Thursday, April 28, 2022

The Ultimate Guide to Plot Your Novel

Some aspiring writers have a dream of writing a novel in a week, getting that magical call from a publisher offering a million-dollar advance, becoming famous on the back of your story, and then retiring to an island to live happily ever after. 

Let’s get real though. The road to publishing success is never that fast or straightforward. 

When novels are rejected by publishers, it can be difficult to work out where the faults lie and how to improve your story, but I’m here to tell you that creating a flexible plot outline is the fastest and easiest way to confidently write your novel without giving up your creativity.

Creating a flexible plot outline is the fastest and easiest way to confidently write your novel.

This Ultimate Guide to Plot Your Novel shares 5 big ideas to help you step into being a writer and approaching plot with an open mind.

The Ultimate Guide to Plot Your Novel

Big Idea #1: You Are a Writer

As a creative writing major, my college senior thesis was to write a novel. After I turned it in, I waited for what seemed like months. It was good preparation for waiting to hear back from editors and agents about submissions. Because as writers, we wait… A LOT!

The day finally came when my professor handed a large manila envelope to each person in the class as we eagerly sat around the large conference room table. 

As I peeked inside, I saw nothing but shadows, so I slowly pulled out the stack of papers held together by a big black binder clip. On the cover sheet, right there for all the world to see, was a large “B” plastered across the top of the page. A “B”? Okay, I can handle a “B”. Good job, Christie. 

But underneath my subjectively graded college career, was a note scribbled in professor-like cursive handwriting. It said, “This still to me seems to not be of professional quality.” Now I don’t know about you, but that comment did not sit well with me. It actually made me feel like a failure and I was kind of mad. My heart sunk.

Over the next 10 years, I held several jobs, went back to school to become a teacher, and had two children. I ended up not writing anything for 10 years. The only writing I did was lesson plans. I realized that over those past 10 years, I had subconsciously adopted the belief that I wasn’t a real writer. 

I had adopted the belief that I wasn’t a real writer. 

I felt like I wasn’t good enough. And that my ideas weren’t important or worth pursuing. I thought that I couldn’t call myself a writer unless I was published. I had kind of thought of myself as a writer, but I didn’t truly believe I was a writer. I had the revelation that I didn’t need to have a creative writing degree to be a writer. I didn’t need the approval of my college professor to be a writer. And I certainly didn’t need to be published to be a writer. 

One writing conference I attended had a workshop that focused on the “inciting incident”, which we never discussed in college. They said, “Your story has to begin with something the character wants.” My character didn’t really have a big want. In this particular story, she just wanted to get rid of the hiccups and for things to go back to normal. That day, the idea of the “inciting incident” didn’t sink in.


Years later, I attended a writing retreat, where one of the workshops was about plot. The presenter tried to explain the classic hero’s journey to me. By this time, I had started writing a middle grade (MG) novel with snippets of names, phrases, characters, friendships, actions, thoughts, etc, but I felt stuck on the plot. The workshop mentioned a final “fight scene”. That day, plot slowly started to make a little more sense to me. 

In the meantime, I was starting to question why I even went to college in the first place. I was completely second-guessing my degree because I felt like I hadn’t learned a single thing about writing in school. I felt like a failure.

I was completely second-guessing my degree because I felt like I hadn’t learned a single thing about writing in school. I felt like a failure.

Even still, I absolutely loved writing. I had an amazing time and learned so much at that retreat, but I dreaded going back home because that meant I had to go back to WORK. 

The next day, as I was waiting for my children to put on their shoes and grab their bookbags, I placed my hand on the doorknob to go out the front door and I paused. I just stood there with my hand on the doorknob - frozen. Tears welled up in my eyes and the dread of going back to work sank deep into my heart. 

