. Some people make a lot of money self-publishing, and others don’t make any.

Traditional publishing requires an author to have an excellent book and an agent. (More on agents in a sec.) Your agent will represent your book and pitch it to editors, who are the people who buy books for publishing houses/imprints. Once your book is bought, you receive an advance, which is a payment against royalties. So, if in your contract you earn $1 per book sold (just using fake numbers for example), and your advance is $10,000, you’ve been paid for the first 10,000 sales before the book is even out. Then, once it’s out, your first 10,000 sales will have to be sold to earn the advance, and then you’ll receive more payments on each book you sell above the amount to earn out your advance. If you never sell those 10,000 copies, you’ll never get paid anymore for that book.

With traditional publishing, all you have to do is write and edit. The publisher pays you for the book, and they pay for the editing, the cover art, the marketing, book printing, etc. It’s also more prestigious and easier to get noticed in bookstores when you have a book by a trade publisher. My ultimate goal as a writer is to see my book on bookshelves, and a trade publisher will get me there.

Small publishers are nearly identical to the big publishers, only with a few differences. The main difference is that most of them don’t require you to have an agent to submit your book to them. An author can submit directly to them and negotiate their own contract if they want to. Some small publishers pay advances, and some don’t. Some can get their books into bookstores, and some can’t. You most likely won’t have as much marketing power or visibility behind your book with a small publisher, but that’s not always a bad thing. Small publishers have a passion for books and work very hard for their authors, just like the big publishers do.

As for agents, no you don’t have to have one. I will say personally that I think having an agent is the BEST possible thing you can do for your career. Agents are your biggest advocates. They work exceptionally hard to make sure your book is a success.

You get an agent by researching them and finding agents who represent your genre and are looking for books similar to yours. Then you send them a query, which is typically done through email now, and it’s a 2-3 paragraph summary of your book that’s enticing and well-written and hooks them to read more. It can (and often does) take several submissions and several rejections before an author finds an agent. I recommend checking out Agent Query and Query Tracker before embarking on an agent search.

Since you’re a full time writer, how do you always generate plot ideas. It’s hard to come up with a really good story idea.

I wish I knew the answer to this question! I am constantly in this weird state of thinking I don’t have enough ideas, and yet having more ideas than I have time to write. I think the only solution is to write down all of your ideas, even if they aren’t good. Read a ton of books, and when you don’t like something in the book, think of a way you’d make it better. Watch movies, and movie trailers. Sometimes my best ideas come to me while watching a movie trailer when my mind will come up with a unique idea sparked from the movie’s plot line. Also, pay attention to your surroundings. Listen and watch. Nearly all of my best ideas came to me because I was observing other people in their element. Recently, my daughter said something and I misheard her. I thought she said something completely different, and the words I thought she said made an amazing idea pop in my head. It’s now my newest WIP. (Which I can’t share online because I’m being secretive about it, hehe.) Whatever you do, don’t sit down with a blank piece of paper and try to think of something. It won’t work! You have to free your mind and keep it open and the ideas will come to you.

As for Indie publishing, how did you personally go about marketing? I know you’re not incredibly spammy like most other indie authors so I’m curious.

Firstly, THANK YOU FOR SAYING THIS. As I mentioned in my Twitter Etiquette post a few posts back, I absolutely loathe authors who are spam robots. Shouting your book into the internet 50 times a day isn’t going to sell any copies. At most, you’ll just piss a lot of people off.

The thing is, authors who spend all their time promoting must not have any time for writing. I’d prefer to write. As for marketing, all of my closest author friends have heard me say this at least once: I suck at marketing. So I simply don’t do it.

Sure, I post about my books, or make a Pinterest inspiration board, or join group giveaways in efforts to make my book more visible to the public. But those are all just ways of me being me. It’s my way of being a genuine person who occasionally talks about my books because they’re important to me.

Marketing is a dirty word in my opinion. The internet is filled with snake-like people trying to sell you their courses on getting rich by marketing, keywords, SEO, paid advertisements, etc, etc, etc, and it just makes me want to scream. I get about 1 email a day from someone cold-emailing me trying to sell me their “get rich quick” book promotion services, and let me tell you: the only people getting rich off those scams are the people selling them to hopeful authors.

