How to Outline a Novel or Can You Teach an Old Dog New Tricks? Part 1

Do you ever fall into bed at the end of a long day, and wonder where all the excitement in life has gone? You had dreams. Big dreams. Remember that girl. Remember the size jeans you were wearing? I remember what size I was wearing. Not the same size I’m wearing now, but that’s not really important. The point is, we tend to give up on those dreams. The moment we graduate college, they go up in smoke along with that awesome metabolism that allowed you to eat whatever you wanted.  Boy, do I miss that metabolism. Some call it growing up. I call it fear.

If you are reading this right now, you have decided to tackle that fear. That is why you’re here right? You’ve decided you can dismiss your husband’s suggestions that you are having a mid-life crisis. You’ve decided you can ignore the gentle nudging of friends that miss you because you now stay home to slave on your manuscript. You’ve decided that you can miss the last season of Game of Thrones, if that’s what it takes. Okay, maybe let’s not go quite that far. Kit Harrington’s abs. That’s all I’m saying.  What?  You didn’t know fear was involved?

Well, let me tell you now, this path is not for the weak at heart. It’s going to require bravery. It’s going to require dusting off skills that haven’t been used in a while. It’s going to require that you stretch out of your comfort zone, learn something new and conquer your primitive fear’s ass. Yes. I said primitive fear.  What is that?  Well, we all have it. That’s why mingling at dinner parties makes some of us feel kind of like we are going to die. I suppose you could put an eye out with one of those little plastic swords in the finger foods, but death is highly unlikely.  I just feels like death to an introvert.

I have the perfect example.  I have a wiener dog named Buddy. He is the cutest, smartest, most awesome dog in the entire world. Problem is, I didn’t realize he was a miniature until we were pulling out of the breeder’s driveway and I looked down at the card.

My immediate thought was, “Shit, this dog is going to fit through the fence. Forever.” Poor planning on my part? Possibly. There were three children and a dog crazy husband involved. This was not solely my fault. I swear.


Baby, I’m Worth It.

My husband won’t let me so much as take him outside on a leash. You see where I worry about him getting out of the yard and being hit by a car, my husband is afraid that a large bird-of-prey will try to pack him off. No, I’m not kidding. Sigh. Chris is really that high strung. So, for the last year, I have had puppy training pads all over my house. I do not like having pee pads all over my house. I hate it. I really, really, really hate it, but yesterday I had this brilliant idea that I would train Buddy to use a litter box. I was feeling pretty proud of this brainchild of mine.

I told Chris, “I’m a trailblazer baby.”

His response, while rolling his eyes, “You teach that dog to shit in a cat box and I’ll call you a trailblazer alright.”

Undeterred I went to Target and purchased a litter box. I couldn’t wait to introduce Buddy to a new way of doing his business. I put it in the bathroom right next to the toilet so he could feel just like a person. We treat him like one anyway. I gently sat him down inside and…drum roll please, he took off in a fit of terror and threw litter everywhere. Seriously, like he was being killed. Was it rational? No. Did that make him any less afraid? Nope. Still terrified. That’s the fear I’m talking about. Don’t let that fear take over. Don’t be afraid of the litter box! Okay, bad analogy but you get what I’m saying. You are going to start writing that book, right now.

Here is what I want you to do. I’m going to break my process down for you and give it to you in small pieces so you don’t feel like there’s a lion in the corner waiting to eat you.

Step 1:
Color in an adult coloring book for fifteen minutes. If you don’t have one, then pull out your kids. I know, it sounds a little crazy, but this will recalibrate your brain. There is real neuroscience behind it. If that’s just really not what you’re into, then try meditating or just close your eyes and listen to music. Go for a short walk. Do something to help your mind relax and get out of the state of stress that most of us live in.

Step 2:
Take a blank sheet of paper and write down every nugget of an idea that you have about this book. Do not self-edit! I repeat, do not self-edit. Pretend that your brain is like a child on a playground. Let it play. This is the fun part. Go crazy. Think you might kill of a character. Insert evil laughter here. Write it down. There is no right or wrong idea. Just put them on paper.

Step 3:
Use your brain dump from step 2 to sketch in a macro outline. We are going to borrow Shawn Coyne’s Foolscap Global Story Grid Method. If you haven’t discovered his website, or his podcast, then consider that homework as well. Nothing is set in stone at this point. Kind of like in Pirates of the Caribbean when Geoffrey Rushes character talks about the rules. “Arrrr, they’re really just guidelines.” Sorry, I couldn’t resist.

Anyway, it goes something like this:

Beginning Hook
Inciting Incident:

Middle Build
Inciting Incident:

Ending Payoff
Inciting Incident:

Those are the three steps that I want you to start with. Let me know how that works for you and I will let you know if Buddy ever gets over his fear of the litter box. Feel free to ask questions in my Ask Amber Forum. No fear.

Extra Homework:

and The Story Grid Podcast

Why?  Because they’re awesome.

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