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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  1. #1 by mgm75 on September 9, 2013 - 11:40 am

    We spend a lot of time focusing on the biggies that we tend not to give too much thought to the minor or the unconventional traps.

    Your tips are proving useful at the moment as I work through my own novel. Thanks as ever Roz!

    • #2 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on September 9, 2013 - 7:48 pm

      Hi Mgm! Yes, that’s exactly the point. Once I’d got the big picture, I realised I needed to make sure there were places where I hadn’t forgotten to think! The more I sort out now, the more I’ll enjoy the actual writing. I’ll still carry on inventing, but will be able to concentrate on details that add even more gloss.
      Glad my ramblings here are proving useful – and thank you for saying so!

  2. #3 by jennifermzeiger on September 9, 2013 - 3:41 pm

    I need to try the outlining on cards. Might help me see storyline better=)

    • #4 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on September 9, 2013 - 7:50 pm

      Hi Jennifer – it’s a real lifesaver. Honestly, before I did this I wasn’t sure I had enough material. Now I have a scaffold and I know where I’m going. Also, with this much established, it enables me to be more confident and critical, which means the book will be better. And it’s fun and creative!

  3. #5 by Jae on September 9, 2013 - 4:53 pm

    Great tips!

  4. #7 by raulconde001 on September 9, 2013 - 5:47 pm

    We sometimes get stuck on how to move on one scene to get to the next ones. Excellent advice on troubleshooting, and outlining! Thanks Roz!

  5. #9 by Daniel R. Marvello on September 9, 2013 - 10:27 pm

    I definitely troubleshoot my outline. Like you, I try out several different ways for the story to go. With my WIP, I was unhappy with the ending, so I tried a couple of different approaches. One of alternatives really clicked with me. The implications of the new ending rippled all the way back through the outline to the beginning, and it worked like a zipper pulling together threads of the story in ways I hadn’t anticipated. I had to delete several scene ideas and insert new ones, but I like the new outline much better.

    • #10 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on September 10, 2013 - 8:59 pm

      Hi Daniel! Yes, I always get better results if I tell myself ‘the first solution won’t be the best’. I also write great long lists of pros and cons whenever I have a new inspiration. That’s the way to find, as you put it, the zipper!

  6. #11 by darsword on September 10, 2013 - 7:19 am

    I have to reblog this! Great ideas!

  7. #13 by darsword on September 10, 2013 - 7:21 am

    Reblogged this on Darswords and commented:
    I’m going to keep these in mind as I rewrite and edit what I have already written. AND I will keep it in mind as I outline for NaNo. Yikes! It’s coming soon!

  8. #14 by jumpingfromcliffs on September 20, 2013 - 9:18 am

    Ah, those convenient coincidences. They’re irresistible because they’re just too… well, convenient… they save me a lot of thinking time. At least until I realise I have to get rid of them all or face never getting readers. Great post Roz, thanks.

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