Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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April 25, 2022

Six Ways to fix Manuscript Problems with an Outline

by Kris Maze

A hammer and wrench lie on top of a silver computer keyboard

You typed your last keystroke of your manuscript. The room hums with the last words on the page. Celebrate and cha-cha around your living room. It’s a milestone, whether you've done it once or one million times. Take a break and share with someone! 

Finishing your novel is also a single stage in getting your book into print. So, if you want to send the novel to an editor or publisher, you won’t want to skip this crucial task: taking an inventory of all the key events in the book.

There are many benefits we can get from sifting through our masterpiece. (Yes, it is a beautiful work of art, but even great artworks start with sketches, and improve with reworking and practice.)

Does this sound like a tedious additional step? Perhaps, but it is a worthy one that can save you some rejections and fix editing problems we all experience while crafting our novels.

Writing style matters

As a plotter or pantser - listing key events in your novel may look different depending on your writing style. But for both, going chapter by chapter may be useful for many reasons.

  1. You can examine your work structurally and before sending your work to an editor fix expensive issues.
  2. You can form a query synopsis easier and be more flexible to various agent/publisher requests.
  3. You can create marketing materials and promotional items easier with a handy outline of your novel.
  4. You will have a better elevator pitch and book blurb, because you will have worked out the deep essence of your story.

Your writing style may change when you create an outline of key events:

  • Pantsers may spend more time after the novel to check their work.
  • Plotters will see how their work deviates from their original outline/notes and have a clean copy of the actual manuscript as written.

Inspecting your whole novel gives writers a bird-eye view of their book. It takes patience, but the process can save us valuable time in the future.

What do I do? Lemme tell you…

1. The first step is simplistic, but it takes the most time. First, create a list of Key Events for each chapter of your novel.

(I use OneNote to keep this organized, but there are several other ways that work as well. At the end of the post, I have organization methods that many writers use.)

2. Once you have melded down your solid gold words, then take this trimmed down version of your book to examine its structure.

3. Think of the following ways to use your list of key events below.

1. Toggle through the key points.

In the editing phase, I scan through my chapters and summarize key points on separate pages. One note makes this a neat, easy to toggle experience. My current novel has a literal timer throughout the whole story and is one aspect that I have to get right. How much time has passed is critical to the story has to make sense to keep the action moving. I can now figure this out much quicker than other methods.

What has helped me tremendously is that I can quickly flip through the chapters in OneNote and easily see the bullet points for events. and see if the times line up sequentially and align with how much time should have passed.

Want more information on this software? See here for a fantastic post on the features of OneNote, by Jenny Hansen.

2. Fix plot holes. 

Maybe your timeline works, but in my book, I noticed some chapter events were thin while others were bulky with bullet points. I asked myself a few questions and smoothed out my novel in the process:

  • Where do I have long chapters and how can I break them up into more manageable reading chunks? 
  • Do the characters need to do all the action scenes I have? Can some be cut or moved from overloaded chapters?
  • Does the order of the actions make sense? For example, would someone clean off their shoes and then go outside to the barn? Or the other way around?
  • Do the actions fit the character’s personality? And do they show growth throughout the novel?
  • Do the actions match the setting? Could another setting improve the flow of the novel or intensify the action or plot?

3. Spread out the action. 

Watch out for conversation parties.

In my WIP, the main characters have been forced to live underground while trying to communicate with other survivors after an asteroid hit their city. There are plenty of tense events as their world threatens to collapse from above, but they also are developing a friendship. 

While scanning through my events, I noticed some chapters were filled to the tippy-top with conversation. Using up all their air in the bunker with words. Conversation while cooking, conversation while learning how to tend to underground crops. Conversation about past conversations all to fill in the backstory. Some of it had to go away.

Even out your action and downtime scenes.

I realized that I added those details after an intense string of action scenes, but just too much. I needed to pull it out, break it up, and find places to add the quiet daily doldrums back into my story to balance out the action scenes. The effect is a smoother read.

4. Is there enough action? 

Maybe you find chapters that don't have many events. Think about a tricky spot in your novel and try to rework it with new action.

  1. Look at this scene. Drinking coffee or tea or water. We all do it. But why do we want to read about it?
  2. Can your characters witness an accident outside their window?
  3. Does your MC fall or drop their fully prepared anniversary dish across the kitchen floor?      Does the cute waiter slip a note on a napkin to his secret crush? 

Make the most of the daily events and consider your plot.

  • Can you add activity? If a scene is a reveal of a secret over coffee, perhaps your characters can spill the news while horseback riding on the beach or hunting down the missing bad guy.
  • Add an interesting action. The more unexpected, but plausible, the more the reader will continue out of curiosity. 

