Outlining Your Novel And Filling The Creative Well With K.M. Weiland

How can you use an outline to improve your book before you start the first draft? How can you use it to play with your creative ideas without feeling hemmed in by the process?

In this interview, KM Weiland talks about how to outline your novel as well as thoughts on writer’s block, filling the creative well, and longevity as a writer and blogger.

In the intro, 6 Figure Authors on productivity, I’m in editing mode for Tree of Life, and I talk about some lessons learned about writing from my 50K ultramarathon last weekend [pics on Instagram @jfpennauthor].

Plus, get your NaNoWriMo Storybundle, packed full of books on writing craft, marketing, business, and mindset — for a limited time: www.StoryBundle.com/nano

Today’s show is sponsored by ProWritingAid, writing and editing software that goes way beyond just grammar and typo checking. With its detailed reports on how to improve your writing and integration with Scrivener, ProWritingAid will help you improve your book before you send it to an editor, agent or publisher. Check it out for free or get 25% off the premium edition at www.ProWritingAid.com/joanna

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning author of fantasy, medieval epic, historical, and Western adventures. She also writes non-fiction for authors and helps writers become authors on her fantastic vlog. Her books include Creating Character Arcs, Conquering Writer’s Block, and Outlining Your Novel.

You can listen above or on your favorite podcast app or read the notes and links below. Here are the highlights and the full transcript below.

Show Notes

  • The importance of refilling the creative well — especially if you are experiencing writer’s block
  • Outlining as brainstorming and discovery
  • Tips for how to outline
  • Why you don’t have to choose whether to be a plotter or pantser/ discovery writer
  • Benefits of outlining for discovery writers
  • How outlining can give a writer a simpler, more macro view of a story — and help you write your sales description/back blurb
  • How a clear premise can help you write a book’s description
  • Marketing across diverse genres
  • How blogging and non-fiction writing underpin Katie’s business and fuel her fiction career

You can find K.M. Weiland at HelpingWritersBecomeAuthors.com and on Twitter @KMWeiland

Header photo by Laura Chouette on Unsplash

Transcript of Interview with K.M. Weiland

Joanna: K.M. Weiland is the award-winning author of fantasy, medieval epic, historical, and Western adventures. She also writes non-fiction for authors and helps writers become authors on her fantastic vlog. Her books include Creating Character Arcs, Conquering Writer’s Block, and Outlining Your Novel, which is what we are talking about today. Welcome back to the show, Katie.

Katie: Thank you for having me. I always enjoy talking to you, so this will be fun.

Joanna: Oh, great. And it’s so funny, I buy your books for people probably the most often. Creating Character Arcs, I have bought that for so many people now.

Katie: That’s awesome. Thank you. I’m always recommending your stuff as well. People are like, ‘Well, you should write more about marketing,’ and I’m like, ‘Just go to The Creative Penn. It covers everything you need to know.’

Joanna: Oh, good. Well, that’s excellent. Now, and I wanted to talk about Outlining Your Novel because, yes, I have that one on my desk and I have really been trying to get into this. So, we’re going to talk about that today, but first up, you were last on the podcast in 2016, all those years ago, talking about banishing writer’s block.

Give us an update on what’s happening with you and what your writing and creative business life look these days?

Katie: It’s kind of funny that we were talking about Conquering Writer’s Block the last time because I actually, very shortly after that, just plunged into several years’ worth of writer’s block, which was an interesting experience for me, obviously, because I hadn’t dealt with that previously.

It’s been kind of an interesting couple of years and I felt like I’ve learned a lot about myself, about writing, obviously, and also just about the business side of it, but I’m kind of getting back in the swing of things, I feel like.

My daily routines are pretty much where I am a slow starter, so I try to get research or necessary reading out of the way first thing, and then move into fiction writing in the morning or sometimes just staring at the screen depending on what’s going on and tackle email, social media, just the normal daily stuff right after lunch, and then, hopefully, I have a few hours after that to deal with other projects.

Right now, I’m working on my next writing craft book, which is going to be Writing Your Story’s Theme, so I’m excited about getting that out, and that’s what I focus on throughout the rest of the afternoon. It’s got its rhythm and there’s a lot of different things that I have to cover throughout the day but to try to find that balance between doing the fiction and doing the non-fiction, and keeping up with all the marketing, but yeah, it’s fun. It’s something that I’m still very much enjoying even after all these years.

Joanna: I’ve got to ask about these several years of writer’s block. How did you get yourself out of that? You said you learned some lessons.

Is there something you can share if people feel like they’re in the same situation with writer’s block?

