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About Writing Right: The Blog


A novice novelist asked online the other day how he can overcome the problems he faces whenevere he sits down to write. It seems that, despite all kinds of great ideas, he can never quite make it past the first chapter. Here's my advice, something that has worked for me for decades as well as for my students and mentored souls.

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Congratulations. You asked a relatively simple question to which you received a ton of convoluted, incorrect, or inappropriate responses. I think that's a Quora record!


Of course, you may want to hold off on rushing to the 'phone to tell dear old dad about your achievement just yet, since you're certainly no closer to receiving an answer that will actually help you to accomplish your goal than you were before—that is, writing a novel past the first chapter.


You were no closer, at least, until now.


You see, your problem is actually your solution. You may have story ideas, but they're disjointed, out of sequence (oops, I guess you can forget about that ridiculous piece of advice to write whatever you want whenever you think of it regardless of where it may eventually fit into your book), and—let's be honest—overwhelming. The question then is how do you defeat these mortal enemies of writing? Let's take a look at the three points above one by one.

  • First problem: Your ideas are disjointed. When you go to write them into book format, you find yourself jumping all over the place. The solution: Write your ideas down. Only the major points of the novel, like this: 1.) John stumbles across a murder. 2.) He reports it to the police. 3.) The police later arrest him as the most logical subject. 4.) He escapes custody on the way to jail and goes underground. 5.) He searches for the real killer to clear his name. 6.) He meets a girl who helps him. 7.) He learns the hard way that the girl is really the murderer.

  • Second problem: Your ideas are out of sequence. Look over your major points and see if any of them need repositioning. If so, now is the time to move them—not once you're deep into chapter seventeen and a word count pushing 70,000!

  • Third problem: The writing is overwhelming. You may not realize it, but you've already solved most of that problem by outlining as indicated above.

By doing what? Outlining?


Yep, like it or not, that's what you've been doing. You can develop that outline into a more comprehensive chapter synopsis by thinking things through logically, step-by-step. Providing each proposed chapter a descriptive heading might also prove useful. The results will look something like this:


Chapter One: John stumbles across a murder. John goes to a bar, looking for love in all the wrong places—once again. He meets a dynamite blonde, but when he tries to get her to come home with him, she excuses herself for the ladies' room and never returns. Crushed, he sets out for his apartment alone when he stumbles across a murdered man in an alleyway he uses as a shortcut home. He looks around for some help, but it's late, and no one else is around. He returns to his apartment and telephones the police.


Chapter Two: John reports the murder to the police. Two detectives show up at John's apartment twenty minutes later and grill him. He's uncomfortable but knows he has the truth on his side. He toys with mentioning the fact that he tried to pick up a blonde who might prove an alibi for him but decides better of it and leaves her out of the picture. The police promise to investigate and keep John posted before leaving.


Chapter Three: The police arrest John for murder. The following morning, a knock on the door rouses John from bed. Still half asleep, two plainclothesmen and a uniform place him in cuffs and escort him down to a waiting squad. When John demands to know what's going on, they tell him he'll find out shortly.


Chapter Four: John is booked and fingerprinted at the station. At the station, John is cuffed to a chair as he's booked. He's escorted to fingerprinting where he gets printed and photographed. Back at the receiving desk, a uniform informs him that his bail has been set at $200,000 cash before his cuffs are removed, and he's escorted to a holding cell. Before he gets there, the cop is interrupted by a buxom redhead receptionist who is an outrageous flirt. When the cop turns his back, John quickly ducks through a nearby doorway, runs down the steps leading out into the street, and heads for home where he quickly changes clothes, grabs some cash and his I.D.s, and heads out the door again. Destination: Unknown.


Continue like this all the way through to the book's grande finale. In that way, you'll be able to go back to chapter one and begin filling in the blanks. Time of day, weather conditions, surroundings, sounds, other people, descriptive settings, dialogue—whatever you think you need at that point in time. The important thing is that, by creating a Chapter Outline (yipper, skipper, and you did it all by your lonesome), the task of completing the book is no longer daunting. It's simply a matter of expanding each chapter until you're satisfied with the results. The outline is the hard part. After that, it's Fun City where you get to be as creative as you want. Then, it's on to the next chapter and more of the same.


While writing from an outline isn't the only way to write a book, it's the best way I've found in creating both novels and nonfiction, all genres and subjects, while avoiding that dreaded "writer's block," which, you'll soon see, is nothing more than a lack of preparation and a fear of being overwhelmed. Remove that fear, and it's smooth sailing.


But remember: While your outline is your roadmap, you can still change things as you go along, getting more deeply involved in your book. The outline is only a guide to get you from beginning to end. Don't be surprised if you find yourself taking several shortcuts and diversions along the way.


So, try it. You'll like it. This method has worked for me for more than half a century. Even if you've already started a book and been stopped cold by "overwhelmingitis," you can go back, create a chapter outline picking up from where you left off, and then continue onward to the book's conclusion.


Sound deceptively simple? It is. At least, it's a lot simpler than floundering around like a stuck herring on the end of some fisherman's hook.


You can thank me later. Meanwhile ...


Smoke if you've got 'em.

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D. J. Herda is author of the new series of writing advice, About Writing Right, available in eBook, paperback, and hardcover formats at Amazon and at fine booksellers everywhere. You can check out his column, "The Author-Ethicist," which runs at Substack.com weekly. Well, almost weekly. Occasionally weekly. Sometimes weekly. (Hey, I do my best!)

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