As soon as I dropped my kids off at school, I cried all the way to work. I wanted to be a full-time writer and work from home - for myself. I wanted it so badly that I couldn’t take the thought of working for someone else anymore. That day, I vowed to do everything in my power to make that dream come true - one way or another - no matter how hard plot was to understand - or how long it took me.

I kept writing and researching. Everything I found online seemed to use a different language. Some of it was contradictory. I read about pinch points, push points, pressure points, and turning points. Even ROLLER COASTERS. It was all so very confusing. One day, I found a random plot diagram online - one I’d never seen before and something finally clicked. 

I had a HUGE EPIPHANY! Suddenly, the inciting incident, the “fight scene”, the hero’s journey, all made sense to me. That’s because I had discovered that the stages of writing a novel - THE PLOT - were perfectly aligned 100% with the stages of running a marathon. 

I quickly mapped out my own version of a plot diagram that showed how it aligned with running a race. This epiphany allowed me to finally figure out how to easily think about plot. I created a plot outline for 2 novels in a single weekend!

I created a plot outline for 2 novels in a single weekend! 

This newfound discovery was so amazing that I knew I had to share it with other writers who were also struggling with plot. Writing a novel with a plot outline was a whole lot easier than struggling to know where to go next in my story. 

There are a lot of misconceptions and myths about writing professionally. Let’s break some of those down. 

Myth #1: If you’re good enough, you’ll make it.

Hate to break it to you, but those who make it are usually better than good. Do you think Michael Jordan “made” it because he was good? No! He made it because he was awesome! Yes, being good is part of it. But your book has to be good too. Ever hear the phrase, “It’s all about the book”? Yep! It’s all about the book being so well-written that an editor can’t put it down.

However, in order to “make” it, there’s a lot more to it than great writing. You have to be able to sell. You have to be able to sell your manuscript to someone who thinks the book will sell. You also have to be able to sell the book. It’s called marketing. You can’t be good at just marketing either; you have to be good and relentless.

Myth #2: Writer’s block isn’t real.

It's time to redefine writer's block. Some people say it doesn't exist, that it's just an excuse to not write. But if you think about it differently, you can redefine it. At the most basic level, writer's block is simply the act of running into a problem and not knowing how to move forward in your story. Having a plot helps you know where to go next when you hit a roadblock.

Myth #3: Writers must make the journey alone.

Yes, writers do the writing all by themselves, but we couldn’t make it if we were truly alone. We need each other - other writers - to get through the tough times, to critique, to brainstorm, to learn from, and so much more.

>> The 5-Step Method for a Publishable Novel  <<

Myth #4: You must write every day to be successful. 

Some writers really believe this. Write every day. That’s great if it works for you, but it doesn’t work for every writer. At the other end of the spectrum, some writers only write when the Muse strikes. The best thing is to find your own personal balance. Jane Yolen says it best:

“Exercise the writing muscle every day, even if it is only a letter, notes, a title list, a character sketch, a journal entry. Writers are like dancers, like athletes. Without that exercise, the muscles seize up.” – Jane Yolen

But even exercising the writing muscle every day doesn’t mean that you’re writing or revising heavily on your one novel, story, or book. Even athletes take rest days. Let journal and letter writing be your rest days.

You must write consistently to be successful. Even runners take breaks. When you’re just starting out, or if your life is super busy, being consistent might even mean writing just one day a week.

Myth #5: You’re not a real writer until you’re published.

If you write - and it brings you joy - you are a writer. Nearly 81% of Americans say they have a book in them. That's nearly 200 million people. Less than 20% who make the effort will actually finish it. A plot outline can help you finish your book.

Big Idea #2: You Can Do Hard and Scary Things

A year and half after I graduated from college, I got a purple and white flyer in the mail about signing up for a marathon. I was wondering, “Why in the world did they send this to ME?!?” I only just ran my very first race - The Jingle Bell 5k - the year before.