Katie: I have always said when people have asked me about writer’s block that I feel like it’s usually caused by one of two things. It’s either a plot block, something within the actual story that’s not working, and that you just kind of have to logic your way through, or it could be a life block.

And I think very often, and that was my experience, that that is the source of these huge time spans of writer’s block, where it just feels like you’re never going to break through. And so, usually, there are other things going on than just the writing.

For me, I discovered that after hitting the business end of writing really hard for seven, eight years, whatever it was at that point, it was burnout, which I see. It’s interesting, having done some research on that, it’s the epidemic of the era for millennials and such that the entrepreneurs are just hitting it so hard.

I think it comes at the expense at a certain point of being more in touch with life and with creativity, which, obviously, is this tremendously vital resource for anyone who’s doing artistic work. I really had to take a step back for a time from the business part of it.

Really got serious about the 80/20 rule, focusing on what 20% of my effort was actually bringing me 80% of the results.

And also learning a lot about self-care, which I was not good at in my 20s. I know you’ve talked about that too.

It’s like finding that balance with creating a nurturing lifestyle that brings in the creativity and allows you to maintain a reasonable level of productivity.

That was probably the main thing that I really had to focus on and work on rearranging in my life to start refilling my well, instead of just constantly emptying it in one way or the other.

Joanna: Thank you for sharing that with us because it’s interesting that you wrote a book on writer’s block, and then you went through it. I think you’re right about that life block and burnout.

I also feel like there are seasons in our writing life and that sometimes you go through different seasons when different things are more important, and that’s true in our creative life but also in our life-life, the rest of our life, which, obviously, has an impact on our writing life.

I think being open to recuperating, as you said, refilling the writing well, it’s sometimes just all that’s necessary until you feel that urge to go back to the page, right? You felt that urge in the end.

Katie: Yes. I was lucky enough to finally decide to read Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way last summer, and it was just serendipitous timing. It was just exactly what I needed, and it’s definitely something that I recommend for anyone who’s struggling creatively, as I know a lot of people are right now.

She’s all about nurturing that inner artist and doing things that aren’t necessarily about publication or creating the perfect piece of art, or story, or whatever that’s going to go out into the world, but very much just about nurturing that inner child and your experience of play within the world. And that was very refreshing for me, and a great reminder that that’s what it’s all about.

Storytelling is play, and so we need to focus on that, and nurture that, and celebrate that, rather than trying, in some way, to turn it into this very regimented thing, this job. It’s constantly a job and it’s very adult and very serious versus remembering this is fun.

It’s the joy of discovering and playing with life more than anything else.

Joanna: I remember reading The Artist’s Way when I was living in Australia, which is, I think when we first connected online. I was working a day job I hated, I was burned out. I read that book and I took myself on an artist’s date as she suggests just up the coast near Noosa and I recorded a video.

It’s so funny because my YouTube channel is so old now, but I recorded a video talking about how I just discovered this book and that I did this artist date and filling the well, and you’re right, it’s an oldie, but it’s a goodie. It’s amazing how that stands the test of time, that book.

You can watch the video from 2010 below or here on YouTube

Katie: I think it’s something you can return to over and over again as we go through these cycles of needing rejuvenation.

Joanna: Let’s get into the topic of today, which is outlining, and it’s funny because you just mentioned that our writing should be play and it shouldn’t be regimented. And then I feel like one of the issues that people have about outlining is that it feels almost regimented or not like play.

What is outlining in your definition? And what are some of the misconceptions people have?

Katie: I think you’ve just completely hit the nail on the head in that one of the big resistances people have to outlining is that it’s going to take all the fun out of it.

When we think of the word outlining, most of us return to high school or college where we had to write these very simplistic, very severe-looking Roman numeral outlines. And if that is what you’re creating for your story, if you feel like you have to just in one sitting, write this one-page outline that completely sums up everything that’s going to happen in your story, I totally agree. That sounds completely boring and very restrictive to the joy and the play and the discovery of storytelling.

It’s so much more valuable to think about the outlining process, not so much as outlining in and of itself, but as brainstorming. It is the part of the story, for me, where I’m just throwing it all out there on the page and it’s all of these crazy ideas that may not make it into the book but they’re so much fun.

It’s this space, this playground, where you get to experience all of that in a safe container where you’re also not under the pressure of creating perfect prose, perfect scenes, making sure everything hangs together. It’s just a fun time to explore all of the what-ifs of what the story could be, what makes sense, what doesn’t, what are the resonant themes? Who are the characters, and what are they going to do?

