Fiction, Flash Fiction, Writing Process

How to start a flash fiction story?

Writing flash fiction is not an easy feat. But picking the right opening (especially the opening line) is amongst my favourite things when it comes to crafting brief but poignant stories.

I write a new flash fiction story every week and publish it on this blog every Friday. The main challenge is fitting a middle, beginning and end into 300-500 words…which is how short my flash fiction stories are. It started out with 300 words as the limit but the muse is a fickle mistress and, when I am inspired, even 500 words don’t feel like much room to play with!

Before I start writing, I always make sure that I have decided three essential things:

A. The point of view to tell my story from.
B. The main (and only) characters…I try to stick to two max!
C. The conflict between my two characters (otherwise it’s just waffle).

Once I have all of this straight, I write a brief outline – that’s the only way I can write on demand. Feel free to skip this step if you’re a pantser (I hear ‘discovery writer‘ is a more polite term for this in the writing community nowadays).

Armed with my outline and notes, I go straight to the opening line. Yes, that’s right. I don’t give my story a title until the very end. The reason for this is that even with my outline, there is no guarantee that I will actually stick to it. I use it to ‘cheapen’ the blank page and get me typing.

The most important part in choosing an opening line is to find a hook…your first sentence should be a statement that leaves the reader with one or more questions at the end of the first sentence. This is to signal that this story is worth reading. You are making a promise to your reader. For example:

She sat on her throne; unmoved for centuries.

‘Mythless’ by Josie Cole (@josiecolewrites)
License:ย Attribution 4.0 Internationalย (CC BY 4.0)

Would you read the rest of this story? I hope so. The questions that most readers will probably be asking themselves after this opening line are 1. Who is ‘she’? and 2. Why has she been unmoved for centuries? See how I did that? By using this opening line, I am promising the reader that I will reveal more information about this character if he/she/they keep reading.

Now, it’s your turn! Stop reading this post and go write a flash fiction with a killer opening line.

See ya next time ๐Ÿ˜‰

If this post inspires a story, let me know in the comments below. And please remember to post a link to your work, too. I would love to read it.

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Worthless Waffle, Writing Process

How do you choose the best point of view for your own narratives?

One of many questions I have about writing fiction! And while I am sure that there is no perfect answer, I also believe that there might be some different answers, depending on who you are and what you write and who your audience is.

I recently touched on this when I wrote about breaking some writing rules

The main reason why this interests me has to do with productivity. I don’t know about you, but I have very limited time to write in my busy life. So, optimising my time and getting my fiction drafts as far as possible every time I sit down to write is absolutely essential. Otherwise, how can I make my dreams come true?!

One major stumbling block on the journey to becoming a successful novelist is having to rewrite your entire draft just because you picked the wrong point of view to tell your story from in the beginning. Once you write yourself into a corner it can be pretty tough to get out of it – especially if you’re writing in first person.

First person narrators are a popular choice in YA Fantasy and SciFi but many novels in these genres suffer from dissatisfying ‘miraculous’ solutions to problems that the protagonist can’t solve because their is no way he/she/they could have had access to the information, place, or powers needed to get out of their latest pickle.

I try not to work miracles in my stories. NOT EVER! And it’s very hard. But I also found that the better I plan (I’m a plotter, remember?) the easier it is to actually finish my stories. And isn’t that the ultimate goal for us novelists – to one day finish our novels so we can hit ‘publish’ …eventually…and without our readers feeling cheated?

The choice of which point of view you use to tell your stories is NOT arbitrary. Choose wisely. Think about what kind of story you are writing, how likely your protagonist will be able to convey all the information your audience needs so you can solve your problems in a clever, yet plausible way that doesn’t require miracles.

And don’t forget: if your are using magic to solve any problems in your story, you better not break any of your self-imposed limits and rules. Just inventing a new rule that the audience didn’t know about up to that point is cheating. Your readers won’t appreciate it.

How do I know this? Because I am a reader and I hate feeling cheated. And every time an author cheats me, I make a note of their name and never buy their books again.

See ya next time ๐Ÿ˜‰

If you have experienced the pain of having to switch point of view in the middle (or close to the end) of your narrative, share your experience in the comments below. I would also love to know if you know of any clever tools (or at least aides) to help choose the right point of view from the beginning. I always love to learn new techniques.

