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.”

I dood it! And you can dood it too!

Yesterday morning I finished the first draft of my novel, Jackson A(fter) D(eath). I began it for the National Novel Writing Month, known as Nanowrimo by its participants, in November, 2015. The novel addresses the question of what happens to Jackson Schmidt, Nami Greene and Gar Fox after they die. It combines the spiritual pilgrimage of Shusaku Endo’s Deep River, the struggle to overcome fear of Albert Brooks’ Defending Your Life and the adventurous journey found in J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. When I complete my fourth draft, the novel will be 80,000 to 120,000 words long. Currently it is 194,786 words.

With this post, I thought I would lay out the process that produced this tome. Maybe it will encourage youse. Maybe it won’t. For quite some time, I had been playing around with the idea of what happens when we die, thinking maybe I might want to take it on for a novel. Sometime at the beginning of 2015, I decided that I wanted to participate in the 2015 Nanowrimo. I had previously participated in the experience three times, producing novels over 50,000 words each.

In 2004, I wrote Secrets of the Fourth Lithuanian. There was no Lithuanian in the novel. I liked the title. In 2009, I produced the historical comedy, The Absolutely Unbelievably Extraordinary Adventures of Lady Wimpleseed-Prissypotte. It is the story of an American heiress whose daddykins has lots of cash and momsy wants a British title. The heiress marries a British lord with one foot in the cemetery and the other in the grave. He croaks in a bowl of soup in the third chapter during their honeymoon on Gibraltar. She spends the rest of the novel searching for true love or at least a good orgasm. In 2011, I wrote a romance called Five-foot-nine and Six-foot-two. The man was the shorter of the two. So I had a pretty good idea how to write a novel of over 50,000 words in November. 2000 words a day, that’s how.

Finally in March, I made up my mind. I was going to write a novel about what happens after we die. As research, I re-read Philip Jose Farmer’s two Riverworld novels amd Shusaku Endo’s Deep River. I re-saw the Albert Brooks’ movie between March and October.

On October 1, I began working on an outline. For previous incarnations, I had pretty much written the novels by the seat of the pants and for fun. I seriously considered that I might want to publish this one. From March to October, I developed my three main characters. I had a protagonist 37 years old. I knew that he had parents who would separate in April for a divorce. Come Thanksgiving they would be back together. They had done this for 24 years. He died from a heart attack. I also knew that Nami, the heroine, would die from a bullet. Her boyfriend’s six year old son would be the one who accidentally shot her. She had been adopted and she had a sister born nine years after Nami was adopted. The sister committed suicide. The antagonist would be Gar. He would be a contract killer who was seeking revenge for his daughter’s hit and run death.

During the month, I used a tarot deck to lay out my plot, Each of the following got a tarot card and a scene:
2.Inciting Incident
3.Plot Point 1
4.Pinch 1
6.Pinch 2
7.Plot Point 2
10.Final Scene

I saw this outline as a map. It didn’t mean there wouldn’t be changes. There would. I thought of the map as a route drawn out  between Orlando and Los Angeles broken into four separate days. I saw each of the ten as stopping off points. Instead of just writing toward an End, I wrote toward each of them. With the outline, I knew the situation, the What. I didn’t know the how. It was the hows that often surprised me. In the past, I would have had to stop and think what’s next. I knew the what this go-around. I didn’t get stuck in writersblockdom. I have to tell you that this outline saved my rear-end.

It was Sunday, that November 1st day, and a beautiful day. For the past six months, I had changed my writing schedule. Come hell or highwater. I woke up early, got myself a cup of joe, sat down at my ‘puter and wrote for five minutes to a visual prompt. Then for the next hour or two, I worked on my current project. At the end of that writing time, I got up and didn’t worry about writing for the rest of the day. Oh, sure. I would take a note if I got a good idea. I felt like I had accomplished something at the end of the session each day and I thoroughly enjoyed that feeling. My goal for this writing schedule for Nanowrimo was 2000 words. Easy peasy.