If you start thinking of outlining as this brainstorming exercise, that it is, in fact, a period of discovery, it becomes a really fun playground for just messing around before you get to the serious stuff of having to put together a first draft that other people will actually be able to interact with.

And also, it’s the safety net where you get to play with all of these things and in a way that allows you to zoom out and be a little more objective so that you’re able to see the big picture of your story, and recognize the plot holes, or where the structure isn’t working, or where the theme really isn’t resonating with what’s actually happening in the action of the story.

I think the foundational misconception is that outlining is dry and boring, and is just a Roman numeral outline when really it’s brainstorming.

Another one that I would put in that I’ve come to see myself over the years is I don’t actually think that there’s this differentiation between plotting and pantsing, that you have to be a plotter or you have to be a pantser. I think we all are all of them because we all have to do the discovery period, and we all have to work our way through ideas when we have no idea what’s going on.

At some point, we all have to plot and make sure everything makes sense and works together. It’s just that some people prefer to do it at different parts of the process. Some people want to do their structuring and make everything just right upfront in the outline, which is what I prefer, but some people would rather do that later on in the revising period and use their first draft as more of the brainstorming period of the process.

It’s valuable to realize it’s not either/or that we all do these parts of the process. Sometimes we just have to find how to do it in a way that particularly optimizes our creativity and efficiency.

Joanna: I agree. I’ve heard Jeffery Deaver – I think you even put him in your book, right? He writes something like 200 pages of an outline, which is, essentially, to me, most of the book, and then he goes through and expands that a bit. And obviously, his books are amazing.

But then there’s Stephen King, he just writes, apparently, and Dean Wesley Smith, Writing Into the Dark, and so they might be the extreme ends of this sliding scale. But as you say, most of us are somewhere on that scale and we move up and down, depending, I guess, on what book it is.

If this is some time travel backwards and forwards thing, you probably need more outlining, whereas with something that’s more linear might not need it.

You said brainstorming, what are some of the ways that people would do it? Some people clearly do a bullet list.

What are some of the more creative ways to brainstorm if people feel like a list is not good enough for them?

Katie: I will just say there’s nothing wrong with the bulleted or Roman numeral list if that’s what works for you. It’s great. But I like to start in an outline and when I come to an outline, I generally have a few ideas, a few scenes, images, things I know about the story, and I’m going to start by just writing down a list of everything I know about the story and then looking at the holes in between and how they might connect up.

Then it becomes this process of what I call what-iffing, where you’re just asking questions. What if this happened? What if that happened? Trying to really think outside the box and be as creative as possible.

And half the ideas are going to be ridiculous and you’re not going to keep them, but by getting into this practice of really getting into this brainstorm zone where you feel like anything is possible and that all of the potential ideas are accessible to you, you can really start playing around and looking beyond the formula or the stories that you’ve read.

You’ve read 100 stories in this genre, and seeing past what’s maybe expected beyond that, to things that do fulfill genre conventions but are unique, and interesting, and really exciting, and fulfilling to you.

You can do this in many different ways, but I prefer to do it longhand in a notebook and just start talking to myself on the page, basically. I like doing it that way because I feel my handwriting is terrible and I’m lucky if I can read it sometimes afterwards, but there’s something about that sloppiness that I find is just like really freeing to my right brain creativity and I’m just throwing it out there.

You just never know what’s going to come out of it. And then at a certain point, I’ll eventually want to move on to the computer where everything is neat and clean, and black and white, and I can see everything, and start ordering and organizing.

But in the beginning, it’s just this wild spurt of creativity.

It’s a playground where I can play around with all kinds of ridiculous ideas that would never make it into the book, that would never make it past an audience, but it doesn’t matter because it’s just me playing around, and who knows what I’m going to find in between the connecting points of the scenes that I already know are going to be in the story?

Joanna: Some people do mind maps. I have a lot of mind maps from my earlier books, I think when I didn’t really know so much what I was doing. I have also seen writers put photos of their Post-it Notes on the wall. I know one writer, she does Post-its on the wall and that sort of thing and then moves them around.

And then there’s lots of different software if people want to do software at that point, but I feel like I’ve come down in a sort of hybrid area of putting all of this mishmash together because I want some of the benefits of outlining.

If people are discovery writers, what are some of the benefits of outlining?

Katie: I would say, first of all, I think we’re all discovery writers, and I think that if you identify that way, then outlining is a discovery process, and so just because you’ve decided, ‘Oh, gosh, I need to outline,’ it doesn’t mean that you still don’t get the fun of that discovery process.

