Surviving Nanowrimo # 4: To Outline or Not To Outline

There a two kinds of writers. A plotter outlines their story before writing a word of the first draft. A pantser works by the seat of their pants and discovers their story as they write. Some writers are a combination of the two. If this is your first novel, you might want to try the plotter strategy. With your second novel, try the pantser strategy. Then choose. Each writer has to discover what works best for them. Neither is wrong.

With my first draft, I am the second kind of writer. I have to trust the story to lead me to its resolution. Once I have a protagonist I care about–one that’s interesting, one I like, one that causes readers (and me) to ask questions about–I need to answer five questions:
1.What does this protagonist want? In Chad’s case, she wants her surfboard back.
2.Why do they want it? It’s the closest thing she has to a best friend.
3.What’s stopping them? Is it an external obstacle, a Voldemort, or is it an internal flaw, or is it both? In the Chad story, it’s distance and the trickery of her ex.
4.Will the protagonist get what they want? We’ll see.
5.What lesson will the protagonist learn, even if they don’t get their desire? She can stand on her own two feet.

When I begin writing the story, I don’t have the answers to those questions. This is how I discover the answers to those questions. I do not fill out a character bio or create an outline. I write several a scene which features the protagonist. For instance:
1.A scene where the protagonist acts: Chad is teaching a class of fourth graders,
2.Or a scene where others are discussing the protagonist: The school’s principal is discussing Chad bringing her surfboard to school,
3.Or a scene that provides a setting for the protagonist to act: A coming storm when Chad has to choose between teaching her class or going to the beach and riding the waves the storm sends in.

A scene is one of a series of incidents that together lead to the end of the story. It usually occurs in one place at one time and features characters in a situation. In the scene the main character must have a goal. It should be a goal that leads to the character’s story goal.

Though I don’t fill out an outline, I have seven stop points (scenes) I anticipate when I begin.Think of them as stop lights along the way to the destination at the end of the story.  But I don’t have a clue what will happen at each stop point until I write them.

But I am giving an example of the plot below so you will have an idea of the points. If you are a plotter, you can use these for the points on your outline. The eight points are divided into three acts.

Since I plot out my story as I go along, how come I know so much about “Chad and the Surfboard.” I’ve wrote the rough draft of the novel a year or so ago.

ACT 1:SETTING. In this section, the reader is introduced to the story, the major characters, and the world where the story will occur.

1.HOME. This is a scene where we meet the protagonist in their world. In Chad’s case, she is at her brother’s birthday party.

2.INCITING INCIDENT. This is when the protagonist gets a kick in the seat of their pants. It is the scene (or series of scenes) that forces the protagonist out of their comfort zone. And the protagonist doesn’t have a choice.

In a romance, it might be where Mary meets John and they hate each other. But Mary can’t get John out of her mind. In Chad’s case, she might get fired from her job teaching. Then she discovers that her boyfriend has maxed out her credit cards and drained her bank accounts to pay for a trip to Indonesia for surfing.

The rest of Act 1 the protagonist spends resisting the journey she will have to make. Chad hates what happened to her. Her best friend tells her, “I am not surprised. You always lay down and let the smucks run over you.”

It is possible that it may take several scenes for the protagonist to finally make up her mind to go after what she wants. In Chad’s case: to have revenge on the s.o.b. I have also learned that a major flaw Chad has: she picks the wrong guys.

3.PLOT POINT ONE. So far I have been driving down the road that is my story, then I come to a dead end into another road. I have to choose to turn left or right. Once the character decides to go on the novel’s journey, she must take an action to implement her choice.

Since Chad is stone cold broke, she dresses up in a disguise and robs a bank to get the money to follow her ex to Indonesia.

ACT 2. OBSTACLES. From here to the mid point of the novel, the protagonist faces a series of obstacles which prevent her from implementing her plan.

