NaNoWriMo Prep – Step 4 – Outline

The final step of my NaNoWriMo prep is to organize all of the ideas I’ve brainstormed for my project. Usually, by the time I’m done with the brainstorm, I already perceive a core line/story I want to follow. I sit down with –you’ve guessed it– The Notebook and start building the linear structure of the story, plucking ideas from the brainstorm as I go.

Though I try to keep the summary of each chapter as short as possible, this simple, high level activity enables me to see some of the key aspects that need to be built in early for later plot points to work well. I make note of them as I go. It’s not elegant, but it bears all the main markers I need for the plot.

This outline also forces me to confront the dreaded middle and make sure I have enough interesting conflicts and major plot points so it doesn’t kill my NaNo. A boring middle part can kill motivation and productivity in a heartbeat.

This story is starting to look neat and orderly.

This story is starting to look neat and orderly.

The first draft of the outline could be the starting point for my NaNo, but I prefer to go one step further and transfer it all on post-its. I do this for several reasons:

  • By using one post-it per chapter, I severely limit the amount of information I can keep. It forces me to get rid of some of the details and only keep the essential.
  • The limited details give me a lot of room to discover the story as I write and fill in the blanks in a variety of ways. That keeps me from feeling like writing scenes is just checking items off a list.
  • Post-its are easy to move around. While I prefer to know where I’m going, I give myself the right to reorganize as I go, depending on how I fill the blanks.
  • Each post-it doesn’t have much importance. It’s not a lot of work or brilliantly written content. This makes it much easier for me to throw away/replace post-its as I go. Much like the ability to reorder, this is a key feature to help me iterate on the initial plan.
  • The plan is right there on the wall. I don’t need to access a special view in my text editor (like the corkboard in Scrivener) and I can read the whole thing in about a minute. This is good for quick check-ups mid-writing sessions.

In the end, after all the lists, steps and iterations, my NaNo novel looks like this:

Seventeen chapters planned. Order, content and number may change.

Seventeen chapters planned. Order, content and number may change.

I put this up on the wall next to my computer last night. Now I’m ready to go!

What does your final plan look like? How detailed do you feel the need to be? Do you feel ready for NaNo?

There isn’t a right or wrong way to approach writing as everyone’s brain works differently. I’ve only shared my way to give you some insight (and maybe inspiration). It took me a few novels to figure out that this was the process that worked best for me.

I’ll see you again soon with updates from the NaNo trenches. ;)


NaNoWriMo Prep – Step 3 – Brainstorm

If you’ve been following my blog for a while, you may have read my Creativity Tips about how to boost idea generation and/or brainstorm alone. The third step of my NaNoWriMo prep takes full advantage of these tips.

Now that I have settled on one idea, it’s time to take it from one-liner to outline. However, in order to get the best outline, I don’t jump to that before I’ve given tossed enough ideas around.

Back in front of my trusted Notebook, I jot down cool stuff that could happen in the story. I don’t try to put anything in chronological order. In fact, I avoid it like the plague as it is conducive to linear thinking and what I want at this point is lateral thinking (freely jumping between seemingly unrelated ideas). There’ll be time to organize the stuff later.

Anything that could potentially be a plot point is worth thinking about:

  • What type of obstacles would really challenge this character?
  • What life could he have? Friends? Family?
  • Which situation could convey different aspects of the theme?
  • What would a mental breakdown look for that character? How could he get there?

In the end, I have several bits and pieces of scenes, situations, dialogue snippets, plot twists and hints at both characterization and world-building. Some of them are improvement on ideas that came before in the process. Some others wouldn’t hold up to the least bit of fact checking. Several of them explore avenues I wouldn’t have thought about if I had tried to outline right away. Like everything in the Notebook, it’s a mess and it’s okay.

This is one of the three pages I spat out for this year's NaNoWriMo project.

This is one of the three pages I spat out for this year’s NaNoWriMo project.

By the time I was done with this, Tag, You’re Me! wasn’t just a one-liner anymore. I have a better handle on the tone of the story, the obstacles of the main character’s arc and the key components of the main plot. As exciting as it would be to start organizing this right away, I close the Notebook and give myself at least a day to let this rest and simmer in the back of my mind before I move to the next step.

And you? How do you get started on a new story? Are there things you like to think about first? Do you go in a lot of details or just get jump right in?


NaNoWriMo Prep – Step 2 – The Elimination

Once I have my list of potential NaNoWriMo projects, the hard part begins: there can only be one NaNo and the others will have to go back on the waiting shelf. Elimination isn’t easy because if an idea made it to the list, it has sparked something that I don’t want to let go of. That is why instead of trying to pick my favorite out of the lot, I do rounds of elimination.

Round 1 – Mergers

Though history has shown that the ideas on the list don’t play well with others, my first elimination pass is still to see if some of them could be merged. Sometimes, a random idea for a character goes well with a random idea for a setting and my list is marginally shortened this way. Most idea will make it to the next round, though.

Round 2 – One-Liners

I sit down with my notebook and try to write the premise/one-liner for the ideas. Any idea that fails to deliver is mercilessly cut and a lot of heads roll at this stage. Despite the attraction of the original idea, if I can’t pinpoint a core conflict that makes a good one-liner with a minimum amount of effort, I know that project can’t carry me through November.

Some ideas need a few iterations on that one-liner to get to a satisfying state and that’s okay. A one-liner is rather fast to produce and easily manageable so it’s not too time-consuming or brain-wrecking. This is what that mess looks like:

Iterations on the wording refine the focus and voice of each idea.

Iterations on the wording refine the focus and voice of each idea.