I always say outlining is my favorite part of the process, and, for me, it’s because it is the discovery and that is the most fun part. But I think the foundational benefit of why you would do this because, at a certain point, you’re like, ‘What I’m doing isn’t quite working,’ and you’re looking for solutions and everybody is like, ‘You need to outline,’ and so you come into examining that and trying to weigh whether or not it’s going to benefit you.

The foundational reason that most people do it is because they keep writing stories, they’re having fun, but the stories never quite seem to work. You put all of this time, and effort, and passion into stringing together first drafts, and then you reach a certain point and you’re like, ‘This isn’t working. It doesn’t make any sense. I have no idea where I’m going’.

It’s really heartbreaking and frustrating because you may have to give up on it altogether and realize it’s unsalvageable, or you may have to go back and spend as much or more time trying to fix what you’ve already done. I’ve been there and done that in both scenarios, and they’re not fun particularly.

I think foundationally, the reason we outline is so that before we get into the really fussy, particular work of creating the first draft with all of its many unique challenges, that first we’re making sure the big picture, the macro of the story is properly in place and we have this foundation we can build on.

It allows us to create a story structure that’s solid from beginning to end. It allows us to make sure that the character arcs and the theme are working together in concert. It allows us to fill in plot holes before we ever get started.

It’s kind of a more objective way to look at the story because when you’re in the first draft and you’re just immersed in your words, basically, it’s easy to get lost and particularly if you’re spending a long amount of time on it. Sometimes I’ll go back and read things I wrote even just a couple of months earlier and I’m like, ‘Wow, I didn’t even remember writing it.’

When you can zoom out on a much simpler view of the story, which is what an outline provides, it allows you to kind of get that more objective look about whether this is working and how to fix what isn’t working.

Joanna: I really, really wished that I had some kind of outline for what became my Mapwalker trilogy because I wrote book one and I didn’t know it was going to be book one. I thought it was a standalone, and then I thought, ‘Oh, maybe it’s a series.’

And then in book three, I discovered it was a trilogy, and it was like, ‘Oh, okay. If I’d have known this earlier, I could have foreshadowed better. I could have…’ I don’t know, just added in those little touches that really round a trilogy off. I feel like I did a good job, obviously, but it was like, ‘Oh, gosh, if I’d have known that in advance, that really would have helped.’

Obviously, I’m nothing like George R. R. Martin. He is incredible, but I feel like his series, that people know as Game of Thrones, is a problem at this point because it’s gone so big and so massive that it’s almost difficult to bring back to one place. I’ve heard other epic fantasy people say that you have to have some kind of series idea.

What’s the difference between outlining an individual book and thinking at a series level of outline?

Katie: I relate to what you’re saying so much and it’s probably part of why I’ve had writer’s block for the last few years. I also wrote what I thought was a standalone book, my fantasy Dreamlander many years ago, and then, all of a sudden, decided, ‘Oh, you know what? I’m going to turn this into a trilogy. Brilliant idea.’

It’s turned out to be quite challenging and has definitely given me a lot of insight. I’m not at a point yet where I feel like I just am able to write a book on how to outline a series because I’m still definitely struggling through my own understanding.

I would recommend, like you say, if it’s at all possible planning your series from the start rather than writing your standalone book and then like, ‘Oh, my goodness, what have I gotten myself into?’

I think that foundationally, the brilliance of outlining, from my perspective, is that it allows you to access the ending of the story before you start writing the beginning because a truly resonant story is one where the ending is found in the beginning. The first act sets up the third act, and ideally, there are no wasted pieces, and so everything comes together into this really cohesive and resonant whole, ideally.

This is actually very, very difficult to pull off, especially if you’re writing something very big and sprawling such as Game of Thrones. But when you know how the story, how the series is going to end, that allows you to build toward that because that’s the whole point.

I think sometimes we get lost in just the fun stuff along the way, the romance, or the adventure, whatever is actually happening in the scenes, and that’s great. Obviously, that’s most of the book, but whether or not a story works is going to be determined by how well the ending works.

When we’re outlining, we’re able to identify that ending before we start writing the first draft. And I think this just becomes more and more important when we’re writing a longer piece of fiction. Define that through-line that pulls all the way through however many books, so that by the time readers get to the end, it’s like, ‘Yeah, that made sense.’ That totally resonates and finds a place where it feels right, and it feels whole, and it feels very satisfying.

Joanna: And, of course, your book, Character Arcs is excellent. It’s that character arc across multiple books, I feel like I had a character arc with my main character in book one, and then I realized that her character arc continued.

