Monday, February 2, 2015

Author John A. Heldt Discusses Writing Outlines and Chapter Summaries

by John A. Heldt
Updated November 6, 2015

John A. Heldt is one of those authors who understands the true craft of writing and polishing a good story. He takes the time to satisfy his readers, focusing on even the smallest details and bringing all aspects of his books to life. Having read and reviewed The Mine a few years back, and also September Sky recently, I’m delighted to share his writing wisdom with you. Thanks so much for stopping by and sharing your writing tips with us today, John. Wishing you every success with all of your writing endeavors. M. J.

E.L. Doctorow once said, “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

I must say that, for the most part, I can’t relate. When it comes to producing novels, I'm a "plotter" and not a "pantser." A pantser is someone who writes by the seat of his (or her) pants -- a person who can reach a destination without looking too far ahead.

Writing for me is not a spontaneous process that begins by opening a blank page on my laptop. It is a process that is so clear and ordered, it’s like driving all day in sunshine on a flat, straight, traffic-free highway with my GPS navigator activated.

My outline takes the form of detailed chapter summaries that can run from twenty words to two hundred. If there’s something I want to mention in Chapter 26, I’ll leave myself a reminder. Often I will add entire quotes or passages to a summary.

By the time I’m ready to start Chapter 1, I know not only which roads I will take to get to my destination but also which ones I’ll avoid. Virtually every twist, turn, and potential obstacle will be identified well in advance.

I say virtually because, like most authors, I like to leave some room to depart from the script and do something entirely different.

When I wrote The Mine, my first novel, I added a Japanese-American character about a third of the way in. The character, a college senior named Katie, became one of the most instrumental figures in the book. In three other novels, I added two lengthy chapters after the first draft was “finished.”

I’ve found that this approach works well. By outlining a novel in advance, I reduce the chances of writing myself into a corner. By leaving myself wiggle room, I leave open the possibility of heading down a better road.

In the twentieth of his twenty-two lessons on writing, Stephen King advises writers to take a break from their finished draft. He suggests six weeks, in fact, so that they can return to their manuscript with fresh eyes and see the proverbial forest among the trees.

I think this is sound advice. Good writing is a process that requires not only discipline and perseverance but also patience and perspective. What may seem a great idea in the planning stages may seem downright dumb in the end.

As I jump into the second novel of my second series, I plan to drive during the day with a map handy. But I’m going to keep an eye on the signs. Last-minute detours can to more than make a trip more interesting. They can make it better.

As a reviewer of John's books, all I can say is he knows what he's doing when it comes to writing, so if you can follow any of his advice in this post, you'd probably be glad you did. John's blog also shares writing advice, as well as book reviews, virtual tours of places he visits and a few other interesting things.

M. J.

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