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Fiction, Flash Fiction, Story

FLASH FICTION: Mythless

She sat on her throne; unmoved for centuries. A queen without a court. A goddess without believers. The faint echoes of worship past floated before her whilst drip after drip of rainwater fell from the ruined ceiling into a puddle at her feet. These were the forgotten lands. And she was forgotten with them.

Her eyes were made of polished glass; masterpieces. Results of a craft long dead. Almost alert, the irises shone with golden color, imitating life as they reflected the weak light of day. Thick coils of thorny growth were interwoven with the regal statue. One long arm of neglect to hold her prisoner, it seemed.

What a shame, the wanderer thought. He was young yet. Lost, cold and wet he had entered the deserted castle. Lost, cold and wet, he remained. No stories had warned him of this place. Nobody had lived to tell the tale. And so he didn’t know what cruel mistress had bid him to this one-sided audience. He never saw the golden irises follow his every move as he scouted around the throne room for a dry corner to sleep.

In the end, there was only a rasp and a venomous sting of thorns.

A note for creators:
This flash fiction work is subject to the following license: Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

Attribution โ€” You must give appropriate credit, to โ€˜Josie Cole (@josiecolewrites)โ€™, provide a link to the license, and indicate if changes were made. You may do so in any reasonable manner, but not in any way that suggests the licensor endorses your use.

See ya next timeย ๐Ÿ˜‰

If you have enjoyed this flash fiction piece, I would love to hear about it in the comments below. If you adapt this for your own creative project, feel free to post a link to your project or website.

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Fiction, Flash Fiction

FLASH FICTION: A Traveler’s Tale

The Traveler was tall and dusty. Golden particles swirled around him. Time moved slowly in his presence. His left leg dragged on the floor as he walked into the empty saloon; stiff as a broomstick. The bartender was struggling to interpret the Traveler’s facial expression. He had seen many faces but few that betrayed so little of what went on behind the surface. The eyes were young but the skin was dry and tough. Deep wrinkles ran across the Traveler’s forehead and from both sides of his nose down to his square, beardless jaw. They looked like they had been cut into his face with a blunt knife.

“Drink?”

The Traveler nodded. “Rum. Dark.”

The bartender’s hand shook as he poured two fingers worth of the best they had. He had a habit to shove the glass over to the customers across the sticky bar but something stopped him this time. Instead, he simply nodded to the Traveler who was in no hurry to reach out.

“You’ve come far?”

The Traveler’s stare was cold; hostile.

“You’re looking for a story, mate?”

The bartender was lost for words. He didn’t know whether he should agree or apologize. Neither seemed safe.

“Life’s not exciting enough in here, mate?”

The bartender retreated from the bar. With his back against the wall, he stared at the Traveler with wide, open eyes. He still couldn’t speak.

“Alright, then. Let’s tell a story, mate.”

The Traveler reached into one of the many pockets that were sewn into his tattered coat. The bartender was surprised to see that instead of a gun or knife he pulled out a titanium compass. It looked heavy and was large enough to fill the Traveler’s palm. Golden particles seemed to emanate from the compass.

“Once upon a time, a young man yearned for an adventure. He was warned of dangers…but…he didn’t listen.”

The needle of the compass began to spin, picking up maddening speed and humming like a swarm of bumblebees.

“He wanted power. The power that comes from seeing the world. He didn’t know it then but there is no power in travel…just slavery. Time is a cruel master. Can’t manipulate it. Only a one-way street. But you’ll know it soon enough, mate. You’ll see. You’ll feel it soon.”

An impossible wind was blowing around the two men. The bartender thought about crouching down on the floor but he couldn’t move. He was pinned to the wall behind him. The golden particles formed a small tornado around the compass. Then, they started to move towards the bartender.

“You’ll feel it soon.”

The particles surrounded the bartender. They swirled around his head. The bartender tried to scream but his throat was too dry. He could only stare in horror as the particles forced their way through his nostrils and windpipe. He could feel them buzzing within his aching lungs. The Traveler watched emotionlessly as the bartender combusted into a cloud of gold particles. Then, he finally reached for the rum.

