31 Days of NaNoWriMo: Day 9 – How Do I Outline My Novel?

Honestly, y’all, I’m pumped for today’s topic. Welcome to Day 9 of “31 Days of NaNoWriMo Prep”, where we’ll be learning all about outlining your novel! If you haven’t read the other eight posts in this series so far, you can catch up here, or you can watch the corresponding YouTube videos here.

I’ll bet that you’re probably wondering why I’m so pumped for today’s topic, right? I mean, what’s so special about outlining a novel? Well, the reason I love outlining so much is because it’s exciting and fun! Sitting down and figuring out exactly how your novel is going to play out is one of the most exhilarating things I can think of doing. It means you get to take all of these ideas that have been in your head, maybe for weeks, maybe for months or even years, and finally lay them out and arrange them and decide how they fit together to create a novel. Like… wow. I don’t know, maybe I’m just a giant nerd and you don’t have any idea of why I feel this way, but I have a feeling that at least some of you get me.

Anyway, enough fangirling over the outlining process. It’s time for me to teach you how I like to outline my novels. Now, I’m going to start off with a disclaimer: I never used to outline my novels until I started writing book one of my series The Caspian Chronicles. Then again, I only ever managed to finish one manuscript before Cas Chronicles, and I’m willing to bet that there’s a correlation in there somewhere. In fact, I didn’t go into Cas Chronicles with an outline, either. It was only when I got stuck about halfway through that I realized, “Oh, maybe an outline would help me figure out where to go from here.” Alas, I was right.

So, what is outlining and why do you need to participate in this somewhat controversial writing ritual? Well, outlining is the act of plotting out your novel and/or series, from beginning to end, and there are plenty of reasons why I think it’s so incredibly important to outline. First, it helps you plan out the big events in your novel or series, and allows you to plan appropriately for foreshadowing. If you don’t know what the big moments are going to be, how do you build up to them? Answer: It’s very hard to do. Not impossible, but why would you give yourself so much extra work? It’s just not a good idea. Take it from somebody who tried to skip the outlining phase. Second, it makes the writing process faster, since you’re not making it all up as you go. It’s the difference between wandering aimlessly in a big city and having a location in mind programmed into a GPS. One will lead you all over the place, and you may find something of value, and the other will take you to a place you know has something of value that you want.

Of course, I’m not saying that both processes don’t have their perks. Wandering could very easily take you to some wonderful place that you never could have dreamed up by yourself. The thing is, though, it takes a skilled wanderer to be able to be able to find a wonderful place like that.

Okay, I’m tired of this metaphor, so let’s start calling it what it is. A “wanderer”, in the writing community, goes by the term “pantser”. This comes from the idiom “writing by the seat of your pants.” On the other hand, someone who outlines and knows exactly where they’re going is called a “plotter”, because, well, they plot. And somebody who does a little bit of both is known as a “plantser”, which is the combination of a plotter and a pantser. I have to say, I actually think I’m more of a plantser than a plotter. I still like to let my story and characters surprise me. I’m always open to discovering new things and exploring new paths that I hadn’t previously considered. However, I like to have an outline to at least keep me on track, so that, if I ever get lost in the never-ending sea of ideas, I can find my way back to the path I have planned out for my book and my series.

How do I outline, then? I won’t lie, I got my outlining technique by watching a ton of YouTube videos on the topic, and let me tell you, there are tons of different outlining techniques. There’s the snowflake method, the summary method, the free writing method, and more. But my all-time favorite method for outlining is the note card method, which goes a little something like this:

Step Zero: Take a medium-sized note card and cut it into thirds.

I mean, technically this isn’t really a step. You could totally just use regular-sized note cards. I just personally like to do it this way because it saves paper and you get three times as many “note cards.”

Step One: Make the skeleton of your novel.

This means write down the main points of your novel. How it starts, the big moments leading up to the climax, the climax itself, any big moments or reveals in the falling action, and how it ends. Try to keep what you write on each note card down to a sentence of description. You’re not writing your novel right now, you’re just planning it.

Step Two: Start filling in the gaps.

Now that you’ve got a skeleton, it’s time to put some muscle on it. Write down scenes that will lead to the big moments in your novel, like the small argument that will incite a big fight later on, or the protagonist learning a spell that will eventually be used to escape the antagonist.

Step Three: Explore the possibilities.

You’ve got a solid chunk of your outline done by now–or, at least, you should–so that means that you get to have a little bit of fun with it now. As you fill in the more mundane scenes (sub-plots, transitions, etc.), play the what-if game. Experiment with adding in scenes you hadn’t previously planned to include in your novel. Experiment with your characters’ relationships. Some people seem to think that outlining a novel takes all of the fun out of discovering new things about the story, but I personally disagree. For me, this is where most of that happens. It’s exciting, and fun, and gets me hyped up to write the novel because I just want to get to those scenes already!

Step Four: Rearrange (if necessary).

Sometimes, adding these new scenes and ideas might screw up the timeline a little. That’s why we put them on note cards, so that they could be moved around and experimented with. Nothing about this outline is permanent, even when you start writing. If you’re halfway through your manuscript and realize that this one scene would work so much better here instead of later on, then you can change it no problem! Your story has the freedom to surprise you, but at least with the outline it won’t totally derail you.

Step Five: Find a way to preserve it.

You can’t leave the outline on the floor forever, so you’re going to have to find somewhere else to put it. At home, my favorite place to stick my outline is my big closet mirror. I just use blue sticky tack and attach it to the glass. Here at school, it’s my wall (I also use sticky tack on the wall). I also make sure to take pictures of it just in case, and sometimes I even type it all out on my computer just so that I have it backed up in a couple of places. I don’t recommend doing the outline on your computer from the beginning, though, even if you have a program like Scrivener, because being physical and actually handling the note cards really helps get the creative juices flowing, at least in my experience.

A few more hints and tips I have for you:

1.) Use different colors.

This just helps you keep things separate in your mind, like the main plot, sub-plots, etc.

2.) Don’t separate your novel into chapters yet.

It may be tempting, but seriously, don’t bother. At this point you don’t really know how your novel will flow, and you’ll probably end up changing it at least five different times if you try to do it at this stage of the process.

3.) Don’t worry about your novel being too long or too short.

You can always cut or add scenes when the time comes for you to write your manuscript. For now, you just need to try your best to plan out the novel you want to write, the way you feel like you want to write it.

Whether you think you’re a plotter, pantser, or plantser, I highly recommend you at least try this method for yourself. Maybe it’ll work for you, and maybe it won’t, but you’ll never know unless you give it a shot.

If you liked this post, then make sure you check back in tomorrow for Day 10 of NaNoWriMo prep, where we’ll be kicking off a three-parter about Point of View, starting with First Person!

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