The thought of running a marathon had never, ever crossed my mind. I mean, the year before - during that Jingle Bell 5k, I remember turning a corner and going up a hill. There were people twice my age walking faster than I was jogging. It was a little embarrassing to say the least, but I did it. Since a 5k is only 3.1 miles and a marathon is 26.2 miles, I was like, “Um… I don’t think so.”

But the pictures on this flyer were so breathtakingly beautiful and the vistas begged me to take a closer look. Places like Helena, MT; San Diego, CA; Portland, OR; and Anchorage, AK. When I saw the one in Alaska, I did a double-take. 

That’s because my older brother had just died only 7 months prior to my receiving this flyer in the mail. He had been living in Utah at the time, waiting for the Olympics to arrive. He died at the age of 28 on a ski resort when he was traipsing the mountainside in snowshoes even though it was closed to the public due to unsafe warmer weather. Yep, that’s my brother - the rebel. 

The thing is, we weren’t super close. When he died, I was angry and sad at all the missed moments we never had. And the deep, silent, bitter grudge against him for something he did and never apologized for, let alone even acknowledging what he had done. He was gone and I felt the need to forgive him, but he wasn’t even there to say, “I’m sorry.”

The thing about Alaska was that my brother had worked on a fishing boat in Alaska. I instantly thought if I could go there, then maybe we could create some kind of after-death connection or something.

I signed up for the marathon. My desire to connect with my brother was bigger than my fear of running 26.2 miles. The first training run was a 4-miler on a local trail with all my newfound Team in Training peeps and Coach Scott cheered us all on. I finished last. I thought I would die. That was the hardest run I’ve ever done. But yet, Coach Scott showed up every single week for 6 months and pushed me to go further.


The day of the race finally came. I was ready. My longest training run was 19 miles, and I was ready. I had motivational quotes, mind games, you name it. The porta-potties were lined up in a high school parking lot. We’d wait in line forever then get right back in line to go again. I think we waited for 2 hours for the race to begin.

When the gun went off and we got out about half a mile or so, I remember looking ahead and looking behind and for as far as I could see in either direction was a sea of runners in purple t-shirts. There was this feeling of inspirational adrenaline that washed over me.

By mile 7, it had thinned out quite a bit. I met a girl from San Francisco named Danika. We ran about 10 miles together, but at a pit stop, she left me in the dust. I stopped all along the way to take pictures of wildflowers, streams, footbridges, mountains, cotton, trees, birds, etc. At mile 17.8, I was still smiling. But somewhere between mile 20 and 25, I hit the wall.

You see, marathons usually have identified pacers to help runners keep up with their goal pace. They usually carry a flag or something with the pace you’re trying to keep. My goal was simply to finish the race. The cutoff time to ensure your finish time was counted as an official finish time was 8.5 hours for this particular race. That’s an average of 3.1 mph. There was a man carrying balloons who was the pacer for the cutoff time. So if he passed you, you knew your time wouldn’t be counted as official, because you’d end up finishing the race after the 8.5-hour cutoff time. That is, unless you passed him back.

After hitting the wall, I didn’t think I could keep going. This was definitely harder than my first 4-mile training run. I was slow, tired, and sore. My mind was racing with all kinds of self-doubt. And then the balloon man passed me. I lost it. I started crying. I panicked. My legs ached. My lungs ached. My feet hurt. My breathing became erratic.

“So this is what hitting the wall feels like.”

I pulled an inspirational card out of my fanny pack. My mom had made it for me and even had it laminated - just for the race. It said, “You can do it! I know you can! I can’t be with you physically, but my spirit is running beside you! I admire your strength and determination.”

I imagined my mom - and my brother - running on either side of me.

Spectators and volunteers offered me pretzels and Powerade and provided even more words of encouragement. I finally stopped crying. I got some salt into my system. My breathing was no longer erratic. I said a little prayer and kept going. I picked up the pace and soon passed the balloon man. 