“Have a good trip, mate.” he mumbled.

A note for creators:
This flash fiction work is subject to the following license: Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

Attribution โ€” You must give appropriate credit, to โ€˜Josie Cole (@josiecolewrites)โ€™, provide a link to the license, and indicate if changes were made. You may do so in any reasonable manner, but not in any way that suggests the licensor endorses your use.

See ya next time ๐Ÿ˜‰

If you have enjoyed this flash fiction piece, I would love to hear about it in the comments below. If you adapt this for your own creative project, feel free to post a link to your project or website.

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Plot, Story, Story Arc, Structure, Writing Process

How to know when your book is finished?

Even though this will drive you all crazy, I will have to say it anyway: a story should only be as long as it needs to be. That’s it. The end, see you next time…ah but wait! Didn’t I say this post was about how you know when a story is finished? Well, I suppose, every writer sooner or later comes to a point in their story where they have to ask themselves: to end or not to end?…THAT is the question!

And it’s not always obvious…even to the most seasoned of writers! For one, anybody here ever read The Green Mile by Stephen King? No? Then you better get on it! It’s a great book…apart from the lengthy waffle at the end of the book that goes well past where I felt it should have ended. No obligation for anybody here to agree with me, but if you have read it, I would be curious if you came away with the same feeling…that the book could have come to a close much sooner than it did.

So, every time I write a story, I try to start with the end in mind…even if I only have a vague idea. Because at least it will help me not to overshoot my goal. Easy to say if you’re a plotter (which I am). Although, I think that even for the pantsers among us at least a grain of an idea as to where the story should end could be of benefit.

My flash fiction writing (although I only started this recently) is already paying off in this arena. First of all, I am getting to finish a lot more stories which means that I am getting some practice recognising the natural finish point. And secondly, I am learning to fit my story into a specific word count (I try to keep my flash fiction around 300 words). So when I write longer, I can better gauge how many words I need to write to finish the story.

If I reach the word count for my story and my planned ending hasn’t happened yet, I know I have too much waffle and too little action in my story. If my planned ending happens far from the planned word count, I have a good indicator that my story lacks detail and might be too jumpy or sudden and I can go back and insert more scenes to give the reader more information about the characters and the world.

My writing style is very action driven and I sometimes lack the patience to describe much of the world, places, and characters in my story. Writing long is a real challenge for me but getting to a pacey first draft and then revising to make sure I have enough material for the story I want to write is a good strategy for me.

See ya next time ๐Ÿ˜‰

If you recognise any of your own issues in this post, have trouble finishing a story in time for your planned ending, have a good reason not to want to plan the ending of your stories, or are so good at ending your stories perfectly that your books are a shining beacon of hope to the rest of us, please share your views in the comments below.

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Story, Structure, Worthless Waffle, Writing Process

Can you ‘doodle’ your story in 4 simple steps?

We have already discussed the pros and cons of having an outline (or map) to help with closing plot holes, ensuring you have the right number of characters for your story, and that there are enough scenes to tell a satisfying story.

What we haven’t talked about is how to start the outline. I know how intimidating a blank page can be when your story is nothing but a vague series of snippets in your head.

To help overcome this initial anxiety, some people like morning pages. Others keep a notebook and write down bit over time until there is enough material to pull it all together. Unfortunately, neither of these methods has ever been of much help to me.

If you have had similar experiences, you might want to try the doodle method. And it goes like this:

1. Start with a blank sheet of paper (I did mine with the doodle feature in Evernote but you don’t have to be fancy). Take any pen and write ‘story doodle’ at the top of the paper.

2. That’s a good way to cheapen it up a little and reduce anxiety of ruining the page. Expect it to look terrible. Don’t pressure yourself to make this pretty! That’s very important.

3. The put the working title (if you have one) of your novel onto the centre of your paper and draw a bubble around it. Then identify the main themes of your story and write them spaced out around the centre bubble. Draw bubbles around each of these too and connect them to the centre bubble. I like to include a bubble for ‘characters’ but this can be done separately if you prefer.

4. Now start filling in information around each bubble and connect your notes with relevant bubbles (connect notes to several bubbles if applicable.