If you do a series, you do have to think about all these different things for each character. It’s not just the plot aspects that comes to a nice conclusion. It is also those character arcs, and they also have to be long enough and varied enough for a series. It is good to think that these are two different things, really, outlining an individual book and then outlining a series. Do you think maybe you’ll do another book on that at some point?

Katie: I hope so. I hope I conquered enough to be able to have something to say about it, but we’re getting there. I feel like I’m finally moving the needle a little bit, but it’s definitely been an interesting experience.

Joanna: Getting back into the book, you do talk about a premise and lots of different people use the word and often people mean different things.

How do you define a premise and why is it important for the outline?

Katie: I think of premise in different terms. It could be your elevator pitch. It could be your logline, things like that. But, for me, it’s a one or two-sentence description of the entire story.

It’s not something I’ll necessarily know at the beginning of an outline because it’s so condensed that I’m not necessarily going to be able to create it in a holistic way that reflects the story until later in the process. But I like to do it at some point because it does really make you focus on what is the story really about. It strips away all of the extra stuff so that you can really see exactly what this story is and whether it actually makes sense on this super micro level.

What I like to do, there are several different templates I use, which you can find in my Outlining Your Novel workbook. I also have software that has all the same questions in it. But what I like to do is make sure that I’m identifying the protagonist, what he wants or his objective, and therefore what the situation is that creates that want.

Where is he at the beginning of the story that has made him want what he’s going to spend the rest of the book pursuing? And then also the antagonistic force or whatever is creating the obstacle that is preventing him from getting this thing right at the beginning.

I also like to focus on what’s going to happen at the first plot point that’s kind of the disaster, if you will, that launches all of the rest of the book and then describes the main conflict?

And then put that all together into one or two sentences, so that you can really see how well-connected things are because sometimes you can write one sentence about what the protagonist wants and all this, and then you realize the antagonist doesn’t actually make sense in that sentence because he or she is off doing something else that’s kind of ancillary and more of a subplot. And that can be really helpful in realizing that the whole story actually isn’t working together as a solid unit.

Creating a premise sentence is definitely something I recommend at a certain point within the outline once you think you’ve got it and the plot starting to come together. It’s a great way to check yourself and make sure that it really is coming together as much as you want, and then it’s also very handy later on when you do need an elevator pitch or a logline or something like that.

Joanna: Or the blurb. I’m writing Tree of Life at the moment as we record this, and I have never put up a pre-order until I finish the first draft, normally. And then I interviewed J.D. Barker earlier this year and he said he always writes the blurb first.

I think the back blurb for a book that we use as our sales description is a slightly bigger version of what you’re calling the premise, right? It’s got all of those aspects to it.

I was like, ‘Okay, I really want to have a longer pre-order. I want to do this.’ So, I nailed that down, and the pre-order is out as we record this. It will be out by the time this goes live, but it was so funny because I was so nervous about it and I was so worried about nailing it down. I felt like this is a big step for me, and yet, I was so happy once it was done.

It made the book much clearer in my mind, and, of course, it’s only a few lines, so it’s not like it’s a really detailed outline or anything. But I think that really helped.

Is that another thing to consider? That publishing timeline in terms of having that sales description copy.

Katie: That actually reminded me, I haven’t done that for a while, but I used to always write a blurb before I started writing first or before I started writing the outline, and it wasn’t something I shared and very often the blurb I’d write in the beginning didn’t end up being exactly accurate, but in itself, it’s kind of an outline.

I think for some people, that’s probably outline enough. It gives you a focus and it helps you see if it’s something that has enough inherent conflict, and drama, and entertainment to pull forward. I write so slowly, and particularly right now with this book, that I would never personally want to put a blurb out for pre-order before I finish the book. But that’s just me because I’m an excessively slow writer.

I do put blurbs up on my website, though, to let people know what I’m working on, but I’m not afraid to change them later on. I’ll put up, in the beginning, this is what I think I’m writing about, and then if it turns out I need to tweak it later on, I’ll change it. And most people probably don’t ever notice, but I’m not afraid of changing it as I go if I need to.

Joanna: I will most likely tweak mine, but it’s enough that it represents what the story will be, but then I guess that’s another point, isn’t it? Even if you have your outline, so like I said, maybe mine is three sentences, so I know the theme, I know the main characters, I know the antagonist, I know some of the plots, and then if you change things, that’s okay.

You’re allowed to change your outline. A lot of people say a book never ends up the same as their outline.

