Friday, September 12, 2014

4 The Craft of Outlining by Kiki Sullivan

Kiki Sullivan is the brand new debut author of THE DOLLS, a fantastically creepy thriller that just came out in August. Although Kiki is a debut author, her knowledge and tips on writing rival any well established author.

The Craft of Outlining by Kiki Sullivan

In real life, I'm not always one for planning ahead. I like to see where the day will take me, what adventures will come my way.

But when it comes to the page, things are entirely different. Not only do I prefer to know where I'm going, but it's vital to me to be able to see the road to the end of each story I write before I write the first word of chapter one.

That's why I outline. Some writers swear by the technique. Others prefer to let their characters guide the story. I do a little of both; I outline very thoroughly, but I never stick to the blueprint entirely, because it's impossible to know before you begin writing exactly what your characters will do once you set them in motion. It's like having a roadmap, or a set of Mapquest directions, that show you exactly how to get to where you want to go. But once you're on the road, detouring off the main path a few times is always fine, as long as you eventually keep heading toward your destination.

In fact, sometimes it's the detours that make the journey so memorable.

So why outline? For me, there are several reasons. First, outlining makes writer's block virtually impossible. Sure, you'll still have unproductive writing sessions or days when your head's not in the game, but you'll never be defeated by your story because you'll always know where to go next.

Second, an outline is a way to try your story out before you begin writing the chapters. Why is this so important? It's simple; wouldn't you rather know you're going down the wrong path on page 20 of a 30-page outline instead of on page 200 of a 300-page book? Not only will you have spent far less time traveling down the wrong road, but it's also a whole lot easier to go back and tweak a plot thread in outline form. This saves you both time and wasted energy.

Third, an outline is a bit like a safety blanket. It gives you comfort on the hardest of days and keeps you safe and protected from your own self-doubt in a way. As long as you've found the way to the end of your outline, you can find your way to the end of your book too -- as long as you're willing to work hard.

Fourth, an outline helps you to summarize the story in your own mind. It sounds like an obvious point, but knowing exactly what your story is about -- in as few words as possible -- helps you to write it better. An outline helps crystallize your themes, your characters' goals, attributes and shortcomings, and the obstacles standing in their way. Being able to easily put a finger on these things lets you write your first draft much more efficiently.

So how do you outline? Different people do it different ways. Some prefer bulleted outlines. Some like to write scenes down on index cards so that they're easily rearrangeable (although I find that's handier in screenwriting, where scene placement tends to be a little more fluid). And some -- like me -- prefer to write outlines in an almost book report-like style. In other words, you're essentially writing a summary of your book before you even begin writing the book itself. Personally, I've always found that this helps the words and ideas to flow a little more freely, because you can also include dialogue, descriptions and other notes that bring the scene to life the moment they first appear in your head.

I wrote my first novel in 2003, and I did it using an outline technique that I taught myself -- and that has been my specialty since then. Here's how to get started:

First, choose a book that's similar in tone, length and style to the book you plan to write. It shouldn't be about the same topic -- for instance, if you're writing a vampire love story, don't choose Twilight -- but the target audience and genre should be the same. Now, sit down with that book and with either a notebook or your computer. Read chapter one. Now, summarize chapter one in one to three paragraphs, noting such things as when characters are introduced, how much background the author has included, how much dialogue is included, etc. Summarizing the story presented in that chapter should be your primary mission, but also keep an eye out for the writer's technique.

Now, do the same with chapter two. And chapter three. And so on, until you've reached the end of the book.

Now, you should have a solid outline of a single published book. Put it aside for a day, and then pick it back up again. Read it in one sitting. Here, condensed, is the framework for a book that works, a book that's been published, a book that's successful. You'll use this as a blueprint for writing your own outline.

Your scenes shouldn't follow the scenes of the model novel exactly. Simply use them as a guideline. Get a sense of the model author's flow. When does he or she introduce main characters? When do conflicts crop up? When are problems solved? How do the stakes get higher for the main character as the first half of the book progresses?