Obstacle 1. Chad’s plane is caught in the middle of a storm and crashes into the sea.
Obstacle 2. Chad is saved by one of her fellow passengers. It’s a guy that wants to be her knight in shining armor.
Obstacle 3. The two of them end up on an island with cannibals. The guy turns out to be a jerk when he abandons Chad. Through her own efforts, she escapes the cannibals.

4.MIDPOINT might be called a False Resolution. This is the scene where the protagonist believes they are either victorious or they are defeated. But she is neither. If she thinks she is victorious, she will spend the second half of Act 2 falling off a cliff. If she believes she is defeated, she will end up having to climb another mountain.

Chad finally catches up with her ex. He has won a major surfing award. He turns over the money to her.

OBSTACLE 4. Just as he’s about to kiss her, a second woman shows up and accuses him of betraying her and takes the money. Just when it looked like Chad was on top of the world, she isn’t. She feels like she can’t get a break.
OBSTACLE 5. The police show up to arrest her. She escapes with her ex’s help
OBSTACLE 6. Her ex sells her to a gang lord and she ends up waiting to be turned into a prostitute.

5.PLOT POINT TWO (Dark Night of the Soul.) This is where the protagonist is at wit’s end.


6.CLIMAX. The protagonist gathers her resources.

Not knowing where she is, Chad overcomes her guard and escapes. She is chased by the ganglord’s thugs. But she eludes them, using her smarts to do so. She finds herself on the beach and sees her surfboard. She grabs it and heads for the water. One of the guys catches her but she kicks him where the sun don’t shine. Then she heads out to sea, catches a wave and it takes her away from the beach. As she does, she sees the thugs beating up her ex.

7.RESOLUTION. Chad wins a major surfing award and pays the bank back its money.

8.FINAL SCENE. The final scene should somehow mirror the opening scene. Chad shows up at her brother’s next birthday party. She is on probation for the robbery. A guy walks up to her. “Would you like to go out?” She says, “No thanks. I already have a relationship with my surfboard.”

Have I answered my questions? What did Chad want? She wanted revenge. Deep down she wanted to quit allowing her relationships to drag her down. Why did she want that? She was fed up with being used. What would stop her? She didn’t trust herself. Did she get what she wanted? Yes because the ganglord was angry at the ex for betraying him. What lesson did she learn? Sometimes a surfboard is enough.

It’s a good thing to remember this is a rough draft and not a final draft. With a second draft, I will outline and strengthen the characters.

When initially thinking about a novel for Nanowrimo, I knew I would write 50,000 words. I split Act 2 into Part 1 and Part 2. So I divided my Acts into four equal parts of 12,500 words )with Parts 1 and 2 equal parts).

Once I have written my first draft, I often use an outline for my second draft. Because I may have forgotten elements in the story, I use a strategy called Save the Cat! Writes a Novel.

Next “Surviving Nanowrimo # 4: The Devil Made Me Do It.”

Surviving Nanowrimo # 3: Finding your character

When I begin a story, I don’t even know what the story or novel s going to be. Since I always begin with a character, I use a prompt(s) to discover my protagonist. In the case of the exercise in “Surviving Nanowrimo # 2,” I began with Chad. An opening sentence in my rough draft might go like this:

Chad didn’t have a date so she brought her surfboard to her brother’s birthday party.

That’s all I know about Chad. At this point I don’t even know if she is the protagonist of the story. It’s like meeting a stranger on the street. By the end of the story, I will know this character better than I know my best friend.

I do not do a character biography. I find it distracting to try to remember all the details in the biography and when to use them. No, the way I come to get to know this character and others is to watch them in action.

Now Chad may not be the protagonist. But more than likely she will be. The reason being that I liked her response to my question: “What’s a nice girl like you doing with a big surfboard like that in a place like this?”

Her response: “Waiting  for the Second Coming. You have heard of the Second Coming, haven’t you?”

She was interesting. And she left me with more questions. So much so that I wrote the following for a first few paragraphs:

Chad didn’t have a date so she brought her surfboard to her brother’s birthday party.

