My journalism training prepared me for many things when it comes to writing — adhering to deadlines, having the discipline to sit down and do it (the part where most people come up short) and the ability to be economical with words. But because I was never a long-form journalist — most newspaper stories I’ve written have been no longer than 1,000 words — it didn’t prepare me for a singular challenge of novel-length writing: covering 80,000-plus words and tying up all the loose ends as one goes. As a journalist, I’d always been able to see the road clearly in my head: the lead paragraph, the structure of the heart of the story, the wrap-up. With a novel, I needed more concrete guideposts.
(Let’s assume, for purposes of this discussion, that you have an idea worth writing, which is indeed the toughest part of all.)
As I prepared to write 600 Hours of Edward, I knew I needed to do something different. My writing life was full of half-baked attempts at novels, none of which moved beyond 6,000 words or so as I watched the efforts devolve into overly expository, rambling, poorly focused messes. I’m almost ashamed to admit this now, but for the first time in my writing life, I sketched out a story outline, a crude road map of where I wished to go.
I’m not talking about outlines as they were taught in high school. That wasn’t going to work for me, for a number of reasons:
A. The merits of freedom: Part of the joy of writing fiction is exploring the corners of the story you don’t anticipate.
B. Time: I wrote my outline 24 hours before I started principal writing on the novel. I needed something fast.
You see what I mean? That wasn’t going to cut it.
What I came up with, instead, was a basic chapter plot with just enough detail to keep me focused on where I needed to be at any given juncture but enough freedom to fill in the fine details with my imagination. It worked, too: Guided by that outline, I moved through 80,000 words in 24 days (the breakneck pace had nothing to do with the outline; that was just my own lunacy). Between start and finish, I deviated greatly from my notes, and I made those adjustments as I went. Without that all-encompassing guide, though, I’d have been dead in the water.
The outline for 600 Hours is gone — stupidly, I didn’t save my work — but I’ll give you an example from the outline of my current project. Here are my notes for the next chapter I’m going to tackle:
Late arrival at the ranch. Marie’s nowhere to be found. I’m left alone in this house. Dad and Marie come home, positively venomous at each other. She’s been seeing another man. Phone call with Mom.
Thirty-five words to keep me churning toward the next bend in the road. The texture and the life will come from the 3,000 or so words I use to graduate from jotted notes to fully formed chapter.