Now, sit down at your computer, open a new document and type, "CHAPTER ONE." Skip a few lines and begin your own outline. Take a look at the outline of the published book you've already developed. How did that author start his or her story with a bang? How are you introduced to the main character's world?

Essentially (and you'll find this advice on too), you'll want to begin with a scene that centers around your main character, gives us a chance to get to know her and her life situation, and gives us a good idea of her personality and lifestyle through dialogue, action and interaction. This scene should be fast-paced and take place before the main storyline of the book really kicks off, because you want the reader to be fully on board with your character and in her corner before anything very important happens. Follow that scene with a second scene, moving your main character to another location to show us a different aspect of her life. Bam – you have a chapter one.

Now, read chapter two in the outline you've produced for the already-published book. Use it as a rough model for your chapter two. And so on.

In general (this is also from

• The beginning of your book should start with a bang and introduce us to your main character. By the end of chapter 1, the reader should feel drawn into the story. By the end of chapter 2, the reader should be fully on board with your main character. Don’t weigh the first and second chapters down with background. Only give us the essential parts of the backstory, and save the rest for later. We should arrive, relatively soon, at a dramatic plot twist that kicks off the main action of the book.
• The middle of the book will deal with a big challenge (and smaller associated challenges) your main character is facing and how she deals with them and learn something in the process. It should include a sort-of up and down pattern, where she solves some problems while trying to work through the main conflict, but she also runs into other problems along the way, many of which are of her own making or stem from the main issue at hand. The conflict should keep getting more complicated until the middle section of your book concludes in a climax that leads us to the end.
• The end of the book is where things get resolved and where the questions you’ve laid out throughout the book get answered. Your character should have grown and changed by now, as a result of what she’s gone through, and her responses to situations will show that change. This is your chance to conclude storylines and tie up loose plot threads. And remember, a satisfying ending doesn’t always have to include all the characters living happily ever after. But your main character, at least, should be better off at the end of the book than she is at the beginning, as a result of the way she has grown and changed throughout.

Hope this helps a bit. To some, outlining sounds tedious. To me, it's the most creative part of the writing process. It's your chance to begin getting to know your characters and to see them interacting with each other on the page. It's your chance to test out plotlines you're not entirely sure about. And it's an opportunity to see where your imagination takes you without having to take the time to make sure your words are pretty and perfect yet.

Good luck, and happy outlining!

About The Author

Kiki Sullivan is the author of The Dolls series. Like the main character Eveny Cheval, Kiki used to live in New York and now calls the American South home. Unlike Eveny, she finds it impossible to keep her rose garden alive and has been singlehandedly responsible for the unfortunate demise of countless herbs. She may or may not have hung out with queens of the dark arts, strolled through creepy New Orleans cemeteries at night, or written the first book of this series with a red-headed Louisiana voodoo doll beside her computer.

Website | Twitter | Goodreads

About The Book

Eveny Cheval just moved back to Louisiana after spending her childhood in New York with her aunt Bea. Eveny hasn’t seen her hometown since her mother’s suicide fourteen years ago, and her memories couldn’t have prepared her for what she encounters. Because pristine, perfectly manicured Carrefour has a dark side full of intrigue, betrayal, and lies—and Eveny quickly finds herself at the center of it all.

Enter Peregrine Marceau, Chloe St. Pierre, and their group of rich, sexy friends known as the Dolls. From sipping champagne at lunch to hooking up with the hottest boys, Peregrine and Chloe have everything—including an explanation for what’s going on in Carrefour. And Eveny doesn’t trust them one bit.

But after murder strikes and Eveny discovers that everything she believes about herself, her family, and her life is a lie, she must turn to the Dolls for answers. Something’s wrong in paradise, and it’s up to Eveny, Chloe, and Peregrine to save Carrefour and make it right.

Amazon | IndieBound | Goodreads


  1. Very interesting ideas here. Thanks for the post. That book cover is chilling!

  2. I never thought about using another book as a chapter by chapter guide for outlining. Cool concept.

  3. GREAT suggestions, Kiki! Thank you! :D


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