When you finish you should have something like this:

Story Doodle for the fantasy novel ‘Fearful Magic’ by Josie Cole (@WimpyWriter)

Tadaa! Your first draft outline is complete. This one took about 20 minutes, so perfect if you don’t have much time for your writing. I use my story doodle as a point of reference to help with populating my story grid and character profiles…and when I’m stuck.

See you next time ๐Ÿ˜‰

If you try a story doodle or have a similar (or maybe even better) method to get a story outline started, please share your experience in the comments section below this post. I would love to hear from you.

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Backstory, Writing Process

History: what your novel shouldn’t ‘tell’…

Any world – real or imagined – is a product of past events. The characters who walked the earth long before your story even begins, planted the seeds for pretty much every political, biological, and technological reality your characters have to deal with. The history of the (story) world is an essential part of your story, and yet, it’s exactly the part that a writer should never ‘tell’…unless bad feedback about info dumping doesn’t bother you.

Yes, you guessed it, the current state of my world building is poor and one of the reasons for this is that my story world history is vague. I literally didn’t bother fleshing it out to any significant degree, which I am now working to rectify, before addressing any gaps in my character profiling for secondary characters. The reason for this being that that the story world history might change them and I don’t want to have to do it twice.

All I initially jotted down about my story world history were these notes:

  • The story plays at the end of a great war between humans and mages.
  • Mages lost and are now in the minority and severely persecuted.
  • There is a few people who specialise in tracking mages who are in hiding and don’t dare to gather – the best one at this is our antagonist (John).
  • The Forest also known as the ‘home of mages’ has existed longer than any human or mage can remember.
  • The Forest existed long before the first priestess bore magic (from of a sacred well) and erected the temple at its heart where spirits of all deceased mages dwell eternally to protect the sacred site.
  • The opposing force to magic is a religion that loosely resembles Christianity and that has been gaining support steadily over a series of decades.
  • Religious leaders have been spreading vicious lies about magic and the mage-born, fostering fear and separation and go back to the time before the birth of magic.

I know, right? Whatever made me think I was getting away with this? No detail about the war or what made it significant in the grand scheme of things. No notes about how this war has changed people (I’ll be starting a new research file on exactly this change in people, including soldiers and civilians and how war affected them potentially differently depending on their level of involvement).

Crucially, I didn’t work out how the people managed to win the war and defeat magic (I presume with the help of their god). Doing my homework will change my story, affect the magic system I imagined, and hopefully will make the end product much better. I have already re-written the first scene in light of some new information and feel positive about turning things upside down.

Whilst I am not planning to turn into a watered-down version of J.R.R Tolkien (the man invented whole cultures and languages, each with their own diverse mythology and belief systems, for goodness sakes), I do think that I need a little more than a few notes on the subject of story world history.

So, why never ‘tell’? Because if you do your job and work it all out first there should be no need to spell it all out for your reader. Your characters’ actions, beliefs, thoughts, and words – alongside descriptions of the story world in the present – should suffice to deliver a strong sense of legacy.

After all, one of the big criticisms of Tolkien’s work is that there is just too much explaining going on, and whilst I can’t always agree (the detailed descriptions of life in the Shire at the beginning of Lord of the Rings, helps to understand how much Frodo has to change to survive in much more hostile environments), I can see why readers moan about it.

See ya next time ๐Ÿ˜‰

If you are also struggling to work out your story world’s history, or if you have the opposite problem and are consumed by coming up with more and more detail about what happened before your story began, share your thoughts in the comments below.

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Plot, Story Beats, Worthless Waffle, Writing Process

What to do when outlining isn’t enough?

Calling all plotters! Let’s imagine the following: you have established your writing process, worked out your basic structure, completed a description of every scene…but when it gets down to writing, you struggle to come up with the all important details. The narrative doesn’t flow and you inevitably find yourself asking the question what else should I add into this scene?

If this scenario is foreign to you, consider yourself lucky! It’s the number one reason why I have faltered at completing a novel so many times! Following my renewed commitment to actually finishing my first novel during last autumn, I also sparked an obsession on how to force my brain to work it out. I thought NaNoWriMo was going to fix everything. If needs must, your brain can do it!, I thought…I was WRONG!