Katie: Totally. I think that’s another misconception that scares people off of outlines is that once you write it, it’s like that’s it, and you’re stuck with it. And ideally, you write this perfect outline and you don’t have to go back and change anything.

But, of course, we’re never perfectly objective no matter how zoomed out we are when writing the outline, and you discover things as you get into it, and scenes play out a little bit differently in the micro of the characters’ interactions than you expected, and you adjust as you go.

I think that too is part of the discovery and you have to be willing to be flexible enough and to be in that creative flow while still also maintaining that logical view of how the story needs to come together. Because it’s fun to get carried away by flights of fancy, but sometimes we can do that and then end up writing this whole big subplot that actually doesn’t fit into the main story and was objectively a waste of time.

That’s fine if you want to play with it, but if you are going to get frustrated by that, it’s good to also have the outline to be able to come back to it and say, ‘Hmm, that’s really not going to fit into the overall picture of what I’m trying to do here.’

Joanna: I think that is definitely what happened to me. I was thinking that I would have this whole subplot around alchemy and it fits it into what I thought the idea was originally, and then as I got into it, I was like, ‘No, I can’t. Alchemy is such a huge thing.’ If you start going down the alchemy rabbit hole, you end up with a different book, and I really wanted to focus on the Garden of Eden and the interesting stuff around that.

So I cut that out quite early on, whereas I think if I had just done what I normally do and just started writing, I probably would have ended up with a sort of hybrid alchemy/Garden of Eden thing, which would have been fine, I’m sure, but I just feel I agree with you that it helps you narrow things down.

One of the things I’ve always really done is the scene list. You mentioned a scene list in the book, and I think I’ve really only had five or six scenes before I start writing.

What do you mean by a scene list and how do we populate that?

Katie: For me, the scene list is the very last thing I do in the outlining process. The beginning, as I say, is pretty freeform. It’s this brainstorming period where I’m trying to discover all of the main points of the story and how the overarching structure is going to fit together and what needs to happen in each of those sections.

Once I feel like I’ve got a clear view on that, then I’m ready to move into the scene-by-scene list. And you can be as detailed or not as you want to be on this. Honestly, I start with that, just a list of this is what happens in this scene, and this is what happens in this scene.

But also, for me, I like to take it a little further and really examine what’s going to happen in these scenes on a structural level. I like the classic scene structure approach, which breaks the scene into action and reaction, and it goes through goal, conflict, obstacle, or disaster, reaction, dilemma, and decision, and it creates this really nice cycle because the decision at the end of one scene leads right into the goal for the next, and so you can always make sure that every scene is building into the next.

That is my primary focus in creating a scene list is making sure I have at least nominally every one of those pieces so I can see that every scene is going to lead into the next, that I have a strong character goal and focus for each scene, and then allowing the character development to come through, through the cause and effect.

I will create that for each of the scenes that I feel is going to be in the book. And that also allows me to get a sense for how long the book is going to be, how long I want it to be, and to time out the structural timing because I can see how many scenes are going to be in each section and wrangle that before I actually get into the first draft.

Joanna: I definitely don’t do that. But what I do is I have maybe 15 one-liners, but my one-liners are very much character in setting and what happens and literally that’s it. And then I will write it.

I’ll write 2,500 words, for example, and then I’ll address, is there enough conflict? What are the open questions that have happened? What is the value shift? Robert McKee Story, also in Shawn Coyne’s The Story Grid book, that value shift, is there enough movement in that way?


[Check out my interview with Shawn Coyne about The Story Grid here.]

And then I might add something or change something in the scene to make sure I’ve got all of those elements. It’s so interesting, isn’t it, when people do different things.

That’s probably a big message for people. Everyone finds their own way.

Katie: I think that’s a great example of how to do basically the same thing from two slightly different balances of what’s going on. And I think a lot of it is that, for me, the writing part is the hardest part. It’s the part that I like not the least, necessarily, but it requires so much focus and energy that I’d rather do as much as I can before I get to that part.

For a lot of people, the writing part is the best part. That’s the fun part. That’s where they’d rather spend the most time. So, again, it really depends on what’s going to optimize your creativity, and your playfulness, and what is most enjoyable for any particular writer in their way of thinking about the story.

Joanna: My favorite part is book research. I love research. And, in fact, I research a lot as I write, so I have loads of internet tabs open and I go down rabbit holes and all of that. We all have our process.

I do want to ask because if people are interested in the traditional publishing industry, they’re often asked for, say, three chapters and an outline, and that, to me, is quite dangerous.