When I saw the finish line, I started sprinting and someone shouted, “GO NORTH CAROLINA! I crossed the finish line at 8 hours, 26 minutes, and 38 seconds. I placed 1,642 out of 1,673 women who ran the race. I did it. It wasn’t easy, but I did it and have the medal to prove it!

That race changed my life. I was hooked. I even started planning my next marathon, which by the way was 2 years later on a very flat course at Myrtle Beach and I shaved 2 hours off my time. Running this race in Alaska taught me that doing hard things wouldn’t kill me. If I could run a marathon, then I could do anything in life! Even though I was afraid of doing 26.2 miles, I still took action.

Now you may not have ever run a marathon, or even a 5k race, but when you have a passion, know your WHY, and have a guide, you can do anything, no matter how hard or scary it seems. I can be your guide.

When you have a passion, know your WHY, and have a guide, you can do anything, no matter how hard or scary it seems.

Writing a novel can be scary - and it may be one of the hardest things you ever do - but when you follow your heart and have someone guiding you every step of the way, you can fight the fear by taking action because I know you can do hard things too. So don’t make the mistake of not taking action (like not forgiving my brother while he was still alive). Take action now and your fears will dissipate. 

Writing doesn’t have to be hard. We all make mistakes. Here are 6 of the most common mistakes writers make. 

Mistake #1: Not reading to study story structure. 

There's a myth floating around that reading doesn’t matter, that reading makes you a better reader, and only writing can make you a better writer. That may have a little truth to it, but reading is really important in helping you learn the skill of writing. Do you think musicians never listen to music because they’re worried it will make them better listeners? If you want to make music, you have to study music. If you want to write books, you have to study books. So, READ!!!

Mistake #2: Following trends

If it seems like everyone is publishing a book about talking alien dogs, don’t jump on the bandwagon! One of the best ways to avoid this is to never allow yourself to get bored. Even if you aren’t bored while following a trend, you might be doing the world a huge disservice by not following your own unique passions. Write what you love and you’ll love what you write. Be yourself. Don’t follow trends.

Mistake #3: You keep writing when you’re bored. 

You need to write, but if you get bored, your readers will know it. Stop writing. Write something else. Write a poem, do some research, or read a book. Get wild and wacky. Insert something insanely unpredictable that totally doesn’t belong. Run with it for a few pages. It may be enough to reignite your writing passion so you don't feel bored. Either stop writing temporarily (go for a run) or get UN-bored and play with your words as you write. Have fun with it!

Mistake #4: Writing and editing at the same time. 

You can't build a house and remodel the bathroom at the same time. Once the house is built, then you can remodel any room you want! If you try to write and edit at the same time, you still might end up with the perfect wallpaper, backsplash, sink, shower curtain, and color scheme. But what's the point if you forgot to include plumbing and a door to get in the room! Write first. Then revise. Edit last.

>> The 5-Step Method for a Publishable Novel <<

Mistake #5: Not investing in your learning and growth as a writer.

When you invest in yourself as a writer, time and money are no longer objections. Investing your time means writing and studying the craft. Investing your money says that you are taking your writing career seriously. Buy a how-to book, enroll in an online course, or attend a workshop or a retreat. When you choose to invest your time and money, you’ll start looking and feeling like a professional.

Mistake #6: Not taking action because you’re afraid it will be too hard. 

Wanting to know every single detail and piece of research before you begin writing can be dangerously paralyzing. It’s important that you actually start no matter how hard or scary it seems. 

If you were making some of these mistakes, you might be wanting to know it all before you begin, stuck in research mode, blaming writer’s block, or feeling like you’re stalled in your writing due to fear, procrastination, or comparison paralysis.

Big Idea #3: Story is More Important than Writing 

The Publishing Matrix

When you understand that story is more important than writing, it will free you from trying to get it right the first time. You’ll be able to focus on the story without worrying about the quality of your writing.

There are two spectrums to getting published. There’s writing well and there’s great storytelling. So there’s a level of low quality and a level of high quality and all the ranges in between.

