Elizabeth: NaNo Countdown – 4 Weeks To Go

The kids are back in school, holiday merchandise is popping up at the local stores, and my heater at home came on for the first time this season.

Do you know what that means?

Right, National Novel Writing Month is almost here.  For those of you who are not familiar with NaNoWriMo (NaNo for short), it’s a month where writers around the world do their best to get 1,667 words on the page every day in the month of November, resulting in a 50,000 word manuscript by December 1st.

It’s fun and exciting and motivating and challenging and, frankly, hard as all get out.

It’s also a great way to focus on a writing project and get some words on the page.  Of course, not everyone has a creative muse who responds well to that kind of pressure, but as I found out in 2015, mine seems to be okay with the idea.  Something about the accountability and not wanting to be left behind when others reach their target word counts is just the motivation I need to move from “thinking” about story to actually writing it down.

Last year was a bust, for reasons outside of my control, but I’m looking forward to November this time around (and not just because there will be Halloween candy right beforehand).  I’ve already decided on the story I’ll be writing, a contemporary romance with the working title A Change of Heart.  The story is the second book in the series that I started with my 2015 NaNo story, Second Chances.

In order give myself the best chance of success this time around I’m doing a fair amount of pre-work.  It worked well for me in 2015, so it makes sense to do it again.

This week my focus is on:  Outlining

A little googling will turn up a number of helpful sites with how-to information for outlining a story, as well as about as many sites in favor of outlining as those against it.  Like anything else about the writing process, whether to outline or not seems to come down to individual writer preference – sometimes varying from book to book.

The arguments against outlining generally cite a lack of freedom and curtailed creativity.   The writers in this camp are those who preferr their stories to develop “organically” rather than being forced along a determined path.

“At the time I begin writing a novel, the last thing I want to do is follow a plot outline.  To know too much at the start takes the pleasure out of discovering what the book is about.”  ~ Elmore Leonard

Those supporting the neutral position seem to feel that having some basic guidelines in place provides a good starting point.  Kind of like putting those metal cages in place when you plant tomatoes, so that they have a basic structure go grow against, but not something so confining that they are stunted or cramped.

“I never do a full outline, and if I did, I would not feel bound to it, because the view from inside a scene can be different from the view outside it.  But neither do I just start writing and see what happens; I am far more disciplined than that.”   Piers Anthony

The writers in favor of outlining cite its importance for keeping track of plots / sub-plots, managing character arcs, and making sure that the story progresses in an orderly fashion without wandering off track.   They also suggest that having an outline makes the synopsis, back-cover copy, querying process a bit easier.

“Outlining is the most efficient way to structure a novel to achieve the greatest emotional impact.  The most breathtaking prose and brilliantly drawn characters are wasted if the plot meanders and digresses.”  ~ Jeffery Deaver

I’m very analytical in Real Life, so when I first started writing, I just assumed that outlining a story would be my standard method.  After a lot of trial and error, I’ve found that it’s the story I’m trying to tell that drives the success or failure of my outlining attempts.

Outlining was successful with Second Chances, so I’m expecting it to work well with this story too.  Since this is book 2 in a series, I have the advantage of knowing my characters (or at least some of the characters).  That gives me a clearer idea of how they might act in various situations and makes figuring out what happens from scene to scene a bit easier.


Of course this story is set in a completely different location from the first, there are a number of new characters, and even the familiar characters are being put into unfamiliar situations, so their reactions may not be quite so “in character” as I’ve been thinking.

While I’ve starting the outlining process by developing a (song) playlist for previous stories, I’ve found that I actually don’t listen to playlists when I write and I tend to get distracted by the stories in the songs, rather than focusing on my own story, so there will be no playlist this time around.    I will, however, be spending this weekend gathering together images related to this new story though, since having some placeholder visuals has worked well for me in the past.

After that, it will be time to start the traditional outlining process – the one (for me) that involves an Excel spreadsheet and color coding.   Outlining will be an iterative process, I’m sure.  The goal for this week is to get the starting / ending points for each act nailed down and then go back and add the details about what happens in each of the scenes that make up the acts

In addition to using the outline to track what happens in the story, I will also use it as a way to keep track of when things happen.  This book doesn’t occur during a compressed time period like some others I’ve worked on, but I still need to make sure that time flows in a reasonable way and that scenes don’t jump around.

Once I have the basic outline in place, I’ll be ready to start fleshing out the character arcs and figuring out more of the details in the coming weeks.

Piece of cake, right?

So, are you a fan of outlining before you start writing?  If so, what kind of outlining do you do?  If not, do you ever go back and outline after you write, as part of your revision process?

P.S.  If you’re thinking of doing some outlining yourself and need some ideas, check out this classic post by Chuck Wendig’s:  How to Outline During National Plot Your Novel Month.