So to answer the question of how I go about marketing, the only answer I can really give is that I’m just myself. I make friends online and talk about books and let social media know when I have a new book out. Over time, I’ve developed relationships with bloggers and readers, and in my opinion, word of mouth from people who genuinely care about my books is the best form of marketing there is. I can only hope that my readership will grow over time and that each new release will have a better sales record than the one before it.

*So there we have it, writing and publishing advice from someone who’s been at this since 2008. I have 4 self published novels for teens, The City of Legends series published by Alloy Entertainment, and The Break Up Support Group will be published in November by Swoon Romance, a small publisher. I recently signed with a wonderful agent, and hope to have more books published in the future!

Naming Characters in Unscientific Ways

Sometimes the hardest part of writing a book is coming up with all of the names. Character names, town names, store names. I wanted to write a blog post about how I go about this process, but after thinking about it, I realized I have no scientific method for naming. As so many creative endeavors go, it’s all just stuff I think up randomly.

So here’s your advice: There is no advice!

(Kidding, sort of.)

I still remember writing my first book, Motocross Me, in 2008. The main character’s name, Hana, kind of came to me instantly, so I went with it. As for the other main character names, here was my thought process:

Hana’s last name Fisher: from Jenna Fisher, the actress who plays Pam in The Office, which was a totally relevant show back in 2008.

Jim Fisher: Jim, from The Office

Molly Fisher: Since she was a kind, loving, caring, amazing motherly figure, I named her after Molly Weasley. (I don’t do this anymore, btw, otherwise all characters would be HP names.)

Ash: He’s the love interest and I thought it was a sexy name, so that one’s obvious.

Ryan: I chose the name Ryan because it sounded like a jerk’s name. (Sorry to any real Ryan’s out there, I bet you’re probably not really a jerk.)

Shelby: I kid you not, I was looking around the room trying to think of a name and saw a Shelby Mustang on the calendar on the wall. Boom, name chosen.

 

See? Not very scientific. Now that I have a dozen or so novels and twice as many short stories under my belt, I can no longer choose names based off TV shows I like, or else all my characters would be named after the Belcher family from Bob’s Burgers. Now I go about my naming process in a few ways.

First names ALWAYS have to be something I like. Something that sounds good. I can go through a ton of names in my head, but until one just snaps into place and fits with the story, I won’t choose it. Sometimes I hear names in real life that sound cool as hell, and so I’ll save them in my head in order to one day write a story about a character with that name. I’m not listing them here because I’m secretive and mean.

Last names . . . well, I usually cheat and find something on here.  I like this website because it’s not full of ads and popups and crap like those baby naming websites that show up first in a Google search. It’s just a simple, very huge list of last names.

As for naming places, this is one of my favorites. A long time ago, I decided that I didn’t want to set my characters in REAL, real cities, because then I might get some of the facts wrong. Plus, it’s just more fun to invent my own places and smack them on the map wherever I see fit. However, because I’m a Texas girl, and most of my stories are set in the great Lone Star state, I like to pay some homage to the towns of old.

Texas Ghost towns < This is one of my FAVORITE websites ever. It’s a little historic record of towns that used to be towns in Texas but never survived. Some of them even have pictures of the remaining one room school house, or a solitary church that’s still standing.

Mixon, Texas from Motocross Me is a Texas ghost town and so is Peyton Colony, the town in the newest book I just finished writing. I think this is a really fun way to pay tribute to the past and give it new life in a fictional story.

When it comes to naming places, sometimes I make it easy and send my characters to Starbucks. Other times, like when my characters are personally working somewhere, I like to invent the place so as not to write about working at a real chain. In Somewhere Only We Know, Sadie works at a pizza shop called Magic Mark’s Pizza. This is a direct rip off of the real place Simple Simon’s Pizza, the uber-delicious pizza joint I worked at in high school. I liked the fake Magic Mark’s so much, that I often have my characters ordering pizza from there in every book I write.

What can I say? I also love pizza.

There’s one final technique I use to name characters, specifically, those NPCs you need to name quickly and won’t ever see again. Like when your characters walk into a hotel and have a one time conversation with the concierge, whose name-tag says his name is:

QUICK! YOU NEED A NAME FOR HIM!

I usually look up from the computer, call to a family member who is in the vicinity and say, “Quick, I need a name for a guy who works at a hotel.” Whatever response I get, is the name I use. If the husband is at work and the kid is at school and my dog isn’t answering, I usually Google search a random name, but that’s not as fun.

So how do you name your characters? Do you have any hard and fast rules or do you just wing it? Let me know in the comments!