On one end of the spectrum, you have a high quality of writing. Great metaphors, strong nouns and verbs, the ability to spin a phrase, a sentence, or a paragraph and get people to sigh (or laugh, shriek, or cry) in delight. But they can’t tell a coherent story to save their lives. The plot is all over the place and it’s hard for readers to tell what’s going on or where they even are in the story. What happens is that if you have a high quality of writing and low quality of story, you may start getting Personalized Rejections. You might get feedback on how you could improve. 

On the other end of the spectrum, you have a high quality of storytelling, with amazing plot points, tension, high stakes, etc, but the quality of writing isn’t all that special. If the editor falls in love with the story, so long as the quality of writing isn’t too terrible, this can result in a Revise and Resubmit. It’s a little better than a Personalized Rejection, but it’s still not a book contract. And so that’s the second one.

And the third one is if you have a boring story that doesn’t work combined with poor writing, then that results in a lot of Standard Rejections. You likely haven’t either practiced much or studied very much. This is where most writers begin: with Standard Rejections. 

You can write beautiful words all day long, but if you’re not telling a great story, then nobody cares about your writing.

Remember, good storytelling is more important than good writing, but you have to have BOTH to get published.

The Four Fundamentals of Story

The four fundamentals of story are character, conflict, plot, and theme. Everything else (setting, dialogue, tense, genre, point-of-view) is secondary.

When you have an interesting character experiencing conflict, you create tension. When you have conflict and plot, you create pacing. When you combine theme with plot, your story embodies a deeper meaning. And when you combine character and theme, you create a memorable impact in your reader’s life.

These elements combined together create STORY. And this is the structure that most writers fail to analyze because when rejections come, it’s usually due to one of these four elements.


Big Idea #4: Revision Starts with Plot

The Importance of Revision

The first few revisions of your manuscript are for fixing plot holes. Revision does not mean editing sentences. That’s called editing.

I know how tempting it is to start with editing. I used to tackle my “revisions” by starting out with editing sentences. When I finally got it “perfect” after who knows how many “revisions”, I finally saw the actual plot holes, and sometimes had to start all over from scratch. But there’s a better way.

When you understand this framework, you’ll be able to put plot first in your writing. You’ll be excited to tackle revisions (and your plot). Revision actually starts with plot.

Whether you plot before your rough draft or after, you still need a plot. Technically, you could start “revising” before you even start writing (if you use a plot outline). Either way, you’re still going to need to revisit your plot. 

>> The 5-Step Method for a Publishable Novel <<

Three Quotes About Revision

These three writing quotes from famous authors sum up the importance of revision beautifully. Robert Graves says, “There is no such thing as good writing, only good rewriting.” Justice Louis Brandeis says, “There is no great writing, only great rewriting.” And my favorite one is by James A. Michener, who says, “I’m not a very good writer, but I’m an excellent rewriter.” Revision is re-seeing and re-writing.

Revision Breakthroughs

After five years of taking my writing seriously, I had revised a handful of my picture book manuscripts enough times (10-20 times each) that my critique partners and I agreed they were finally submission-ready. I started submitting to publishers. And then, I had several breakthroughs: 

  • I was offered a contract for 1 of my mss

  • Another ms made it to acquisitions

  • Another ms won 1st place in a regional contest

  • And I signed with an agent! 

None of that would have been possible without revisions. 

The Five Stages of Revision

I don’t know if you consider yourself a plotter or a pantser, but either way - revision starts with plot. Let me explain.

Think about a house. Your book is like a house, or more specifically like a room in a house. Each chapter of your novel is like the furniture in that room. Once the furniture is placed where you want it, then you start adding decor, or in the case of writing a book, editing sentences. After that, you clean, dust, vacuum, polish, etc. With your novel, that’s when grammar, punctuation, and spelling finally come in, not first. And finally, you can put the final touches on the room, like lighting a scented candle for ambiance. In your book, that’s where a proofreader comes into play, to catch any final mistakes that the copy editor missed.