12 thoughts on “Elizabeth: NaNo Countdown – 4 Weeks To Go

  1. I’ve thought about this a lot. I love outlining for non-fiction, but it never seems to interest me for fiction. And I think the reason is that I outline AFTER I do the research/reporting for non-fiction. But for fiction, the first few drafts are the research/reporting. If I ever get beyond the first draft in a serious manner, I’ll probably be ready to outline.

    (-: I pantsed my successful NaNos. Didn’t reach 50,000 except by “cheating” with about five epilogues, but I didn’t know where my story was even going to begin until a few days before, generally. Once I actually did a little planning, only to throw it all overboard for something new and shiny. (-: I like new and shiny, when it comes to story-telling.

    • Michaline, I know what you mean; some types of writing just seem to lend themselves to outlining better than others. The time I was successful with outlining, it was because I had a pretty clear idea what my story was about and the major chunks of action that were going to take place.

      The story I was working on earlier this year was completely different – I was doing a lot of “discovery” writing to figure things out. In that case, there was no point in outlining until I had a rough-rough-rough draft of the story. At that point, the outline was more of a tool to confirm that the structure made sense and to identify holes in the action, rather than a guideline to write by.

      Throwing it all overboard for something new and shiny is very tempting, whether there is an outline or not.

  2. I definitely outline. How much or little detail my outline has varies, but without an outline, I can’t focus during NaNoWriMo. Even outside of NaNoWriMo, I find that the prose comes a lot easier if I know where it’s headed. I also like the depth and intricacy that can come when I plan the plot threads in advance, not to mention finding plot holes before I write them (not always, but it definitely happens).

    I let myself deviate from my outline, and sometimes amazing things come from that, but sometimes I regret it.

    I think one of the reasons that the arguments against outlining bother me is that the assumption seems to be that outlines are used by the writer to force a plot to go where they want it to. Is an outline not simply a less detailed telling of the story? Does the outline not still require creativity? I often imagine the full scene in my head, only writing down a vague idea of it in order to be able to get the entire story down before I forget it, so it’s still quite organic.

    I understand that some people can sit down with little to no plan and come up with a great story, and I’m really happy for them. I wouldn’t dream of calling that method anything other than what it is–a method that works for some, but not others. So when pantsers rag on planners in a way that makes us sound like our method is a lesser form of art, it gets under my skin.

    I apologize for dropping in on your blog and ranting. This topic is becoming a hot-button issue for me, which probably means I should learn to let it go.

    So to end this on a more pleasant note, good luck with this year’s NaNoWriMo!

    • I’m very structured in other parts of my life, and when I started writing fiction I expected to be a plotter, but so far my process has turned out to be 100% pantser. My subconscious seems to be quite an organised place, though, so I usually pants my way to something quite structured. Maybe I’m carrying the outline in my head instead of writing it down. When I’ve finished my first draft I always use a written outline as an editing/overview tool.

      To Kristi’s point, I don’t think pantsing a story is better, or creatively superior–do people really say that? If I could find a way to make outlining work for me, I’d do it, not least because I think it would be quicker. I try at least once a year, the way I try eating olives because I can’t quite believe they’re not for me.

      Ilona Andrews put up an interesting blog post a couple of days ago giving her take on outlining. I thought it looked interesting so am planning to give her approach a try next week when I start on my new novella. Link here: http://www.ilona-andrews.com/on-outlining/

      Good luck and happy writing to all this year’s NaNo-ers 😉

      • Your analogy about eating olives made me laugh! I do the same thing with corn dogs. They smell good, so every once in a while I think I should like them…but I never do.

        Believe me, I was surprised the first few times I saw what *some* pantsers say about outlining being less creative. Now I just get indignant.

        In a way, sometimes my outlines are like a first draft. Sometimes they’re really vague and are definitely nothing more than an outline, but sometimes they’re 10,000 words themselves, and still show characterization, details I want to remember for the writing, and I can sometimes solve plot holes before they become a problem. As I said in my first comment, a lot of the reason I outline is because by the time I get a scene of the story written out in the detail novel-length stories tend to have, I may have forgotten what I wanted to have happen next.

        Good luck to you as well (assuming that you’re participating)!

        • I vaguely recall reading a comment somewhere that the most creative way to write a story is whatever way gets you from “Chapter 1” to “The End.” I definitely agree with that.

          I’ve yet to find a particular method that works consistently all the time. Of the three books I’ve finished, one was via outline, one a pantster-discovery style, and the third something that grew out of a set of writing exercises.

          I consider outlining to be just another tool in my writer’s toolbox. If it’s working for me, I’ll use it. If it’s not, I have no problem setting it aside and trying something else.

