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Writing a Running Outline

So, how many of us unpublished writers out there can afford to spend all day writing? Before I became a stay at home mom, I worked long hours in a medical clinic. I was so exhausted each night I could barely think about doing anything else but sitting with my husband and watching a new episode of our favorite TV program.

Now that I'm staying home with my daughter, I find I have even less time to write than I did before. Nap time and bed time are my moments to put a few words down on the page. I find that the majority of advice blogs about writing an outline for novels say that you need a detailed outline from the start. Well, to be honest, that has never worked for me. I prefer what I've come to call a running outline.

How does this work? Think about your basic plot: the major events that take place, what happens because of those events, and how you can get your characters to those events. Next, think about your main characters: what kind of person are they, how they will interact with other characters, what you want your reader to learn about life from them. Now that you have those basic ideas down, start writing on top of your outline. Sometimes you have to find the forest and walk around awhile before you can even talk about the individual trees you come across. Most of the time, you can't really describe a particular tree until you've spent enough time in the forest to really do it justice.

As I begin a novel, I can guarantee that my precious little toddler will either wake up from her nap or wake up screaming from a bad dream. And it usually happens right when I'm about to write that pivotal moment, or introduce a character, or write the funniest dialogue. With many interruptions, I add my thoughts and where I was going with the scene just below where I finished writing so when I'm all done soothing my baby's tears, I can come right back and remember that amazing moment I was just about to write.

Usually, as you begin to write, more ideas and details come into your mind about the characters and plot. Add more detail to your outline as you go. Honestly, some of the most pivotal moments in my books have come to me while I'm standing in line at my favorite coffee shop or coloring with my daughter in her coloring books. Take the quick 30 seconds to write your idea down so you can add it to your outline later. Let the outline be as flexible as you need it to be. I can tell you honestly, for the last novel I wrote, I had three different directions my story could have taken, and it took me awhile to pray and figure out which direction would best serve my ultimate goal for the end of the book and what I wanted my reader to learn about God. Once I figured it out, I deleted the other two directions and added detail to the winning outline.

My point in writing this blog is ultimately to encourage writers out there that there isn't just one way to crack a nut. As a health care professional, I learned that there could be a hundred different ways to get my patients better. In the same way, don't be discouraged if you can't make a detailed outline up front. I can't either, for many reasons. And let's be honest, sometimes, we just don't know what a character will do until we get there. So give yourself a break, and just simply have fun with your characters and plot.

Sometimes, writing takes a little improv to get it just right.

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