Saturday, October 18, 2014

Outlining for NaNoWriMo

Post by Catsi Eceer, co-founder

Hey, everyone! Catsi here, back (finally!) from the hiatus. So excited to get into posting again!

I'm also pretty excited for the event coming up in a few weeks, to be specific, on November 1. If you don't know what I'm talking about, I'll give you a hint: It's the time of year that most writers either love or hate, or a combination of the two.

Give up?

(Come on, this should be easy. The answer is also in the title of this blog post.)

NaNoWriMo is the abbreviation for National Novel Writing Month. It's an organization that challenges you to write 50,000 words (a novel) in one month (November). Sound insane? Yeah, that's pretty much how we writers are.

This will be my first year doing it, so as always, I've been researching a ton. What I've found is that since I'm such a structured, planning writer, I should definitely spend as much of October as I can spare outlining. If you want to do NaNo the traditional way, you don't outline a speck and just start writing on November first. Knowing me, I'd be excited for the first few days and then burn out by the end of the week and trash the novel. So I'm outlining.

Now, I don't want to outline too extensively. That's also a recipe for burn-out. I'll spend all of my enthusiasm sketching chapters and developing motives, and then won't ever start writing. (Not a great way to get a book published, trust me. No one wants to read an outline.)

So I have to do it somewhere in the middle. Where exactly in the middle varies from novel to novel, writer to writer. I still haven't pinned down exactly what works for me. Everyone outlines differently, so I do my best to try several different outlining methods, and then keep what works and toss what doesn't.

With my last novel, I wrote out the "boring facts," and then wrote a step-outline--a list of scenes in the order I thought they would go in the novel. (They weren't all at the right place, but the good thing about using Microsoft Word is that you can just move things around to adjust your outline. Or you can just ignore your outline completely while writing. I think I have a little bit of OCD, so I have to keep my outline accurate the whole way through the rough draft.)

This is what I've found works best for me, and what I'm doing to outline my fourth novel. It isn't going to work for everyone--chances are, it'll only work for me--but maybe it will give you some ideas to try out.

Step one: Find a piece of paper and sharpened pencil. (Harder than you would think.)

The Boring Facts


If you've ever taken a literature class, chances are you've heard these five words before. They're the "Elements of a Story," and my literature textbook loved to make sure I knew them. (And here I am, three years later, and I still know them by heart.) Dry and uninspiring as they may be, they're still important, and they can be useful during the outlining process.

Characters are one of the most important parts of every story. The reason should be pretty obvious--A story has to be about someone. If it's just a bunch of events, we won't feel any sort of emotional connection. There won't be someone for us to care about, to root, cheer, and cry for.

Take the time to develop your characters. Give them all a goal, a reason to be in the story. Something they want, something they want to stop, someone they care about. A backstory, some family and friends, and a good antagonist. (Spend plenty of time on the antagonist--he's important.)

Here's the second most important story element. (Or, at least, for a character-driven writer it's second important. If you write plot-first, you probably think differently.) Your characters need to do something besides sit around and look pretty.

One of my favorite ways to figure out the plot of a story is to ask "What does my main character want?" and then follow that up with "What can stop them from getting that?" Explore any plot threads that come up until you have a main goal, a villain, and maybe some subplots too.

Where and when is your story set? It can't be floating out in nothingness. (Or can it?)

I read somewhere that if you can pick up your whole novel and drop it somewhere else without affecting the story, you haven't found the right setting yet. Make the location an important part of the story, and maybe it can tie into the characters too. If your character is terrified of water, maybe it's on a ship. Or if they're claustrophobic, caves would be an interesting place to put it.

The exact definition of this is a little different than how I use it when I'm outlining. (Creative license, okay?) By this, I mean the obvious details: Past or present tense, first, third, or even second person, the genre, target audience, and whatever else you feel like writing down.

The actual writing style, or your voice, isn't something that can be easily noted down. Some people have a very informal, laid-back writing style. Some have a wordy, where-is-my-dictionary-because-I-have-no-idea-what-this-word-means style. It all depends on the author.

What is the moral of your story? What does it mean?

I don't recommend spending a ton of time on this, especially if you're a beginning writer. Preaching a moral through a story is very difficult to avoid when you have a specific theme in mind. I've always found it best for me to just write the story, being true to the characters, and see what theme comes out. Then during rewrites I work it in more. (Although during this story, I have a far more specific idea for a theme than I've ever had for one before... We'll see how it goes.)

Once I've gotten everything figured out, I write a quick synopsis for the story, like one that you'd find on the back cover. It tends to get me excited about the project, because I can picture it as a published book.

The Outline

Now I start figuring out exactly how the story will go. Usually, I have a few ideas for scenes in my head already at this point, but I still need to brainstorm more and put them all in order.

Five Important Scenes:
The Inciting Incident (The day everything changed)
The Choice (Accepting the call of the story goal)
Plot Twist (A surprise halfway through the story)
The Black Moment (Everything that could possibly go wrong goes wrong.)
Climax (The final clash between hero and villain)

After I've figured out those scenes, I'll start filling in between them as best as I can. This gives me a list of "scene summaries," each scene summarized in one or two sentences. I can move scenes around, add more, and take some out at will. This also helps me see where any plot holes may arise, and do my best to fix them before they become a problem.

Once I'm happy with the way the story goes, I'm ready to write!

 How do you outline? Are you doing NaNoWriMo this year? Let me know in the comments!

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