Nov 09 2009
So we’ve discussed some of the challenges of working within the NaNoWriMo structure. I want to chat about something that came up over the course of this weekend’s discussions, but don’t be scared, it won’t hurt TOO much. We’re going to talk a bit about outlines.
Now that some of you have gotten the high-school-programmed groans and initial aversive responses out of the way, let’s look further. First let us clarify that making an outline, in whatever form, doesn’t mean your eleventh-grade English teacher is suddenly going to pop up and start giving you a grammar lecture while you sit in your underwear in front of the class. Nor am I trying to say that you “should” outline your work; it might help you to develop a wariness of anyone giving you writing advice full of “shoulds” or the “one True Way to write practiced by All Real Writers”. But looking at the NaNoWriMo program again, with our ego blinders off…
Many writers that I know will change how they approach their writing depending on what is due and when. Something you’re writing on spec and not to contract or deadline gives you much more license to explore the fullness of your creative process–the fits and starts and erratic progress and long pauses and forward leaps so many of us are familiar with. It really does take time, discipline, and usually much practice to write regularly even when the muse is on vacation. So what happens when you need to scribe a whole bunch of words (for a deadline or for NaNoWriMo) and that isn’t the way you normally write, or you haven’t figured out your own brain-hacks yet? That’s the nice thing about writer toolboxes: the little tips and tricks you learn to get words on the pages in various ways come in handy both when you’re stuck and when you need to change writing gears and keep going. Now let’s glance back at that outline idea.
If you’re trying to write a ton of words quickly, and the clock is metaphorically ticking, it’s giving yourself a difficult additional hurdle to also try to generate all the needed ideas, information, characters, and action that the story needs on the fly, right as you’re deep in the wordcount crunch. One way you might make an end run around that problem is to consider sketching out (in whatever form that comes easiest to you) enough ideas about what comes next in the story that you don’t have to flounder so much for that part of it when you get to the words. But never fear, you still don’t have to dust off all those Roman numerals and caps and lowercase alphabet soup if you’re disinclined to that form. (Although have at them, if you like that style. Nest those little buggers to glory and fame!) While certainly an outline can take a very linear form (and some of you might even like that!), you can also get creative with it.
Some writers use index cards. You write a line describing a scene or major point in the action, and use a card for all of those scenes you have, then shuffle the cards around into the order that makes sense to you, figure out any gaps and fill them in, number the cards in your chosen order, and write the story from there. A couple of writers I’ve listened to who use this method say they think it works really well for writers who have a strong tactile sense; the physical act of moving the cards around into a story order seems to help these types of writers. (And there’s more advice on this method to be found online; if this interests you, do a search!)
There are other approaches. You can sketch out in your outline the major points, the scenes you already *know* you want to include in the story. Figure out what order those go in, then spend some time thinking about the smaller stops along the story path that lead you from point to point. You can use a dry erase board for a more malleable visual cue, or posterboard that you pin up on the wall and stare at, with notes for characters and plot and everything else in their own marker color (or not).
Other ideas similar to outlining that I’ve tried include a notes file where you don’t bother to organize, you just jot down anything you think of that you aren’t writing at that moment but that might be relevant to your story. My current novel-in-progress has a notes file that is over 60 pages long at this point, quite a lot of which I’ll likely never use. It was still useful to do, and it’s fun to search through when I need that inspiration for “what next”, even if I don’t always find what I’m looking for there. I’ve also done the “novel draft as outline” approach. My first draft for this novel is essentially 150-plus pages of really detailed characterization scenes and vague ideas of what actually happens. I declared the first draft “done” when I significantly changed my approach to writing the next draft, and the declaration was itself a nice psychological weight lifted from my creative process at that time. In addition, that first never-to-be-seen-by-others draft has in effect served as a rough “outline” for the next draft, which is not only much better prose but more coherent narrative besides.
What are some of your own ideas for getting enough of a clue about what you want to write in order to get bogged down less in the wordcount phase of the process? Do you keep it all jumbled in your head, outlined in your head, or jumbled or outlined outside of your head? I’m always interested in hearing how individual people adapt these ideas to their own needs.