I figure out how the book will begin and then start at the beginning with a working outline, which goes only one or two chapters ahead of where I am. I write up to that point and then outline for a few chapters more.
A leapfrog outline is really just a few sentences telling you what is probably going to happen in each of the next few chapters. It is in no way extensive.
An example from Revenge in Reno, my eighth novel:
Ch1, Scene 1: (Veronica’s POV) Veronica is at a Pride Day celebration at Whitfield Park in downtown Reno.
A sniper shoots a state senator who had been speaking to an audience of LGBT representatives.
Ch1, Scene 2: (Willy’s POV) Willy, the sniper, escapes from the building where he’d done the shooting, and meets Ferman who drives the getaway car.
Ch2, Scene 1: (Veronica’s POV) In Veronica’s office the next day, Nick Millhouse from the senator’s staff hires her agency to investigate the killing because there are some things they do not want to make public. She agrees.
It is information intended only for you, to keep you focused. A leapfrog outline is like driving at night. Your headlights illuminate the road for a few car lengths ahead, not the whole way to Winnemucca. The leap-frog outline is just showing you where you are going next, not down the road.
This enables you to keep fresh as you are writing, available for different outcomes and ready to listen to your characters no matter how they behave or don’t behave. Let your characters help you plot.
The secret draft is where you get to be bad.
The best way to write your first novel, and I am not being sarcastic, is to write your first novel. You'll learn more by trying to write a book than from merely reading books like mine on how to do it.
If fear is holding you back, take heart. Over the last 30 years, I've written 6 novels and 4 nonfiction books, and I'm still afraid to start each new book. However, I manage to overcome the fear every time.
Overcome the fear. When you start, you're free to write as poorly as you want because this is only the beginning. Later, after you have it down on the hard drive or up in the cloud, you can rewrite it, making it less junky, until it's good enough to be published.
For now, just write it. The first draft of your novel is only going to be seen by you and no one else unless your cat prints it out overnight.
Your secret draft is where you can make mistakes, get things wrong and learn how to write your novel. As you are writing your secret draft, write whatever you want. If it’s evil, if it's crazy and downright dangerous, so what? You thought of it. As they said back in the Seventies, “Let it all hangout.”
What will you end up publishing, who knows? Who cares? Write, first, for yourself. Don't cheat, don't lie, don't be a hypocrite. It’s okay if you had only the most general idea of your story when you began. Jump straight in and start writing.
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