As we speak right now, I have three chapters of Tree of Life, and I don’t have an outline that I would give to anyone. And I’m sure it will turn out completely different to what I thought anyway.

If an agent or a publisher asks an author for an outline of a book, what do they mean by that?

Katie: I’m probably not the best person to ask about that because I don’t have a lot of experience with the traditional side of things. I would imagine, though, what they’re wanting is more of the Roman numeral thing and probably one to three pages and just to get a sense of the overall story and to feel like, yes, this author knows what they’re doing, yes, we like the direction this story is taking.

If there’s already a contract going on, then to be able to say, ‘Oh, well, we think you should tweak this before you get to the actual writing of it,’ which to me would be a very difficult way to work. But I think that’s probably what they’re asking for and unless they specify differently, they’re not looking for a huge, long description of every scene necessarily. They just want to see the overall arc of the story and where you’re going with it.

Joanna: What I’d probably suggest to people is the reverse outline, which is an outline you write after you finish the book.

Which really helps. And I think they’re probably looking for an indication of genre and making sure it is what it is, and also maybe that you know what you’re doing.

I do a reverse outline, so for example, once I finished a book, I will write just a couple of lines per chapter, rather than scene, for example, so that I remember what the hell happened when I have to write the next book.

Katie: I do that too. I have what I call story structure database on my site where I sometimes break down books and movies to show the main structural points. And I like to do that for my own books, and I reference it all the time, like what happened at the first plot point in this book? And what happened at the midpoint in this book? And it’s so useful to be able to see the summary of stuff that I’ve already written.

Joanna: And the trouble is the longer you leave it in your career, the worse it gets. Of course, I still haven’t done a lot of my backlist, but I try and be more organized now.

I wanted to ask about your fiction career because when I went back to your website, and I was like, ‘I know you wrote in this genre,’ and now you’re writing books in all kinds of genres under one name.

How do you choose the books you decide to write, and also, how do you market across such diverse genres?

Katie: That’s a good question, actually. It’s something I have not completely figured out an answer to, and at a certain point, I’m just sort of like, ‘Oh, well,’ because I’m going to write what I want to write, basically. That’s always been what’s important to me, and it’s turned out that I do write, like, quite a bit of diversity within genre and that kind of thing.

It is difficult to market. I often think about people like you who are writing thrillers or romance writers and I’m just like, ‘Oh, that would be the life, man. That would be the life,’ because it would just be so much simpler, but it’s something I’m still struggling with. I did play with a pen name for the last book and wasn’t happy with it, and just felt like at this point in my career it’s too late to really switch over to something completely new that people won’t be able to find.

I’m okay with that. At some point, maybe I will really work on figuring that all out, but I like the freedom of it. I like that I can write whatever I want and that it’s not something where there’s a lot of reader expectation for me to fill certain genre points.

That has always been important to me that I’ve always said my fiction is the one part of my career that I’ve totally protected from my workaholic tendencies in the sense of I have to write to market, I have to write a book every year, because that’s just not my process. I feel like I’ve been pretty successful in protecting my creativity from my own pressure, even though what I write totally is not optimized to the market or whatever.

In a lot of ways, I feel like my fiction and my non-fiction are kind of symbiotic, that the work I do with helping writers become authors and the non-fiction writing craft books is really where the business is at. It’s where I’m earning my living, but I couldn’t do that if I wasn’t doing the fiction because that is what breathes life into the teaching. That’s what teaches me so that I have something to say.

And I couldn’t do the fiction if I wasn’t doing the non-fiction and being able to earn a living in that way. So, it’s kind of a very strange symbiotic relationship but, for the most part, I’m happy with it at this point, and I’m not unhappy that the fiction is so hard to market.

Joanna: I love that, and I think it’s very important. I also sometimes wish I had stuck with one series, like just gone deep with one series, but that would just be boring. And I think with my J.F. Penn, with my fiction brand, I’m now feeling the same as you, which is, do you know what? I’m just going to write the books I want to write, and I know that some readers will not read different series.

I get emails all the time saying, ‘Why don’t you write another one of those books?’ Or, ‘Where is the next ‘ARKANE’ book?’ And it’s like, ‘Well, I’m writing something else right now, but I might get back to it.’

Do you feel that your readers cross all your books? For example, if someone likes the Western, they might not read the fantasy?

Katie: I feel like there’s a good mix of people who are interested in my fiction. Some people just read it because they’ve read my non-fiction or my writing instruction and they want to see if I practice what I preach and that kind of thing, which is always really scary. And there are some people who are attracted to particular genres, and there are some people who just want to support me because they like the writing teachings.