I was excited about beginning my Nanowrimo-in-residence. I had thought about nothing else for the previous week. I was a ready teddy, ready to put the words to the blank page. That Sunday morning I did what I usually did. Half conscious and just barely awake, not a good way to edit but a great way to write a first draft, I opened up my word processor and did my five minutes on a new-born prompt. It was an easy pregnancy. Next I started a new file. My coffee mug sat next to me, encouraging, “You can do it.” I like it when my coffee mug does that. I opened up my Outline and read my notes. Yep, that was where I was sposed to start.

I did a “Chapter One” at the top center, then I set the cursor where the first paragraph was sposed to write itself. Nothing. Nada. Not one word. I screamed a few s-words and a few f-words. As you writers out there know, that never works. I turned to my coffee mug and begged and pleaded. She wasn’t playing by the rules. She wasn’t giving up the words I needed. Am I going to be sitting here all day, staring into el-blanko. I got things to do. You know, that bottle I planned to drink to celebrate. An hour went by. Two. Still nada. For the fifty-seventh time, I got up and poured another cup of mud and checked my outline. Nothing. I was not about to get out of jail free.

Then Muggie spoke, “Why not just write around that first scene?”

“Huh?” I say that when I am being stupid.

“Why don’t you just write around that first scene?”

“How do I do that?”

“Back story,” Muggie said and winked.

“I could do that,” I said. And thus it was that I wrote my first words: “In the beginning…” No, no, no. That’s not it. I wrote, “When Sam and Kate met, height was not an issue.” I suddenly knew that this was the Protagonist’s parents. I was going back that far. There must be a reason and Muggie was encouraging me.

So off I went, not on a wild goose chase but toward the story I had outlined. For the next two weeks, I wrote back story, then I came to the first scene, The Hook/Opening Scene. I just kept going. After the writing was finished for the day, I would spend the rest of the day, thinking about what was next. If I didn’t have a what’s next at the beginning of my writing session the next day, it was a slog. If I had a pretty good idea, it was fast and furious. By the end of November, I had over 60,000 words.

Did I quit? Did I rest on my laurels? I did not. December 1, I did what I had done the previous day. I got up, got my coffee, did my prompt, then continued on my novel. I was bound and determined to get ‘er done. Only my word count for the day changed. I changed it to 500 words. If I wrote more, great. If I didn’t, no prob.

With my Outline, I had a pretty good idea what was next. But getting there was always interesting. There were times when I lost a character. There were times when the Titanic sank. There were times when every Tom, Dick and Harry wanted to go left instead of the right I had planned. So I let them. They wanted to see the angels try to get through the head of a pin. I let them. They wanted to see the world’s biggest ball of twine. We saw the world’s biggest ball of twine. They wanted to visit Napoleon while he was getting ready for his Waterloo. We did that too. But pretty soon we were back on course.

So what did I learn?
1.The outline kept me from giving up. It wasn’t the 10 Commandments. More like the 10 Suggestions.
2.Breaking down a novel into daily baby steps is truly helpful. It takes away the fear of being overwhelmed by the big project.
3.When I write daily, my writing gets better. When I write daily first thing in the morning, I don’t feel guilty that I have neglected my work. I can go about my day with a hop, a skip and a jump. And occasionally a big Whoopee.
4.When I’ve finished my writing session, I can set it aside and feel confident I have done what I was supposed to do.
5.This is just a first draft. It will be crap.
6.I have found a process that works for me.
7.It’s great to have a coffee mug, talking to me.

Not sure this is helpful to any of you out there. But like everything in life, my storytelling continues to be a road to discovery. Even when I think I can’t do something, I know I can. I just have to sit my rear end in the chair, stare at the blank page and let Muggie give me instructions. Serially, it is only by the doing that we creatives learn. That is the ultimate lesson I have learned. And will continue to learn over and over again.

