Bestseller Meg Donohue has a new novel, Dog Crazy, just out, which USA Today has already named to a top 5 new and noteworthy list. I saw her read recently at one of my favorite bookstores, Book Passage, recently, and thought I’d share a post she did for 1st Books in March of 2012, when her first novel, How to Eat a Cupcake, released. Her path to publication is an unusual one, and involves a friendship. – Meg (Clayton)
Meg Donohue: on writing with an outline
Eighteen months ago, I signed a contract with HarperCollins for my first novel, How to Eat a Cupcake. As I touched my pen to the paper, I felt an enormous wave of equal parts elation and terror wash over me. Elation, because being a published novelist was a longtime dream and this contract meant it was going to come true. Terror, because I had not yet actually written the book.
I’ve written fiction for as long as I can remember, published stories in a few literary journals over the years, and attended an MFA program during which I wrote (and promptly discarded) a novel—but I had spent the three years leading up to signing that contract cobbling together a living as a freelance journalist, blogger, and professional resume writer. I was, foremost, a stay-at-home mom to our baby daughter. I wrote snippets of fiction whenever I could, but it was a time in my life when I prioritized motherhood and paychecks over my passion for writing stories. Though I wasn’t writing fiction as much as I would have liked during those years, I never stopped reading like a writer, a skill I had honed in graduate school. Even if I wasn’t writing much fiction, I was studying the novels that I read, dissecting them to see how the characters were brought to life, where the stories turned and quickened and slowed to create plot arcs, and how the authors had managed to infuse tension into their pages.
Then came the conversation with my friend and Harper editor extraordinaire, Jeanette Perez, in which we discussed how fun it would be to set a novel in the world of cupcakes. My wheels began to spin. I wanted to write a story of friendship and food—a story about two very different, but equally strong women who had a falling out as teens and were brought back together by their ambition, their shared love of baked goods, and a web of childhood secrets. I wrote a short synopsis, then a ten-page outline, and then the first two chapters of the novel. I sent them to Jeanette and after several weeks of quiet during which time seemed to slow to a snail’s pace, I learned that Harper wanted to offer me a contract to write the rest of the book. Elation! And then: Terror.
Was I going to be able to deliver what I had promised? I’d only written two chapters; what if the novel fell apart as I continued? Jeanette and the publishing house had shown such faith in me. What if I let them down? These were the worries that kept me up into the early hours of the morning after signing The Contract (it took on a life of its own at times, requiring capitalization).
But the next day I sat down at my desk and started writing the third chapter of How to Eat a Cupcake. The thing that got me through that first day, and many of the days that followed, was the outline I had written back when I was filled with more hope than self-doubt. The person who had written that outline was in control of the story. She was confident about the pace of the plot and the voices of the characters. That person, of course, was me, but I felt grateful for the guideposts the earlier, more confident version of me had created before the The Contract came into my life.
I’d never written with a detailed outline before, and I’ll never write without one again. On the bad days, it brought me comfort to know that even if the writing wasn’t flowing, I knew where my story was headed; I knew what my characters were going to do and how they would grow. A few plot points changed over the course of writing the book—the characters occasionally led me places I had not anticipated going—but that outline served me in good stead. It was a dependable road map during even the darkest hours of the writing process.
I have another map now: an outline for a new novel entitled “All the Summer Girls,” also under contract. A solid outline, a little inspiration, and a lot of discipline keep the terror at bay, allowing the light of elation more room to glow. – Meg (Donohue)