January 5, 2015

Outlining Your Novel by K.M. Weiland

For years I considered myself a pantser, but after writing two novel-length rambles that I never finished and two novels that I finished but had to revise heavily because I had painted myself into multiple corners, I decided it was time to try something different. 

In looking for a book on outlining, this one stood out because I’ve enjoyed Weiland's blog for years. She's very easy to read and provides a ton of great information. I was hoping this book would help in some small way, but in a lot of ways, it changed my writing life completely.
Weiland has a hard-core approach to outlining—with character interviews and elaborate backstory memoirs—that I don’t know if I’ll use in its entirety. However, she also provides fantastic tips, questions, and formats that aren't confining, yet make a world of difference in moving the story along.
Overall message, scope, or purpose of the book:
Methods of and reasons for outlining. Also includes methods for world building, character sketches, writing a pitch, and other resources valuable to writing and pitching.

Favorite take-aways:
·      Questions to help guide writing – Each chapter contains a checklist relevant to the particular theme, a mini-interview with published authors about their outlining techniques, and questions that help to tease out specific components of writing setting, characters, etc. I found the questions extremely helpful. They can be used with any project in any genre, and I was amazed by how taking the time to answer the questions really fleshed out my own story arc.

If I remember nothing else from this book, I will continue to use the questionnaires to solidify the details and ideas in my own writing.

·      Importance of establishing a premise – Weiland poses a series of “what if” questions to help bring order to the ideas for plot, character, setting, etc. floating around in your head. I found this very significant in preparing a marketable story, as well as drafting query letters, synopses, and loglines. For me, her ideas make sense. I see the benefit of crystallizing the details rather than muddling through a draft with a lot of random thoughts and unanswered questions, the way I usually do.

·      Pantsing vs. Plotting – Experimental writing may require weeks and thousands of words to play out a scene, but outlining takes a few minutes and a couple dozen worlds to follow a scene to its logical end to determine if it will work (p. 69).

Pros of Book:
·      Promotes Asking Questions – I mentioned this briefly, but I think it’s the best part about the book. Weiland doesn’t push a stodgy, boring outlining program. She says, “Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it’s the life’s blood of a writer” (69). Push a little further and ask a few more questions. That’s it. Simple, right?

·      Author Blurbs – different perspectives and different methods to try. Weiland reinforces that the only right way is the way that works for you.

·      Lists and Checklists Galore – How to keep the stakes high. Character quirks and personality types. Character progression. How to strengthen themes. Movies that work for different aspects of story telling. How to work with pacing and tension, etc.

These lists are gold. I can’t tell you how many ideas they spurred in my own WIP. I will continue to use them as reference tools.

·      Discussion Questions – Questions that force you to think about and flesh out settings, characters, story arcs, plots, etc.

·      Examples – She uses a lot of books and movies to illustrate her points, which is great, but even better, she pulls them from a wide range of genres. Movies include Gladiator, Forever Young, Peter Pan, The Patriot, etc. And authors include everyone from Brandon Sanderson to Elizabeth Gaskell and Joseph Conrad. I believe her examples appeal to a variety of audiences and types of writers.

She also uses her own writing a lot in examples. This wasn’t as helpful to me because I haven’t read any of them (sorry, Ms. Weiland!), but she does a good job of telling readers exactly what to look for, while showing how to relate the points to our own projects.

·      Readability – I found Weiland’s text to be well-written, easy to read, nicely laid out, engaging, and accessible.

Cons of Book (for me):
·      Cumbersome at Times – If I followed every single suggestion in here, I feel like I would never get around to actually writing. For example, she talks about outlining all day and then going back at the end of the day and highlighting different components with different colors (64). Weiland mentions some novels taking up to a year to outline before even starting writing. I bet that does save a lot of time on the back end, but I think I’d rather get going at some point and take my chances with the revising.

·      yWriter – Weiland references this program enough that she’s probably getting a cut for marketing it (Kidding. Actually, it’s free—you can pay to register it if you choose, but lose no functionality if you don’t). I felt like a book about outlining should acknowledge popular writing programs like Scrivener, Writers Café, Word, or whatever else. Maybe yWriter is the best according to Weiland, but I wanted her to make a case for that compared to some of the other options out there.

·      Overwhelming – I might recommend taking this book in chunks (in tandem with your own project). Don’t get me wrong, it’s an easy read, but it is packed with so many ideas that it’s hard to know where to start (unless you’re starting from scratch with your writing, I guess).

Three-quarters of the way through, I just wanted to quit planning and start writing. Also, I think a lot of the lists, etc. will be a lot more helpful when incorporated with your own WIP rather than as theoretical ideas that will work in eight months when you’re finished with the countless other outlining steps.

What it adds to the Writing Conversation:
After reading this book, Weiland has me sold on outlining. Or at least aspects of it.

She’s not heavy-handed in any way. She acknowledges that creative-types like freedom to explore ideas and follow whims. But she also points out ways that having a bit more structure can save so much effort, time, and heartache.

She never says that outlining is the only way to write, but by the time she’s provided all of her evidence and examples, I feel like she makes a strong case for putting a little more preparation into the prewriting stage, thus saving a lot of time during drafting and revisions.

Buy, Borrow, or Pass: 
I think this one is worth buying. Some writing craft books are beneficial to read once and others are worth keeping around. I think this one is a fantastic reference tool.

The questions it poses are, to me, the strongest selling point. They provide a solid foundation for any novel or short story. Traditional outlining—to me, at least—has always felt like setting ideas in stone, but Weiland’s text reads more like an appeal for writers to explore and think and imagine—the epitome of creative freedom.

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