Posts Tagged outlining a novel

Planning your story – a checklist for success: and win Nail Your Novel in print!

chapbkI could have called this post ‘pantsing – a capsule wardrobe’, but along with novel-nailing that might have been a metaphor too far.

Some writers plan to the ennnnnth degree. Before they write, they prepare a trunkload of ideas, route maps and background. Then we have the scribblers who travel light. Just the barest plot twist, perhaps a skinnily-honed last line or a little black denouement. (Actually, I’m warming to this wardrobe theme.)

So if you’re in the former category, what mustn’t you forget? And if the latter, what’s the bare minimum you can get away with?

Today I’m at a festival called Chapter Book Challenge, a month-long event that aims to galvanise writers to write a chapter book in just a month. I’m zoning in on the essentials for the drafting process – and as an added bonus, commenters on the post (THAT post, not this one!) will get entered into a draw to win a paperback copy of Nail Your Novel, original flavour, which is packed with essentials for getting you from first idea to final draft. Come on over to find out what every well-dressed novel is wearing...

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Troubleshoot your novel outline

514733529_d024f328b5_zAs you saw last week, I’m plotting The Mountains Novel on cards. I know the big picture – how it begins, where the characters can go and what the final note is. I’m now shuffling the events to get the strongest order and viewing the results with a critical eye.

Here’s what I’m looking for.

1 Finding the logic gaps

Is a story beat missing? Should a character react to an event? Is there a consequence I should cover?

2 Characters fitting the plot

Am I forcing a character to do something to suit the plot instead of what comes naturally to them? Is anyone behaving for the plot’s convenience, instead of the truth of the story? For instance, is someone doing something dumb so that the plot can advance?

This isn’t always bad, by the way. Sometimes characters do things that aren’t in their best interests or that spoil things for themselves – and it’s part of their complexity. And if they do, I need to make a feature of it.

3 Is anything predictable?

Could I introduce more twists and surprises? While plotting step by step, it’s easy to follow an obvious pattern. Now I need to make sure everything happens in the most interesting way, and look for opportunities to misdirect the reader or reinforce my themes. I also need to watch out for convenient coincidences.

4 Mood

I’m wondering if I need comic relief? The Mountains Novel is quite elegaic, and too much might get monotonous or precious. I’m looking for opportunities to add lighter moments so that I don’t wear the reader out.

5 Other rethinks

I’ve realised I’ve called two characters by the wrong names. One of them started out as comic relief, a variation on a stereotype who would give the reader something familiar to follow in a bizarre situation. But he is now so much of an individual that the name seems crude. This is annoying, because when I invented it I was rather delighted. But funnily enough, it would suit another secondary character, whose role must change because of the character who has developed. Can I adjust my mental image of the name? Or should I (reluctantly) consign it to outtake history?

6 Reviewing my wrong turnings

While I was conceptualising The Mountains Novel, I wrote reams of notes for possible story directions. With each new exploration, I didn’t dare read the old material in case I lost my way. But now I’m confident in its direction, I can look back over those early conjurings and see if there is material that might be useful. Many of them won’t fit, but some will add richness.

Thanks for the bicycle pic Vrogy

nyn soloYou can find other tips on outlining and troubleshooting in Nail Your Novel, which writing teacher and literary agent Lisa Cron recently recommended as part of her shortlist of essential writing books (hooray!).

newcovcompawesome sealAnd – hooray #2! My Memories of A Future Life (nailed novel) has been given a Seal of Excellence for Outstanding Independent Fiction by Awesome Indies. This was a big surprise as they first assessed it two years ago and I never thought they’d even remember it. Thanks, guys!

Do you troubleshoot your outline? If so, what kinds of things have you changed that made a big difference?

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A site to help you fill the gaps in your story outline

I’m shuffling ideas for The Venice Novel and I’ve come across a fantastic site that’s helping me clarify where I want to take the story.

It’s called Television Tropes and Idioms. But don’t be fooled by its name. Tropes doesn’t mean cliches; it means story conventions and readers’ expectations. In fact, you can use the site as a cliche and stereotype warning – it tells you what’s already been done to death so you can keep your story and characters fresh and original. And the site includes movies and novels as well – of all types, all genres (and even stories that don’t fit easily anywhere).

I’m using it to fill gaps. At the moment I have a rudimentary cast of characters and a fundamental conflict, so I need to see what else could gather around it. Poking around in the subject sections (‘topical tropes’, in the left sidebar) suggested a lot more places I could take the characters and ways to develop the plot. It also gave me ideas for more defined roles my characters could play.

If you want to hit a particular genre, zip down the left-hand sidebar and look up ‘literature’ and you’ll find a list of categories to clarify where you fit. You can also check you’ve covered enough bases to satisfy readers and identify possibilities you might not have thought of.