Adding more action to an introspective scene can propel the reader on and you lessen the risk of them abandoning the book during a slow spot.

5. Is there enough internalization?

 Look at your key points. Include these internal revelations for each chapter as well. The character's growth arc should be apparent while scanning through these events. Consider the following questions and examples.

  • Did you write the a-ha moments your characters have? How many?
  • When do they realize they have feelings for someone or when they discover they would rather be a florist than a lawyer? Is this at a pivotal point in the story?
  • Do the flow in a logical order?
  • Does the character have a satisfying solution to their initial struggle? 
  • Do they have enough growth to wow the reader? 
  • Do you get feelings from their growth? Will your readers? If you can evoke these feelings in your reader, they will connect with your MC and want more of your story.

6. Do you have a sense of setting in each chapter?

            Make a clear connection

Be certain your events have a clear connection to place and that is evident on the page. They may force your MC into stealing the magical brooch, and even though the reader may remember from the last chapter, it is a nice courtesy to add details that help them remember it. Readers want a clear, seamless, enjoyable read. This is one way to help that happen.

 But How?

Add pieces of furniture. She searched the queen's floral etched vanity, sure she wasn't noticed by the guards. She handed chunks of bacon to the queen's hounds sitting patiently outside.

Add other characters. The guards, her dogs, in the previous example.

Add time of day and weather. The sun lit the area, spraying low angled golden streams over her royal bed and Persian rug. She noticed the queen hardly touched her soft boiled egg, but preferred her half eaten toast and jam. It is morning; it is not raining. 

Help your readers build your set with details about time and weather. Remember to show them where they are in each chapter so they will focus more on your story and characters.

OneNote

Using OneNote, Microsoft's organizing software is my new spring love. I just tried this organizing tool, after realizing it’s part of the Microsoft tools I already have. It made sense to use it since it also adds value to paying for their tools yearly. 

Don’t want to use OneNote or comparable software? Try other ways to organize your novel’s key events.

How do can you do this with other programs? Or in other methods?

  • Other ways I have used were building these pieces into one lengthy document (Word, Google, OpenOffice). 
  • I you are old school and love the paper experience. I still use binders, a 3 hole punch, and my trusty home printer that I bought years ago for less than one refill of ink.
  • Sticky notes, or paper and tape, on any blank wall. Just remember that this one isn't portable, or searchable, or has the multitude of features that free you up to focus on your creativity. I'm not the only fan of OneNote - see Jenny Hanson's post above on how OneNote's top features can work for you.

Have you picked up a tip that could be helpful? Which of these have you used the most? Tell us your go-to organizing tool for the editing process. I’d love to hear them.

About Kris

Kris Maze leaning on a fence

Kris Maze is an author and teacher. She has worked in education for many years and writes for various publications, including Practical Advice for Teachers of Heritage Learners of Spanish and the award-winning blog Writers in the Stormwhere she is also a host. You can find her YA sci-fi and horror stories and keep up with her author events at her website which is currently getting some new fun features!

A recovering grammarian and hopeless wanderer, Kris enjoys reading, playing violin and piano, and spending time outdoors with her family.

Leave a Reply

8 comments on “Six Ways to fix Manuscript Problems with an Outline”

  1. Hi Kris! This post had a lot of good points! But how detailed should we get with the list of key events? Should we break the events into separate columns for action/ dialogue / internal thought? I’m not familiar with OneNote so maybe this is already set up in the program.

    1. Hi Hermina,
      This is a great question. It depends on what you want to do with the list and what purpose it serves you. For me, creating a list is a part of checking on the overall story arc. I think of this as a summary of the key occurrences, which may include when a character realizes a dark secret, or a specific conversation that leads to the next action in the book, but it's focus is the overarching movement of the story and actions.

      OneNote is organized into tabs you create, like a digital notebook with really, really big pages. I break mine down into chapters on each tab. Then I can flip easily through the plot and find holes, or if needed, find weak spots to fix. Taking time to sift through my story and to create the list was helpful for me in making a synopsis later, as well.

      I believe the action, dialogue, and internal thoughts would be another part of the editing process, but each writer finds their own groove. Perhaps you can come up with a color coding system that would point out these story elements, or use columns if you are used to that system. Overall, I hope that you take what works for your writing journey and let us know what helps you write more productively. Thanks for the question!

  2. My new writing software has this built in and I'm going back over a previously published novel to pull it all out as background for book 2. You know I'm an Evernote girl. I've had these things in Evernote, but I'm leaning the value of having even more depth. Thanks for sharing these tips because this gives me even more great ideas on how to use these details.

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