“You’ll do anything to be the center of attention,” her brother said, handing her a drink.

She laughed. “So?”

“But did you have to bring that surfboard to do it?”

“Well, I want to be ready for the Second Coming.”

““I thought it had already occurred at Ulu Watu.”

From the opening sentence, the reader is seeing the character in action. The opening line makes the reader ask questions.

Then we see her in a relationship. She is interacting with her brother. Often this is how we discover who a person is and whether we want to be around them: how they interact with others.

In the opening paragraphs, we also learn something about the kind of relationship she has with her brother. They are both into surfing.

When I first looked at the two pictures, I knew nothing about the subjects of the photographs. By putting the woman with the surfboard in the party photograph, I created a “huh” in my subconscious. I got out of the way and allowed my subconscious to come up with that first sentence. Then one thing led to the other. From these few lines, I discovered that Chad is someone I like and will enjoy spending time with.

When beginning a novel or short story, a writer has to realize she may be living with her protagonist for months, maybe years. The writer has to enjoy the protagonist’s company and care about them.

Just look at how long J. K. Rowling spent with Harry Potter. And we can tell how much she loved Harry.

And remember there are no boring characters, only boring stories. When we first meet a character, it may appear that she is a boring person. She has the same routine, the same foods everyday. She wears boring clothes and has boring friends. If a character is like that, it makes us ask the question: Why is she so boring? That may be the story.

Or the story may be about a boring person who has something interesting happen to them. This is the plot of Jerzy Kosiński’s Being There. Chauncey has been a gardener his whole life. The only experience he has of the outside world is from watching television. One day his benefactor dies. And Chauncey is thrown out into the world.

Once we see that a character is going to be a protagonist, we have to dig and discover what that character wants more than anything in the world, why do they want it and what’s stopping them. That will be the subject of “Surviving Nanowrimo # 4.”

Surviving Nanowrimo # 2

I am back with encouraging news. You can write a novel in the month of November. It not only is possible but it’s do-able. Just sit down in your chair and go to work on November 1st. Before you know it, 50,000 words have appeared on your computer screen. A few cups of coffee and a daily shot of persistence and easy peasy.

Oh, you don’t drink coffee. You’re English. Well, maybe a cup of tea is the ticket. Whatever gets your subby-conscious out of bed is the thing.

So, where to begin on that fine November 1st morning since you didn’t prepare during October? Or you’ve spent the whole month debating over which idea to choose from when you have a bucketful of ideas.

I have an exercise that has worked very well for me. It’s called What-if, and it goes like this. Mosey over to the Monochromia blog and check out the photographs for the day. Pick two.

For example: Maybe I see a photograph of a woman holding a surfboard. In a second photograph, twenty people at a party stand around in small groups of three or four.

WHAT IF the woman was at the party, standing alone in a corner holding a surfboard?
WHY is she standing alone in the corner and with a surfboard? Gotta find out.

I, the author, walk into the room. Several of the folks give me a “hi-ya doing, Uncle Bardie?”

I nod my greetings and walk over to the woman. “What’s a nice girl like you doing with a big surfboard like that in a place this?”

She turns to me. “Waiting  for the Second Coming. You have heard of the Second Coming, haven’t you?”

“I thought it had already occurred at Ulu Watu.” I’ve always wanted to use Ulu Watu in a sentence. Now I’ve had my chance.”

“Oh, that was just a prelude.”

I introduce myself. She says, “Just call me Chad.”


“Stands for Carolyn Hermione Allyson Deboit.”


Across the room, a man in his early twenties,  looks at me. After a moment, he walks over.

“You okay, Sis?”

“You know I’m not.”

He gives me a challenge, but his sister continues, “You know how I hate these parties.”

WHAT IF he gets angry.

See how the process works. Keep answering those three questions and pretty soon you have a scene. Before you know it your answers have accumulated into two thousand words on the page and you have a character you can follow to who knows where.