The five types of editors a novel needs to go through, in this order, are the following:

  1. Developmental Editor - They look at your book as a whole, they look for plot holes in your story.

  2. Content Editor - Again, we’re at the base level of revision. This type of editor looks at chapters, scenes, and paragraphs.

  3. Line Editor - This is where an editor will look at your sentences, the flow, the syntax, what can be cut or said better. A lot of beginner writers tend to start here, including myself.

  4. Copy Editor - The copy editor looks at grammar, punctuation, and spelling.

  5. Proofreader - This is when an editor checks over the final print proof before publishing to catch any final mistakes the copy editor missed.

Revision starts with plot, with the book as a whole. The focus is to fix the story. Remember that story is more important than writing. The first two layers focus on revising the plot. The second two layers of the writing revision pyramid focus on editing the writing.

Writing Statistics

According to a survey of nearly 200 writers, the #2 challenge most writers face is not knowing how to revise - or working through the revision process. In addition...

  • 80% of novels are rejected because of poor structure

  • 90% of writers fail at the premise

  • 90% of novels are rejected on the first page

  • 98% of novels are rejected by the end of the first chapter

Plot is the foundation of a strong story and revising your novel begins with looking at the plot.


Big Idea #5: Plotting Equals Freedom

The Importance of Plotting

Plot is what keeps people turning the pages and saying things like, “I couldn’t put the book down.” or “I had to find out what happened next.” Plot is the element that keeps people binge-watching TV episodes on Netflix. Remember, without a strong plot, you’ll have a weak story. And without a strong story, you’ll probably never get that book contract.

A lot of people think that plot outlines are restrictive, but that’s not true.

A lot of people think that plot outlines are restrictive, but that’s not true at all. When you have the five main plot points, they act as mile markers for you and it can actually give you more freedom to express yourself creatively. Plotting ahead of time equals freedom and extra creativity in your writing.

The Five Main Plot Points

Think about the stages of running a race, especially a marathon. This is what it looks like.

  1. The Signup - You get registered for the race.

  2. The Gunshot - You cross the starting line.

  3. The Halfway Point - You make it to the midpoint of the race and feel like you can keep going.

  4. The Wall - You hit the metaphorical “wall” and feel like you can’t keep going any further.

  5. The Finish Line - You finally reach your goal of crossing the finish line.

Let’s take a look at how you can apply these five main plot points to your novel’s storyline. I’m using the movie, Wonder Woman, as an example.

  1. The Signup - Steve Trevor, a spy soldier, crashes his plane into the Amazon island’s invisible forcefield.

  2. The Gunshot - Diana, aka Wonder Woman, leaves her island home and joins forces with Steve to help end the war.

  3. The Halfway Point - Diana leads the troops through No Man’s Land and she and Steve share a kiss.

  4. The Wall - Diana watches as Steve sacrifices his life for the greater good.

  5. The Finish Line - Diana defeats Ares and ends the war.

While this may seem like a simplistic overview of the movie’s storyline, each of these main plot points is strategically placed to make the story’s character arc have growth and provide a satisfying ending about what happens in the story.

When writing your own novel, it’s a lot harder than it looks to get these five main plot points right. But when you do, you’ll have a much greater understanding of where your story is headed and how to get there.

>> The 5-Step Method for a Publishable Novel <<

Let’s review the big ideas we’ve covered today.

  1. You are a writer. 

  2. You can do hard and scary things.

  3. Story is more important than writing.

  4. Revision starts with plot.

  5. Plotting equals freedom. 

If you’d like to gain a deeper understanding of how to plot a novel, free masterclass, The 5-Step Method for a Publishable Novel

What’s been the most valuable from this Ultimate Guide to Plot Your Novel? Let me know in the comments!

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