I had all the same problems but now I was also under unnecessary pressure to hit daily word limits. The more I wanted to win, the more I lost – sleep, productivity, and even the basic joy in writing evaded me. It was horrible.

Halfway through the challenge, I stopped caring about writing my first draft. I just started jotting down some story details that I knew and started elaborating on the things that I noted in my story grid whilst asking: how would it happen? Additionally I added snippets of dialogue that came to mind in relation to the events that were finally starting to flow.

The result: things shifted completely and I started typing furiously into my word processor every day (a shame I only came to this realisation on day 25 of the 30 day challenge).

The good news is that the concept of what I discovered is not new. Sterling and Stone (an incredibly productive fiction writing trio) have termed this ‘story beats’. A detailed outline of their whole story in long prose. Whilst I haven’t studied their method in much detail and can’t say how similar or dissimilar my version of this is from what they are doing, I can attest to the fact that the rough longform outlining of story really works very well.

Here’s a list of my key findings after writing a good chunk of my rough story beats (I didn’t make it all the way to end yet but I am working on it).

  1. Some extra scenes need to be added for the story to flow (even though scenes seemed to follow on fine from each other from the story grid).
  2. Supporting characters weren’t fleshed out enough in the grid outline and it was difficult to imagine how they would react in certain situations.
  3. Not enough worldbuilding had been done – this will be addressed as a priority this year as it might change some aspect of the characters.

I can’t wait to post about how I will be addressing the issues I have identified and share any resources that help me on my journey.

See ya next time ๐Ÿ˜‰

If you are stuck with your own writing, share your issues in the comments below, maybe I can suggest something that helps (I know all about being stuck, after all). And if you have experience with story beats, I would love to hear how it’s worked for you (or not).

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Backstory, Writing Process

What do you need to know about your antagonist?

We are all pretty clear on the concept that knowing your characters is key. And we are all usually very excited to get to know our protagonists. But what about the villain of the story? Is the antagonist worth knowing?

I would argue, yes! The antagonist often isn’t the most pleasant of characters but there is most likely a reason why they are the way they are and act the way they do. As a writer, it’s crucial that you know this…even if you never share the backstory of your villain with your reader…after all you don’t want to chance the info-dump alarm going off.

So, how best to get to know your antagonist? What do you need to know about him/her/they? I find free-writing can really help with this. Meet the antagonist of my current project (Fearful Magic)…don’t worry, just backstory, no spoilers!

Name: John

Age: early 30s

Occupation: witch hunter

Serves: the Bishop Benedict III

Bio: John’ s mother leaves the family when he is only 4 years old. Nobody wants to speak about her or tell him where she went. John grows up rebellious and angry. He develops a short temper. At the dawn of a Holy War (known as the Great War) against magic, John runs away from home at the age of 16 to escape being married off to an affluent but unattractive Duke’s daughter. To survive, he works as a sell sword / bounty hunter and is soon enlisted as a soldier to serve the Holy Church in it’s fight against the mage-folk. John is luckier than others as he seems to have a natural ability to anticipate magic strikes, traps, and defences and often escapes battles with little more than a few scratches whilst fellow soldiers are burnt, maimed, and killed around him. The trauma of war haunts his dreams even after the last battle is fought. Most men he gets to know die. John enters the service of the Bishop at the end of the Great War. His mission is to find and bring to justice every remaining mage-born in the land.

See ya next time ๐Ÿ˜‰

If you have found this article helpful, have your antagonist’s backstory all figured out, or don’t know where to start, share your views in the comments below.

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Genre, Worthless Waffle

Is fantasy really a genre?

I hear your collective gasp! How is this even a question?! Where have you been all these Tolkien and Game of Thrones filled Cinema/ TV evenings over the last erm…19 years?!

I have been glued to the screens of course! Read all the books and have properly geeked out! But every time I tried to write my own fantasy stories they kind of came up short. I never really knew what to write about…and that’s because of what I know now:

Fantasy is not a genre in itself…it’s a component of genre.

To be precise, it’s actually an indicator for how much a reader should prepare to suspend their disbelief when reading the story. Whether they should expect a romance, action adventure, coming of age etc. aside from the fantasy stuff is really down to other essential genre components. It appears that genre is not a thing…it’s a construct.

