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.