But even if you don’t fit traditional pigeonholes (like certain folks I could mention), you can look up story ingredients, such as ‘war’, ‘betrayal’ or ‘family’ – just for instance, under the latter you get a delicious sub-list with suggestions like ‘amicably divorced’, ‘hippie parents’, ‘dysfunctional’.

Some writers get their first inspirational spark from a setting – if that’s you, you can research how other authors have done your setting justice, from pre-history to ‘4000 years from now (and no jetpack)’.

One of the other things I like about it – very much – is its tone. No judgements are made about whether genres are fashionable, overworked, lowbrow or highbrow. It’s all about celebrating how stories work – or sometimes don’t. As we know, that comes down to the writer’s skill anyway, not whether a ‘subject’  is en vogue. And after a few hours in the company of their rather breezy descriptions, not only will you be better informed, you will be spurred to avoid the lazy story decision.

If you’re sprucing up your outline – especially as NaNoWriMo looms – spend an afternoon exploring Television Tropes and give your story a thorough workout.

Do have any go-to sites when you’re planning a novel – and how do you use them? Share in the comments!

You can find tips for researching, outlining and what makes a robust story in my book, Nail Your Novel – Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence. Available on Kindle and in print. You also might like my multimedia course with Joanna Penn – more than 4 hours of audio and slides with an 86-page transcription – find it here.

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How to outline your story for National Novel-Writing Month – checklist

Are you making an outline for NaNoWriMo?

We all need different levels of planning. Some writers like a step-by-step map so they can settle back and enjoy telling the story to the page. Others want the joy of discovery while their fingers are flying.

However you do it – whether formally beforehand or as your wordcount builds, these are the questions you need to tackle. (And even if you’re not doing NaNoWriMo, you might find them useful.)

Why is this story going to grab a reader?

All stories need to dangle a lure – an element of intrigue, the remarkable, the sense of something unstable, a disturbance. That could be:

  • a literal outrage like a murder
  • a dilemma that puts a character in an impossible position
  • an event that appears to be ordinary to you or me, but is a profound challenge in the character’s life.

Unless you are deliberately exploring the ‘anti-remarkable’, ask yourself what will make the reader curious from the start? Something exciting? Something weird? Something horrifying, unjust or wrong? Something comical? Something the readers will recognise as part of their own lives? This will probably be your way into the story too.

What do the main characters want?

Why are your protagonists and antagonists compelled to take part in the story? Why couldn’t they just turn around and walk away?

What is the first change that starts the story rolling?

Why does the story begin where it does? Have you started too soon, in order to get set-up in? Might you be better cutting those scenes and filling in the back story at natural moments further in? Or have you started too late and missed some moments the reader will enjoy?

How does it escalate?

No matter how bad the situation looks from the start, it needs to get worse or the story will seem stuck. As the narrative goes on, the events and what people do must matter more. The price of failure must rise. If you’re writing in conventional three-act structure, which movies follow, there will be definite points where the story shifts into new gears – these will be the quarter, half-way and three-quarter marks. But even if you aren’t, you need a point where everything totally blows up, and a moment where the characters feel the worst has happened.

I never would have thought…

How does the story take directions the reader wouldn’t have guessed – and how will you convince them that they are fair?

Is it still the same quest as it was at the start?

Most stories start with the main characters wanting or needing something, but that goal can change. A simple search for a lost dog becomes a crusade against the fur trade. Perhaps at the end your characters want the opposite to the thing they fought so hard for in the early days. Stories where the characters’ priorities shift are very powerful. Stories where they don’t can seem predictable.

In the end…

What does your ending resolve? How has the characters’ world changed? Can the story really go no further? Is anything left unresolved – and if it is, does that suit your needs?

Characters  

Speed is of the essence in NaNoWriMo and it’s much easier to write characters when you’ve spent time getting into their skins.

Do you know a few trivialities about their daily lives? You might need a hobby for them to do to get themselves out of the way, or a commitment that might put them on a particular road when something happens. Have a list of a few likely trivialities about your characters, and then when you need one you don’t have to stop the flow.

But if you don’t have time for that, just insert a tag such as [findout] and come back to it in the revision.

Much more important is to know how they relate to each other in the story – because the best plot moments will grow from friction and alliances. Do you know who gets on with whom (or would if they got the chance to meet)? Which characters would never understand each other? If you gave them all the same challenge, how would they show their different mettles? Which story events will really push someone’s buttons?

Thanks for the pics Wonderlane and Takomabibelot

That’s my template for starting a NaNo novel. What would you add? Share in the comments!

You can find tips for researching, outlining and what makes a robust story in my book, Nail Your Novel – Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence. Available on Kindle and in print. You also might like my multimedia course with Joanna Penn – more than 4 hours of audio and slides with an 86-page transcription – find it here.

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