When I sat down to write the first draft of Winter’s Shadow, I had two scenes already in mind. A beginning and an ending. I knew who was going to live, who was going to die and a few key points along the way. The rest of the story, I assumed, would just work itself out.

I was wrong.

Fifty-thousand words in I found myself in trouble. My narrative hadn’t just magically appeared and I’d veered so far off course from my main story thread I could barely glimpse the ending anymore. It was like a desert mirage, way off in the distance, mocking me.

I tried to course correct by retracing my steps through the manuscript but only ended up getting lost in a maze of narrative cul-de-sacs. I’d revise one section, which in turn forced me to revise another section and so on. It took me weeks of wandering blind before I realise I had to stop writing, go back and actually figure out my plot before I started again. I needed a map. I needed an outline.

Chapter by chapter, I plotted the course of the story. First, I’d write the chapter heading, then scribble a few lines or bullet points beneath describing the main action. A typical entry looked like the below:

Chapter 45.
Winter sees blue flames in the old man’s eyes. She freaks out, drops her phone. Jasmine is irritated at being ignored.

Not especially literary, I know, but just evocative enough to remind me what the scene’s supposed to be about. Brevity is the soul of wit, and also an outline. I’ve read blog posts from aspiring authors who proudly boast about writing sixty or seventy-page outlines and I can’t help but think they’re simply putting off getting started.

With the outline completed, I began writing Winter’s Shadow again, mining my previous draft for suitable content and abandoning the stuff that was redundant. The writing moved more quickly now. I knew where I was headed.

That didn’t mean my story become overly calculated. Even though, I had a clear path to follow I found myself striking off in other directions when I suspected there were quicker or more interesting ways to get to my destination. So much so, that the outline barely resembled the finished novel.

However, without the outline to fall back on I wouldn’t have had the confidence to deviate. I needed a map before I could get lost. And I needed to get lost to discover the best way to tell my story.

M.J.