Posts Tagged outlining
Questions…. they’re the reason a reader gets intrigued by a story. And, at the author’s end, the writing process is an entire cycle of questions, big and small, some arising out of other questions. Some of the process is figuring out the right answers. Some of it is figuring out what to ask in the first place.
If that sounds like a conundrum, some of the most important questions are conundrums in themselves. Confused?
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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.
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?
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?
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.
As NaNoWriMo gets under way, how are you doing?
Are you finding NaNoWriMo easier than you thought it would be, or harder?
I’ve never done NaNoWriMo because other projects have got in the way, but I have had to write several novels to tight deadlines – 50,000 words in two months, finished and ready for a publisher to see. It was effectively two NaNoWriMos back to back, which I did several times. I had detailed synopses, but I had to just get my head down and pound out the words. It taught me a thing or two about keeping myself at the keyboard.
Here are my top seven tips.
1. Are you getting into the scenes enough? If you’ve written a synopsis, you’ll have summarised everything. The first draft is where you turn it into living, breathing scenes. That’s how you meet the wordcount, because it takes a lot more words to write a scene blow by blow than it does to say ‘Vanessa confronts the woman who betrayed her’. In your NaNo draft, DO NOT summarise anything. Show, not tell. Try writing to music – it can help you immerse yourself. If scented candles do it for you, give yourself a Proustian boost!
2. Are you worried about the quality of what you’re writing? Don’t be. NaNoWriMo is about inventing. Editing is not allowed until the month starts with a D but you might be better leaving it until J is involved. You can’t edit as you invent, your brain doesn’t work that wayand you’ll never make the wordcount if you stop to fret over what you’ve written. So let the scenes unfold in your head, write down what’s happening and to hell with how it reads.
3. Are you getting stuck in your story? Use reincorporation. Find a thing or a character you put in the story before and work it back in to solve your problem. This is the single most useful way to solve a story problem.
4. Are you giving yourself enough credit? Make yourself visual awards. Find a way to visually represent how far you’ve got – a thermometer with coloured bars, a graph climbing slowly skywards, or any combination of these. Put them up in your work area. Yes this is just like in infants’ school where the teacher puts up rows of stars. We are primitive at heart. Reward your inner child for writing so much.
5. How NaNo is your environment? Theme your writing area. If you’ve made an ideas scrapbook for your novel, put up pictures and make the edges of your monitor or your desk into a mood board. Change them regularly to keep your interest and sense of immersion, or to kick-start your writing for the day. In December, tinsel and stuff helps you feel Christmassy; in November, decorate for NaNoWriMo.
6. Will you be derailed if you miss a day or fall behind? Everybody falls behind a little, because we all have lives to live as well as books to write. A sudden birthday or crisis need not derail your NaNo plan. Make sure your writing plan includes some slack so you can steal back time if you need to. If it doesn’t, rewrite it NOW, while you still have plenty of room for manoeuvre.
7. Remember NaNoWriMo is an experiment. You are experimenting with your muse and your writing habits by setting yourself a challenge – and a difficult one. Experiments don’t fail or pass; they produce what they produce. Some of it will be nonsense, and some will be sublime invention. This is why it’s a good thing to do, despite what its critics will say. Stay the distance and see what happens. Enjoy the journey and the surprises. That’s what it’s all about.
If you’re doing NaNoWriMo this year, how’s it going? Post up a link in the comments to let us all cheer you on! If you’re a past WriMo, what advice would you give to this year’s runners?
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.