Law school is defined by the “outline.” You spend the entire semester reading cases and then, closer to finals, write up an outline to summarize the case law. I never understood why we ever had to read cases at all– couldn’t the professor just hand us a fully completed outline and call it a day? Still, for law, outlining made perfect sense to me.

But for novels, the concept of using outlines has always given me trouble. How can you outline a made-up story before you’ve actually written the story? How will you know what a character will do three chapters before it happens? Don’t characters change their minds? How is it that some writers can see so far into a future that doesn’t even exist except inside his or her imagination?

Thankfully, at a talk at the Atlanta Writers Club late last year, Terra Elan McVoy offered a different solution for those of us writers who need help organizing our novels but are outline-challenged. She explained how she used a Timeline and Character Web to formulate her novel. The Timeline, a chronology of events in the novel, is self-explanatory. For a Character Web, she writes down the names of her characters and draw lines to connect them to each other to show what kind of relationships they have. By figuring out the characters’ relationships and interactions, you are, essentially realizing the plot.

For Finding Ohm, my second novel, I had a very vague notion of the plot, but once I worked on a detailed character web, ideas about what would happen in the story began to flow like faucet out of the water. And now that I have a character web, and a timeline, I’ll be able to more easily write up a more detailed outline in the coming weeks. Thanks to Terra, I’ve found a method that finally works for me.


The answer to this question, for me, is threefold. In terms of sitting down, typing into my laptop, working on my novels, the answer is: a lot. And as often as I can. During the winter, when the AJC Decatur Book Festival is on hiatus, I try to be really disciplined and write every day. I’ll have a rule for myself: I can’t do anything (not shower, not dishes, not check email or Twitter or anything) until I’ve written for 2 hours. It works pretty well. If I have more time and more inclination later, I’ll write more. I’ve been known to have 8-hour days, easy. But when the festival is in high gear, I may only have a sliver of time to write. Say, an hour window between meetings, or late in the evening after my husband gets home but before we have dinner. The important thing, for me, is to write, and to do it whenever I can, however I can. Sophia Coppolla said that you should train yourself to be able to write at any time, in any circumstances, for any time length, and though I haven’t mastered that yet, I think I agree with her.

The second part of this answer is, “I write hundreds of times a day.” Every time you write anything–an email, a Facebook post, a comment on someone’s blog–you’re writing. And whether you know it or not, crafting those sentences is working on your writing. Texts count too. Every time you’re stringing words together, it is a chance for you to hone your voice, work on your style, strengthen your vocabulary, try different sentence combinations. It’s just up to you how you use those opportunities.

Thirdly–and this one’s important–I write when I read. I know other guests answering this question have said the same thing, but it’s completely true. Reading is the #1 way to learn about writing. (The second way to learn about writing is to write.) The first time I understood this phenomenon was when I was in high school, reading Pat Conroy’s The Prince of Tides. I distinctly remember sitting in the library, reading some passage, pausing, and going “I want to be able to write sentences like this.” Other books did the same thing to me, and when I was in graduate school at FSU, I learned how to break apart a story and look at its insides: the framework of plot, how characters were revealed, how to pack a whole moment into a few words . . . The stories and books that are already out there are the best way to learn how to do what they do.

If you want to be a writer, read. Read everything–not just what you “like.”

And then, sit down, whenever you can, and write.

BIO: Terra Elan McVoy has been reading and writing avidly since she first learned how, and has had many jobs that center around those two activities, from managing an independent children’s bookstore (Little Shop of Stories in Decatur, GA), to teaching writing classes, and even answering fan mail for Captain Underpants. She received her BA in Creative Writing from St. Andrews University, and her MA in Creative Writing from Florida State University. Terra lives and works in the same Atlanta neighborhood where her novels After the Kiss, Being Friends with Boys, and Pure are set. She is also the author of The Summer of Firsts and Lasts. To learn more about Terra’s life, visit TerraElan.com and follow her on Twitter at @TerraMcVoy.

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Want more WHEN DO YOU WRITE? Come back here on Thursday. For past guest authors, go here.


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