Round 3 – Analysis

This is where I stop looking at the sheer creative value of the ideas and sit down to weigh the pros and cons of the ones that made it this far. Everything is ground to add or deduct points for the score of these ideas.

Do I have existing writing for it? Is it easy to reuse or more of a “sit down and carefully think through” thing? Does it fit in a current publishing trend? Is it similar to something I’ve done before? What type of challenges do I expect from developing that idea? Etc.

This year, eight ideas made it to round 3 and only four survived it. As I analyzed the other, they turned out to be good material, but not suited for the special brand of crazy that is NaNo.

Round 4 – Public Vote

When I get to this point, I’m unable to trim down the list further by myself. I see the value in each idea and how each of the different challenges could motivate me to write at a finger-breaking pace for a month. It’s time for the ideas to meet the public.

Sometimes, I’ll discuss my ideas over coffee with friends, but since I was far away from my usual writing group this year and didn’t have time to build one in Germany, I decided to enlist the help of the WriMos from Quebec City through the forums. I asked them to vote on their favorite concept based on the following information:

1 – Oracle Warrior (codename)

Premise: Kaerea is destined to die turning the tide of a galactic war, but the people she’s meant to fight for may be the worst enemy.

Elevator Pitch: John Carter of Mars, gender-swapped, featuring a prophetess Cassandra who learned to kick ass.

2 – The One Who Sees

Premise: Lily can’t live with the knowledge that one of her clients will die, so she follows her premonitions in an attempt to save him.

Elevator Pitch: Clary’s personal journey in The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, plus a few years, minus some magic and family issues.

3 – Tag, You’re Me!

Premise: Tyrese, a body jumping addict, gets hired to use his unique skill to rescue war hostages (hopefully before he ODs.)

Elevator Pitch: Black Ops hire one of the Misfits (TV show).

4 – The Red Stare

Premise: Amber’s irises have turned bright read, telling everyone that she’ll die within the next year.

Elevator Pitch: A look on people’s relationship with death and grief or Flashforward‘s blank futures as a defining part of society.

Though the NaNo group is a small sample size, it’s good to test the initial appeal of the ideas. Usually, one of them emerges as something that intrigues the majority of voters and while it doesn’t guarantee agents, editors and readers will think the same, it still bodes well for the winner.

And you’ll find out which one won tomorrow. ;)

Do you usually have only one idea for NaNo or several? How do you choose which one you’ll write?


NaNoWriMo Prep – Step 1 – The Notebook

As a creative person, I’m “cursed” with having ideas throughout the year, often at an importune moment (i.e. just as I’m about to fall asleep). In and of itself, this is a mild annoyance. The real problem comes when the shiny new idea distracts me from the main project I want to focus on.

For years now, I have used a notebook as the receptacle of all my ideas and a bargaining chip with my brain (with which I have a love/hate relationship, as shown countless times before). The deal is simple: if it’s in the notebook, it has no place in my mind for now, but I will look at it again next October at the latest. So far, this little trick has done wonders to keep my head cleared and focused.

When October rolls around, I go through all the notes accumulated over the years that I haven’t used yet and flag the ones that catch my attention, the ones I feel I’m ready to expand upon. The notes are extremely varied in format. I literally write down everything that sounds cool in my head whether it’s a high concept for a universe or a disembodied dialogue exchange. Here’s a page for your viewing pleasure:

The Notebook is messy and that's how I like it.

The Notebook is messy and that’s how I like it.

Do some of the notes make no sense to you? You and me, both!

The purpose of the notebook is not to preserve the authenticity of the original idea. If that was the goal, I’d write every novels I thought about as they came and never finish anything. The goal is to keep the spark, which may or may not spark something similar or completely different when I get back to it. Some of them may never inspire me again and that’s alright too; I have pages of this stuff.

When a note does spark something as I read it in October, I transfer it to a list of potential NaNoWriMo projects. Once I’ve gone through the notebook, I move on to step 2 of my preparation, which I’ll share tomorrow.

What about you? Do you have a special method to compile ideas? Do you just see what October brings and go from there? Do you plan your NaNo at all?


First Quebec, then Melbourne

Hi guys,

I feel it’s time for a much needed update, so even if I’m the middle of packing bags, I’ve decided to kick my behind and blog. I enjoyed my blogging habit very much and with all the in-betweens of the past few months –some would argue that it’s more like “the past couple of years”– I need to get back to some old habits.

As you know, I uprooted my life and moved to Germany at the end of March. Despite my best efforts, the job here didn’t turn out as expected, and I’m heading back home much earlier than I wanted. Last Friday was dinner and karaoke with my Hamburg ex-colleagues/friends, and I spent the weekend in Berlin hanging out with the ex-colleagues/friends over there. I’m flying out Wednesday morning.

My next stop is my parents’ home in Quebec City where I’ll reside for a month or two while I wait for my Australian visa. Yep, you read that right! I have new job lined up in Melbourne. And yes, that does mean that by the time I get there, I’ll have moved my home to three different continents within the same year. It’s not as if you didn’t already know I’m a little crazy.

There is a few awesome things about spending some vacation time in Quebec. Besides seeing family and friends, spending some quality time getting re-blued by my favorite hairdresser and eating some poutine, it perfectly coincides with NaNoWriMo. It’ll be a blast to get through November with my usual writing group. I am oh-so-looking-forward to a month of writing, tea and craziness. In fact, I’ve decided to spend this week blogging about how I prepare for NaNo each year. It’ll give me something to do between the packing, plane connections and jet lag recuperation.

That’s it for today, folks, but I’ll be back tomorrow. ;)


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