Initially you might want to be in the photograph. However soon you’re going to disappear unless you are a character. The important thing is to let your imagination run wild like the mustangs who used to roam free out West. If you trust your imagination, you’re going to be in for a wild ride.

Surviving Nanowrimo #1

November is almost upon us and you know what that means. Sure, we’ve got an election coming up and I am one of those who urge every eligible voter to vote. And November means Turkey Day, and that is a big yummy.

November is also National Novel Writing Month, better known as Nanowrimo. For those of you who don’t know about nanowrimo, here’s a short introduction. Beginning November 1st, participants are urged to write a 50,000 word novel in the next thirty days.

Easy peasy, right? It can be. Just means writing 1700 words a day. Which takes me a little over an hour. For some, it’s less time. For others, it’s a little more.

I’ve done it six or seven times.Each time gave me an opportunity to work out my creative muscles,and I found it a lot of fun.

Here’s a few reasons to participate:
1.Writing is a solo experience. This gives each of us an opportunity to join a community and share that experience with others.

2.It gives the writer an opportunity to try something new. Say, I’m a mystery writer. I might want to try another genre like romance or science fiction or fantasy. If I am a romance writer, I might want to tackle a mystery.

The great thing about tackling a new genre is that I get a chance to learn what elements make that genre tick. It’s like a musician who plays country. Maybe he tries his hand at rock and roll. If he does, he’s going to bring the rock-and-roll elements back to his country songs and it’s going to make for some interesting music.

Or I might just discover I like the new genre.

3.At the end, I can say you’ve written a novel. Even if I write less than the 50,000 words, I can feel like I have accomplished something. If the novel I am working on is more than the 50,000 words, I’ll have a shot of adrenaline and be able to go the distance.

4.I may not end up with a novel, but I might end up with a darn good short story. This has happened twice to me. Or I might not like the novel I have written but I discover a germ of an idea for which I actually want to write.

5.A number of novelists have published novels that began with nanowrimos and they became bestsellers. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern and Water For Elephants by Sarah Gruen are two.


Once I decided to participate, there were some things I had to realize and this is where some survival skills come in handy.

1.Nanowrimo is not about editing and perfecting my prose. My nanowrimo novel is my first draft. All first drafts are crap. Editing comes later after the first draft is finished.

2.Preparation is essential. I use October to prepare by brainstorming what I want to writer about. If I am a plotter, I will use the time to nail down my outline.

If I am a seat-of -the-pants writer, I don’t have to plot it out. But at least I need to have an idea of what is going to happen in my first scene. Say I have an idea about what I want to write. Then I might come up with some specifics to flush out that idea with a who, what, when, where and how.

Or I might have an opening line. It might be as simple as this: “Tell me a story, Grandfather.” With just that line of dialogue, I know I have two characters: a grandfather and his grandchild.

If I don’t do this Preparation gig, I will end up on the first day of November staring a blank page and going, “What am I going to write?” And that’s scary.

3.Another lesson I have learned: At the end of each writing session, or some time later that day, think about what I want to write the next day. It might be as simple as saying that the protagonist decides to take a cruise. Or he may decide he isn’t going on a cruise.

If I don’t do this, I might end up spending half my writing time trying to decide what to write. And this can lead to a case of writer’s block. Or even worse, I might be so frustrated, I quit.

To deal with this dilemma, Hemingway would end each of his writing sessions in the middle of a sentence.

Or if I don’t have a clue, I can do what I did for each of my writing sessions my first time. I began each session with a visual prompt. There’s a great blog for visual prompts called Monochromia. Each day the site posts a new group of black and whites photographs that can trigger your subconscious.

So give your creative muscles a workout. Try nanowrimo this year. I know you’ve been meaning to. Remember success doesn’t come to the talented. It comes to the persistent.

And stay tune to this blog. I will be posting seven more Surviving Nanowrimos during October.