          Happy writing to you and good luck (if you are participating in this year’s NaNo).

        • I agree with that. The same goes for every aspect of writing, from the idea phase all the way through to revising. What works for one person, or for one story by the same person even, won’t necessarily work for everyone/every story.

        • I can imagine a character saying, “Oh, pantsing/plotting is the only way to go!” Heaps and heaps of characterization in the kind of character who would say that, LOL.

          Like you all, I think whatever gets the story out is the right method for that writer — as Jennifer Crusie says, “There are many roads to Oz.” Jenny is a pantser who does the plotting later, when she’s got all the materials.

          My other most favorite writer in the world, Lois McMaster Bujold, does rolling outlines. From what I’ve read, she outlines as far as she can, and then takes the time to write it out.

          With a poem and sometimes a short story, it’s possible to grasp the whole thing in your head, and if you are very speedy, you can write the whole thing down before it goes away. But with a whole book? That’s really, really difficult.

          I tend to cope with it by writing a scene at a time. I really enjoy that how sometimes a random detail that I include in the first draft suddenly turns into a dime — by which I mean, a point where I suddenly can turn the plot.

          OTOH, I do wish I were more of a plotter. Like I said, I love it with non-fiction, and also, I fondly imagine that I would not get stuck as often if I knew What Happened Next. Unfortunately, plotting requires . . . plotting skills. I really fall down on that.

          Either way, I think plotters have to do a lot of micro-pantsing when it comes to setting down the scene. And pantsers have to figure out the macro-plotting after they’ve got as far as they can get pantsing. We need both . . . .

        • More and more over the last few days I’m starting to think of outlining (at least the way I usually do it) as a first draft. It’s just lacking details. When I’m writing the outline, I’m pantsing the story.

          I go back and “re-write” it when I write what would be considered the real first draft, which is very possibly what many pansters do after they write their first draft. It’s not a perfect parallel, but it makes sense to me.

          I’d never given it a name, but I’ve written stories with a rolling outline before too. I get what I estimate to be 2/3-3/4 of the way through the outline, then realize I’m not sure how to get to the end I want. So I just start writing, hoping that the new ideas that will come from the actual writing will reveal the rest of the story, and it usually does. I shouldn’t be surprised to know I’m not the only one who does that.

          The assessment about both directions needing to incorporate the other is completely true. I’ve not heard of any who literally sit down without at least broad plans and come up with a full, novel-length first draft without a LOT of difficulty. I know it can happen with shorter stories–I’ve heard of people who can be given an idea and churn out a decent short story in a few minutes. That I do envy. I’ve done it during writing practice, but it always surprises me when it turns out well. Most of the time it’s terrible or weird.

        • I have to admit that I’m more of a short story writer than a long-form person. When I wrote my successful and semi-successful NaNos, I pretty much do just that — sit down and write the whole thing with the purpose of discovering the story. No plot in mind, or at least a readiness to drop “Today’s Plot” in a heartbeat if something better comes up. But I don’t recommend the method to anyone. At least 10 percent of my word-count is swearing, characters drinking tea and talking about the lack of progress in the plot, and other devices. (-: I joke, because I’ve never kept count, but it’s one of those jokes that contain a bitter nugget of truth.

          The time I tried to take my first draft NaNo into a good, organized second draft? Oh, my goodness. It was certainly educational, so I can’t call it a disaster and a failure. But as a novel? Oh my, oh my, oh my. Do you know how sometimes when you finally tackle a big cleaning project, the whole room turns into a total mess about half way through the project? Stacks of X here, stacks of Y there and little bits of Z littering the floor? That’s where I abandoned my second draft. I tried very hard to get an outline of the book put together (and I had help from my classmates here!) but the new outline felt so very different than the original plot (which was not very good) that I felt like I needed to pants a whole new story. I just could not keep my characters to Plotline B.

          It’s all a different process. We’ve all got things that work for us and things that don’t (and let me qualify that with a yet — because sometimes we’re just not ready for a certain technique that could come in handy with a different book or more experience). It’s really cool seeing how other people create! I’m glad you shared how it works with you!

        • I kinda wish I were more of a short story writer. In the past I wrote shorter stories, and I like being able to see it completed sooner than the many…many years it took me to finish my first novel draft, and then a few years more to revise it to the point of completion. But my ideas for years now have been long, complicated plots.

          Though I know there are some things that just don’t work for me (like going into NaNo with characters and a setting, but no plot, hoping the plot would come to me), I do enjoy reading about others’ processes and sometimes even think it would be fun to try it that way myself.

          I also enjoy talking about writing, as is evidenced by this comment threat. 🙂

  3. Pingback: Elizabeth: NaNo Countdown – 2 Weeks To Go – Eight Ladies Writing

Let Us Know What You Think

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s