Story Outlines: A Writer’s Training Calendar

This post was originally published at Equestrian Ink.

Setting up a training calendar is easy, right? You pick a horse show date and you move backwards, working out a nice hypothesis of where you’ll be in training each week running up to the show. Nothing to it, because predicting how quickly and how competently your horse will pick up your training (to say nothing of staying sound and keeping on his shoes) is just easy-peasy. Right?

Of course we know that’s nonsense. Horses look at calendars and laugh. They observe our ambitious plans and then they go out and look for a nice, innocent stick that they can use to injure themselves in astonishing and previously unbelievable ways.

Getting to a horse show takes planning. Getting to the end of a book is much the same!  Photo: flickr/dj-dwayne

Getting to a horse show takes planning. Getting to the end of a book is much the same!
Photo: flickr/dj-dwayne

In the game of planning for horse shows, the beginning is easy to see, and the end is fun to predict. It’s the middle part that’s hard.

Writing a book can be an awful lot like setting up that oh-so-charming training calendar. I like to outline, because I know my book’s beginning, and I know my book’s intended ending, but the middle part always bogs me down. You know, all that stuff that makes up the story? Moves the plot along? Gets the horse from green-broke to jumping courses? Yeah. That can be challenging.

Every book I’ve written since Other People’s Horses has had an outline, and every subsequent time I write a story outline, I find myself a little more dependent on it. That’s because my desire to wander from the set course never, ever wanes. Like a horse bound and determined to lose his shoe before the schooling show on Saturday, I am absolutely hell-bent on diverting from my intended story with wandering trail rides, unplanned-for barn drama, and completely unpredictable bucking incidents.

And while this sort of convoluted wandering story process seems to work for some writers (George R.R. Martin of Game of Thrones fame comes to mind), I really don’t want to write 500 page door-stops that are meant to be set during one fateful summer in Saratoga, or wherever. That’s why I have to force myself back to the outline. Because every wandering trail ride has to expose a new question in the plot, every unplanned-for barn drama has to be resolved, and every unpredictable bucking incident has to involve sorting out what set off the horse, and how to fix the horse’s problem.

That’s a lot of extra writing for me, and a lot of meandering “what happened to the plot?” for you, the readers.

So funny story, haha, you guys are going to love this, I wrote a masterful outline for Pride, which is the sequel to Ambition.

Sidebar: Originally Ambition was supposed to be a stand-alone novel, but I’ve gotten so many requests for a series that I had to cave to pressure. Readers have power! When you like something, say something! 

Anyway, I wrote this wonderful outline for a book which can stand up as the second novel in a trilogy about Jules, Pete, Lacey, Becky, and of course Dynamo and Mickey, plus a host of new riders and horses. It was here to make my life easier, this outline. To keep me on track and stop me from taking three years and half-a-dozen drafts to write, the way that Ambition did.

And I got midway through Pride, to about 45,000 words, which when you consider Ambition is about 111,000 words, you can see is that all-troublesome Middle Part that confounds both trainers and writers when we are making our plots and plans… and I started to wander. I quickly realized I was inventing some barn drama which was good, but which would need to be resolved or things were going to get way off track. I decided it was time to consult my written outline, since at this point I’d just been writing off memory of what I’d planned.

This was when I realized that I had lost the outline.

Oh jeez.

Well, I stumbled about for a little bit, figuring I could find my way through without the outline, but the thing just started keeping me awake at night. What if I had lost my way? How was I going to fix this? What was the best use of my time? I’m on a tight deadline to get Pride finished and my work schedule outside of house is about to ramp up considerably. If I let this plot wander too much, I was going to be months behind.

Something had to be done.

I knew the ending still (that horse show date that I had selected months before, right?) and although my middle part had changed a little bit, that’s just what horses do. It was time to be agile. I sat down, opened my writing program, and started creating chapters.

In Scrivener, which is the program I use, each folder becomes a chapter. And there’s a little box where you can type out a synopsis. I’d never used it before, but there’s a first time for everything. I typed a synopsis for each chapter I had yet to write, creating a little guide-map to every single folder, so that no matter when I opened up the manuscript to write, there would be no excuse — the next step in the story was right there, ready to be fleshed out.

I created fourteen chapters in all, assuming that each one would balance out at about 2,000 words, and then on the edit/rewrite I would elaborate on them until they had more substance. Then, I started work on the first one.

That chapter stretched out to 5,000 words.

Outlines. The more detailed they are, it would seem, the easier my job gets.

It reminds me again of that training calendar — on a good day, I can look at the calendar, assess where my horse is vs where I thought my horse could be, and then reassess. Once that’s done, I can see what I want to do for the day, then get out there and make it happen… much more successfully than if I’d just mounted up without a plan, wandered out to the arena, and started trotting around waiting to see what would happen next.

That’s good news for me as a writer. It’s good news for everyone waiting for the sequel to Ambition, too. Hold on kids, Jules and Company are coming back for more!

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