Indiana Jones and the Plot Outline of Doom

You might be wondering why, after last week’s blitz of postings, I’ve kind of fallen off the grid. I promise there’s a good reason: I’ve focused my writing time this week on starting my next novel. That’s right! My sophomore effort is officially underway. Cover reveal and teaser coming soon, but I want to get the first few chapters drafted first. I need to make sure this idea is going to fly before I commit to it publicly. (Thankfully for my Laddie and me, my commitment issues are exclusive to writing and don’t apply to personal relationships!)

One thing helping me a great deal is a lesson I learned from writing Blue Karma: advance chapter mapping. My debut novel took a year to complete because I didn’t have a clear plan. The first few chapters were solid, and I knew how I wanted it to end, but the middle was a shapeless haze of events. “Um…so they go to California and…some stuff happens….”. Criminally inefficient! Moonlight novelists like me (and possibly many of you) don’t have the luxury of discovering our plots through exploratory writing. Writing time is at a premium, and we can’t afford to waste it on dead-end subplots or extraneous scenes that won’t survive the first revision. Writing a story is always an adventure. The author becomes a literary Indiana Jones, blazing through unknown territory in search of fortune and glory (and five-star book reviews). Every adventure brings some surprises; that’s part of the fun. But a little planning makes for a much smoother journey.

Lego Indiana Jones

Know what’s even worse than snakes, Indy? Writing yourself into a dead end because you didn’t map your novel’s plot!

Indy knows the temple lies somewhere in the rainforest, but doesn’t know exactly how to get there. Should he spend weeks wandering the jungle, hoping he’ll eventually stumble upon the site? Not if he wants to snatch the treasure out from under the Nazis’ Aryan noses! He needs to fly over the terrain and identify which direction to go before he starts hacking a machete trail.

Some of you may be that sub-species of writer referred to in technical terms as “seat-of-the-pants” writers. If it works for you, great! However, most of us can improve our efficiency with a little structure. No excruciating detail (unless you belong to that other sub-species, the obsessive outliner) just a blueprint of the plot mechanics. For my new project, I listed the chapters in chronological order and jotted a few sentences about the events in each one. The completed map provides an overview of the story as a whole. Defining each individual chapter precludes vague spots like those in my sketch for Blue Karma. Each chapter must have a purpose and elide with the chapters before and after it.

Indy stands at the head of a bridge spanning a perilous gorge. He can see the bridge’s end on the far side of the precipice, and a few planks ahead of his feet, but fog obscures the central span. Are any boards broken or missing? Yawning gaps over the crocodile-infested river below? Wouldn’t it be nice if Indy could see where he was going?

If Indy’s bridge if your story, each plank is a chapter connecting beginning to end in a logical chain of events. I’ve found it helpful to ensure each plank is sound before I commit to the crossing. It was tempting to charge headlong into my project—I had the first three chapters all but written in my head, and knew approximately where to end—but I took this approach with Blue Karma and wound up completely rewriting a full third of the manuscript. I like to think I learn from my mistakes.

So far the chapter map has served me well. I cracked out a lengthy first chapter this week with no issues and feel confident about the story’s direction. A chapter map also makes it easier to set goals and measure progress. I spent several weeks sulking in the middle of Blue Karma because I felt stuck and didn’t know how I’d connect what I’d already written to the necessary ending. It took a lot of effort to write myself out of a rut. This time I’m armed with a fully operational outline, so I have no excuses not to meet my self-imposed deadlines. Only my own willingness to work stands between me and fortune-and-glory. Step on it, Short Round!

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