The term fantasy alone is not enough to describe your genre and tell your reader what your work is about. Check out the genre clover by Shawn Coyne to see what helped me better understand fantasy and its relationship with genre.

See ya next time ๐Ÿ˜‰

If you found this article helpful, thoroughly disagree or have no idea what all this has to do with a clover, leave a reply in the comments below.

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Worthless Waffle, Writing Process

Why some research is essential to your story, even if you don’t think it is…

I know, that writing is subjective. As a writer you have your own method to plan, research, and construct your narrative and this post doesn’t change that. So, if you are foaming at the mouth due to the preachy title…I apologise. Give me a chance to explain what I mean.

Research can be a very difficult issue to navigate as a writer…especially when your characters are tugging at you from the backdrop of a new, bright idea and all you want to do is jump in and type. In some instances, getting started on your story is a great idea…and at other times you might want to pace yourself in favour of some research.

But what about fantasy? I hear you groan. Can’t I write whatever I want if it’s fantasy…research-free? Yes, you can…but don’t forget that research isn’t only about getting factual information down. There is one particular type of research that I found to be beneficial for fantasy writing as it helps to make my characters and my story more relatable.

I am of course talking about emotional research…which can be done purely from your own memory of how it felt to be in a certain situation or can be done from second-hand sources (biographies, interviews, etc.) if you are writing about something that you haven’t got personal experience with.

Getting your understanding of the thought-life and feelings that factor into your characters’ experience throughout their story arc is in my opinion one of the number one ways to write something your audience will care about. It’s certainly something that is key to all the fantasy novels I have read and loved.

Think about Frodo Baggins’s journey to Mount Doom and how this affects his mood, mind, and feelings as he tumbles from one perilous adventure to another whilst slowly becoming possessed by the dark magic of the ring. And what about His Dark Materials where Lyra’s curiosity and risky maneuvers pull us right into her story where we have a visceral reading experience as key events unfold and some dangerous truths are discovered?

See ya next time ๐Ÿ˜‰

If you are already a fan of emotional research and have a useful method to share, never heard of this, or think it’s bogus, leave a reply in the comments below and share your views.

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Plot, Scenes, Structure, Writing Process

Is it OK to stray from your outline?

A prime question among writers! If you are a dedicated plotter (like me), you will appreciate the many upsides to having a detailed outline for your novel, short-story, work of non-fiction (or whatever else you are writing). You will know the feeling of sitting down to write with a good idea of what events, characters, scenery, etc. you need to put on the page and therefore be able give the finger (or two) to any #creativeblock that may be waiting in the wings to derail your progress – most days.

Then there are those writers (and if you are one of these, I am profusely jealous) who like to fly by the seat of their pants, discovering the story, characters, events, and scenery as they go. ‘Pantsers’ hate outlining and I get why. If you are not a plotter this post is not for you. This is for the writers who struggle to write without a map – welcome friends!

Eight scenes into my #NaNoWriMo project (Fearful Magic), I am not surprised to find that the scenes I have down so far are not the same eight scenes that fill spaces one to eight on my story grid outline. Creativity just works it’s magic that way. Once my fingers start flying over the keyboard, the unexpected happens and I let it…gladly.

First draft writing is not science. It’s a dark art. It’s perfectly fine to stray from your outline, especially during the writing of the first draft which is really about finding the right tone for the work and building the framework upon which to improve upon later. The only important thing is to make sure that you meet the key milestones of your story. So, a lose following of your outline is absolutely OK. I would say, it’s essential to ensure that you don’t get fed up with your story before it’s written.

There is always more to discover and you will never be able to come up with all the scenes up front. Does this mean outlining is a waste of time. NO! Of course not! The outline is there to get you writing. Once the writing is happening, do as you will. Once you don your editor hat you can amend your outline where necessary, then re-read, revise, re-think all aspects of your first draft…until your vision comes to life.

See ya next time ๐Ÿ˜‰

If you have trouble following your outline, get frustrated with your creativity taking you down unexpected paths and alleys, or haven’t cracked this outlining thing at all, leave a reply in the comments below and share your experience.

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