And then I feel like there is kind of this core reading group who will follow me anywhere, so to speak, that they’re okay with the weird diversity of what I’m doing, and really there is kind of a scarlet thread through it all in that I’m doing lots of different genres, but mostly it is all speculative, historical kind of stuff.

If you like the style, if you like the vibe, that continues from book to book. I feel like there is this core readership who just likes the style, who likes that approach and will follow me through my weird subgenres that I travel through.

Joanna: I love that. We do have a voice as a writer and some people just like that voice and keep coming back. You can have a career writing diverse books as you do and I do, so I hope that encourages people. We are not ‘write to market’ people!

Last question. We met online, I think, over a decade ago, on Twitter when I was in Australia, and you’ve been blogging at HelpingWritersBecomeAuthors.com for, I think, over a decade, right?

Katie: I think this is 11 years.

Joanna: Exactly. So, we met when our sites were quite new, but I wonder because you look like you’re still blogging.

How does blogging fit into the non-fiction side of your business? And do you recommend it for authors? What has changed with your blogging?

Katie: When I first started out, as I’m sure with you, it was like that was the thing. That was the big marketing advice, you have to have a blog. And at the time, I was interested particularly in marketing my fiction, but it was like, ‘Well, all these diverse subgenres,’ which at the time, I didn’t even know how diverse they were going to get, but, ‘What am I going to blog about that has to do with this?’

The obvious thing was, ‘Oh, well, blog about writing.’ And that became its own thing, obviously, and it’s something that I still do and I still feel it’s very much the center of my platform and of what I do, and it’s something that I am very committed to continuing doing.

I think if it’s changed, it’s more that it’s deepened. I look back to some of the things I wrote in the beginning and I’m like, ‘Wow, why didn’t anybody read this? What were you thinking?’ But as I’ve learned more, I feel like I’ve been able to get more and more real with what I’m sharing, and to really explore in deeper and deeper topics.

I felt like the books that I published, they’re a reflection of my interest in story theory and how that’s deepened going from outlining, structuring your novels, your character arcs. Now, I’m working on theme. I’m getting really excited and getting ready to do a series about progressive archetypal character arcs that we see as an extension of the idea of the hero’s arc, but continuing through all three acts of a human life.

It’s exciting to be able to deepen my own experience of writing and then be able to share that in what I hope is a meaningful way with other people.

And it’s been very rewarding to me. Some weeks, obviously, it’s a drudge and you’re like, ‘Oh, I don’t want to do this,’ but it has been such a rewarding experience for me just above and beyond it being my job, so to speak.

To be able to have to dig deep within myself and be able to articulate the things that I’m learning and discovering, and then to be able to share that with people who are excited and interested in it. It’s such a cool and rewarding thing, and I think to some extent if you’re wanting to do that with your own stories or your own marketing or whatever, that it’s all about finding the topic that you’re passionate enough about to continue doing year after year, week after week.

If you can do that and you’re willing to put in the work and the discipline to keep it going, it can be such a rewarding thing.

If you’re around for 10 years, if you’ve been doing this for 10 years, it’s something that really does build this wonderful organic platform of readers who you can interact with.

I do still recommend it. I think, as I say, the trick is finding the topic that you’re going to blog about, but I think within the right context that it is still one of the most powerful marketing tools that’s available to us right now.

Joanna: I’ve pivoted mainly more into podcasting. I barely ever blog now, but I write an article which I then turn into a podcast. So, I just recorded one for my Books and Travel podcast around the city of Bath where I live, and that really feeds into my fiction, and it’s so interesting.

I love that we’ve known each other now for a decade. And so many people have fallen by the wayside as such or chosen to do other things, they’ve chosen a different path. And there’s a few of us who we all met during that time and those of us who are still going have built a very viable business on just being around a long time and continuing to serve an audience, right?

Katie: I think that’s true.

Joanna: You’ve been very consistent with serving an audience and so have I, so good on us!

The big tip there is, you know, do it for the long-term and you will happily do it if you love it. If you don’t, you’ll change your mind and do something else. So, fantastic.

Where can people find you and your books online?

Katie: The best place is probably my writing website, which is HelpingWritersBecomeAuthors.com, and my books are on Amazon, obviously, and I’m on Twitter and Facebook. If you want to connect with me there, that’s always fantastic.

Joanna: Great. Well, thanks so much for your time, Katie. That was brilliant.

Katie: Thank you so much for having me. I really enjoyed it.

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Author: Joanna Penn

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  • October 4, 2020