That’s easy. I have to mow the dreaded grass. Oh, you mean with the novel? I put it away for three months. At that time, I will print it out and read it straight through. Then I will go back and read it a second time, making notes. Breaking the novel up into scenes. I will power point each scene. Then I will write the second draft. Then the third. Then a final fourth and it will be dressed up in its Sunday best, ready for the world.

The Beast That Is Nanowrimo

PrintI completed 55,004 words last Saturday to qualify for Nanowrimoship. A good deal of the month I worked on back story and extracurricular scenes for the novel I began in November. I wrote six chapters toward the final product. I plan on continuing with 500 – 1000 words a day until I have completed a first draft. The nice thing was that I gave myself permission to write a Titanic load of unreadable crap. 

Having done my Nanowrimo this year, I have come up with an image that kind of goes along with the exercise. Writing a nanowrimo is like riding a bull or a bronco at a rodeo. You get on, then you are in for a wild ride. And it ain’t like riding that mechanic bull you see in some bars. This one’s wild as wildness can be. He’s bound and determined you ain’t going to get far on his back.

That’s why the prize money for bull riding is good and the respect you get from your peers is second to none. You’re a champion indeed if you can stay on even for eight seconds. It’s like John Lennon said in the song, “Christ, you know it ain’t easy.” Or Ringo sang, “It don’t come easy.” That’s the way it is with the bull we call Nanowrimo.

No matter how you practice for that sucker, it ain’t like riding the real thang. You get on, then the chute opens and you’re in for the write of your life. I ought to know. I’ve done four of ‘em. Nanowrimos, that is. Not bull rides or bronc bustings. I may be a little nuts but I’m not crazy, you know.

I started out well enough. October 31 I had my spurs and my chaps all ready to saddle up and write that fellow into the dust. I had my outline. I had pictures of my main characters. I knew who they were and they knew who I was. And to cliché a phrase, I was chomping at the bit to get at that Nanowrimo. He was not about to best me this year. Sure, he was a little red-eyed and had that snarl. That’s to be expected.

So it was Sunday morning, November 1, and I rose from my bed. I grabbed my big mug of coffee. One thing was for sure. I knew I wasn’t going to get a good ride out of that bull without a cup of joe. I strapped on my chaps and my spurs and headed for the chute. I lowered myself easy to the chair, then I faced the future. The blank page.

I checked out my outline. I perused my notes. The bull just wasn’t ready to fly from the chute. He’d gone tame on me. What was I to do? Go choose another bull. It was too late. It was this one or it was nothing. Well, you can imagine my surprise when I found my way to getting this bull to get up and go.

I started on a scene not in the outline. “What? You can’t do that,” you say. But, oh, I can. It is written by the scribe who writes such things that I can. I took a gander at my outline and started to wander what really happened to get this booger going. Why was Mr. Main in the mess he was in? Had he been messing where he shouldn’t have been messing? Well, you can imagine my surprise when I finished almost a thousand words that first day. I was going to write this bull or it was going to ride me.

Over the next few days, well, actually it was more like over the next week or so, I wrote 25,000 words and more. I was up to that first scene. If I didn’t know where I was going, I let the beast take over and lead me wherever. I would sit down to work on a scene and start writing, then somewhere a character, a prop or even a setting showed up unplanned. All I could say, “Very interesting.” Then continue on.

Now after thirty days of sweating the blood, sweat and tears it takes to ride a Nanowrimo, I actually have six chapters of my 80,000 word novel that I began as a nanowrimo. It’s been a tough ride but I managed to stay on that bull’s back for the entire thirty days of November and then some.

Yes, the novel is unfinished. I fully expected that. I wasn’t even expecting the complete first draft to be done. I will continue to work on it in December and into 2016. Once it’s done, I shall take the seventh day off and do some well-deserved resting. Then it will be back to shaping all that bull into one heck of a novel. And it will be good.