The secret to writing an outline that works
Save the Cat, planning a whole book, and adventures in homeownership.
When our house was remodeled, prior to our purchase in June, the contractors installed beautiful tile in the kitchen, but didn’t add enough joists under the house to adequately support it. They had, in fact, cut some corners. (Think: car jacks balanced on cinder blocks to hold it all up.) We weren’t in immediate danger, but it was the kind of thing I thought about every time I walked across the kitchen to refill my coffee. During our New Year’s Eve party, a not-so-small part of me was certain everyone would fall through the floor at precisely midnight.
Which is why, as soon as we had the money and our contractor had the time, we paid $2,500 for something we will never even see.
Of course, not being able to see the new joists or share glamorous photos of them on Instagram doesn’t mean they aren’t important. A lot of things in life are like that - invisible to outsiders, but integral to who and how we are. The internal work we do with our therapists, the rejections we weather before the big break, the retirement accounts that protect our financial future, the joists that replace car jacks balanced on cinder blocks. And, because this is presumably a newsletter about writing, the outline the novel is built on, which keeps the plot from falling to pieces.
In my last newsletter, I talked about beginning to turn the long outline I'd written into an actual book, but I jumped ahead. I didn’t share the strategy I used to write the outline. I’d never really outlined before, just sort of wrote by the seat of my pants with varying degrees of success. Then my friend, the poet Emily Paige Wilson, tweeted about a method called "Save the Cat." I looked into it and thought, why not?
Save the Cat is a formula for writing screenplays, but it works for novels, too. This blog post by Savannah Gilbo is the best explanation I’ve seen, and breaks down each act of your potential novel with mathematical precision. I used this formula as a sort of scaffolding, which forced me to think about my idea in very basic, plot-driven ways. Because I write ~literary fiction~ and prefer character-driven stories, I veered from the formula more than once. But it was a great way to jump in and get the gears turning. It made me consider the “beats” of the book, and ensure that something actually happens. As I begin to write, I'm not afraid* that 200 pages in, I'll realize I made a terrible mistake, causing the whole plot to crumble and fall on my head. The outline has given me a floor on which I can confidently walk, a solid structure upon which to build.
Last week, as workers crawled beneath my house, I could hear them banging and sawing, could feel the kitchen floor vibrate with their effort. And even though I've never built a house, never replaced a car jack with a joist, will never see the work they did, I can picture the dark underbelly of my home, stronger than it was before. I hope, months from now, when I reach the end of my first draft, my book feels something like that. 💛
* I'm still afraid of plenty of things as far as writing goes - there are many ways to fail, after all! - but it's nice to feel like I have control over at least one part of the process.
Plant of the Week
A few months ago I decided not to buy a Wandering Dude at Trader Joe's, but as I returned the plant to the shelf I noticed a piece that had broken off. I took it home, stuck it in water, and hoped for the best. Reader, it worked! I now have a thriving Dude of my own, happily growing in a beautiful hanging planter I got for Christmas. There's a lesson here, and it is absolutely not that you should take cuttings from stores unless they fall to the floor on their own free will.
How Sheet-Pan Cooking Took Over Instagram, EATER. "Like many other things, part of the ascendance of sheet-pan cooking can be blamed on Instagram and food photography: No cooking technique has been so connected to a style of social media-friendly photography as sheet pans have been with the flat-lay." 🥕
The Gargoyle on my Screen, Slate. "I don’t think it’s especially vain of me or anyone else to worry about my on-camera grotesquery; video conferencing awakens the vanity in all of us." I worked from home while the contractors were fixing my floor and joined a video conference call, which immediately reminded me of this extremely relatable article. Re-upping it to make myself feel better. 👹
I Want to Be Green But It's Too Expensive, Wealthsimple. "[T]he intermittent use of a reusable water bottle or a tote bag may be enough to make someone feel like they’re doing their part to save the earth on a day-by-day basis, when in reality it may distract from more significant lifestyle choices." ♻️
A Tiny Challenge
I got hit with a pretty intense head cold at the end of the week and had to cancel some fun plans I'd been looking forward - my favorite workout class, a goal-planning brunch, and the Wilmington Women's March. This week, let's slow down and take care of ourselves, even when we'd much rather be doing something else.
See you next Sunday! 💌
Thanks to Kelly B., Lori W., and Stephanie S. for their support! You sure know how to make a writer feel special.
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