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Quick and Dirty Outlining for NaNoWriMo

Friday, October 30th, 2015 | Posted by M Harold Page

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In a retro SF setting, Derick and Tina are freelance archaeologists. He’s a veteran soldier but she’s a poor little rich girl who thinks it’s all an adventure…

(I was going to blog about stuff related to Swords Versus Tanks (so about swords and tanks, mostly) but I’m busy editing Episode 3 (“Pyramid of Blood”) and NaNoWriMo is here…)

The writing process is always a cycle of trial and error, call it “create and tinker.” Humans are better at problem solving than inventing in a vacuum. No surprise, then, that the real story building usually happens in the tinker phase. Unfortunately, most new thoughts apply to characters and plot, e.g. we look at the scene we just wrote and realize it would be better with ninjas, and if the main character lacked her right foot. Sure we can write the rest of the book as if that were now true, but as the changes accrue, most of our first draft becomes condemned, which seems… inefficient. This is why I like outlining.

Now I think the optimum outlining system helps you engage with different levels of your story, hence my book Storyteller Tools: Outline from vision to finished novel without losing the magic. Alas, since NaNoWriMo is now on us, you’re probably feeling too twitchy to read it or anything like it!

So, here instead is a hacked-down approach that should still help…

First, Review Your Objectives

Your aim is to produce a 50,000 word novel in a month. Allowing an average of 5K words a chapter, that means a mere 10 chapters. Each chapter comprises 1 big scene or 2 regular scenes.

There are two kinds of scenes:

  • Conflict scenes where somebody battles to achieve some goal, resulting in consequences.
  • Debate scenes where somebody debates what to do. These can be more leisurely, with narrative summary  and some exploration of your story world.

Big scenes are chapter length. Standard length debate and conflict scenes pair up to make a chapter. This means that you need roughly 16 scenes, half of which are conflict scenes.

Now Write a Story Outline

Summarize your story from setup to end using the words But and However as much as possible. Don’t worry about in media res (starting in the middle of events), don’t worry about names or making it sound good, or even making it comprehensible to anybody but you. Don’t expect to do it in one shot. Tinker as much as you like. In fact, that’s the point

Specifically, write until you get stuck, then go back and tinker until you can move forward:

For example, ahem…

In a retro SF setting, Derick and Tina are freelance archaeologists. He’s a veteran soldier but she’s a poor little rich girl who thinks it’s all an adventure. They’re down on their luck, but get a lead on the Eternal Dome of the Unknowable….

Oh hang on it would be cool if…

In a retro SF setting, Derick and Tina are freelance archaeologists. He’s a veteran soldier but she’s a poor little rich girl who thinks it’s all an adventure. A mobster lone shark has impounded their ship, but get they get a lead on the Eternal Dome of the Unknowable. The mobster believes them but insists on coming with them.

Hmm, I just ground to a halt…

In a retro SF setting, Derick and Tina are freelance archaeologists. He’s a veteran soldier but she’s a poor little rich girl who thinks it’s all an adventure.

A mobster loan shark – Derick’s ex girlfriend – has impounded their ship, but a survivor from a previous expedition provides a lead to the Eternal Dome of the Unknowable. They have no proof, but a cultists kill the survivor and in the resulting fight Derick grabs a token. The token convinces Mobster, but she insists on coming with them.

They track the original expedition to the Planet of the Machine Brain. They assume that the expedition consulted the Brain. However, the queue is months long. They try to queue jump but fail. However they realise the expedition only stayed in port two weeks: the clue is on the planet, not in the data banks. They…

Better!

Keep going until you get to the end of the story, then go a little longer until you like the ending.

Count the “But/However”s. If you can’t find at least 10, go back and add some. Reread it again and make sure it feels like a summary of a real novel and not just random [expletive deleted]. Tinker until you are happy.

(Stop for a moment and imagine what these rewrites would have been like if you had been working on the actual text.)

Now, Nail the Beginning

Stories grow with the telling, so there’s no need to create a detailed outline right to the end. Instead, assuming you have a workable story outline, it’s time to grab the beginning, flesh out the outline, then draft it.

You can recognise the beginning by instinct, however a good rule is to start where the “buts” sound like you could depict them happening in real time, and end it when the characters launch into the main adventure. Stick square brackets round the lead-in that’s really back story.

Here’s my beginning:

[In a retro SF setting, Derick and Tina are freelance archaeologists. He’s a veteran soldier but she’s a poor little rich girl who thinks it’s all an adventure.

A mobster loan shark – Derick’s ex girlfriend – has impounded their ship, but ] a survivor from a previous expedition provides a lead to the Eternal Dome of the Unknowable. They have no proof, but a cultists kill the survivor and in the resulting fight Derick grabs a token. The token convinces Mobster, but she insists on coming with them.

Reread it, then open a new file and do the same kind of summary but in detail, starting from the beginning of the novel.  Don’t worry about departing from the original outline. That’s normal! Don’t, however, update the original story outline yet.

Oh and scenes generally end on a Now What? (Conflict) or a Now they must… (Debate).

Here’s my attempt:

Derick and Tina are drinking their last money, facing disaster, but a horribly disfigured Captain OSBERT approaches them. His expedition – 10 years ago – found the Eternal Dome but all met a terrible fate. He’s finally made it home and wants their help but won’t tell them where it is. They get a CLUE* out of him but CULTISTS attack and kill him. However, Tina – with no sense of danger – manages to take an AMULET from a cultist. Now what?

SVT 256

…until you reach the end of your novel, which will feel fantastic!

*Clue points to Planet of the Machine Brain.

Derick wants Tina to tap a relative for money. Tina wants him to approach MOBSTER, even though she’s (he?) is his vengeful ex. Derick thinks this is nuts, but Tina is so averse to her relatives that he agrees to approach Mobster. Mobster is convinced by the clue, but insists on coming in the same ship along with her enforcers. Tina agrees but is instantly jealous. Now they must set off to the Planet of the Machine Brain.

Once you have an outline like that, just sit down and write the chapter or chapters!

Next, Update Your Story Outline and Write the Next Bit

I’m sure as you drafted, you changed your story. That’s supposed to happen. Go back and update your original story outline to reflect the changes, and see how they affect the rest of the story.

Once you’ve done that, grab another chunk of the story outline. Whatever feels comfortable is good, however a good place to stop is the point where the direction of the story changes.

Take the chunk and repeat the process you did for the beginning: outline it in detail, draft it, then update your original outline.

Rinse and Repeat

Repeat the previous step until you reach the end of your novel, which will feel fantastic!

Your draft will have all sorts of plot holes and stylistic issues. Don’t worry, you can fix them later. The main thing is to write to…

THE END


M Harold Page has several franchise novels in print. His book Storyteller Tools is all about how he did it. You can also download  Swords Versus Tanks 1: Armoured heroes clash across the centuries! and  Swords Versus Tanks 2: Vikings battle Zeppelins while forbidden desires spark!  from Amazon.

1 Comment »

  1. […] Quick and Dirty Outlining for NaNoWriMo […]

    Pingback by Quick and Dirty Outlining for NaNoWriMo | Val Josephine - January 3, 2016 12:49 am


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