November will be here soon, and November means National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo.) Several new-novelist friends are taking part, and I’m very excited for them. The most common question I’m asked is: “how do I outline a novel?”
Some authors outline carefully. They love outlining, and won’t start writing until they have a 5,000 word outline. Other authors are pantsers — that is, they write by the seat of their pants. They outline little or nothing: they discover the story as readers do. They never know what will happen next.
Do you need to outline a novel before you write it?
No. Many authors won’t do it. Indeed, many say that they can’t do it. Their storytelling brain doesn’t work that way.
A friend, who’s been writing for years, and who’s made several bestseller lists says: “I hate outlines. If I try to outline, I waste so much time, because after I write the outline, I can’t write the novel. My brain seems to think that an outline is as good as a novel.”
She’s a pantser. 🙂
If the thought of outlining your novel makes you cringe too, relax. You can use my “outline as you go” strategy. Whenever I share it with a pantser, and they try it, they say it works. That said, it may or may not work for you. Try it, and see what happens.
Also, consider writing non-sequentially.
Consider writing non-sequentially: write whatever scene pops into your head
Scrivener makes writing non-sequentially easy, and over the years, I’ve learned to take full advantage of this.
Here’s how it works. (And yes, this is part of “outline as you go”.)
When I start a novel, I create several new documents in Scrivener. I label them: Character 1, Character 2, Character 3, Setting, etc.
I also create an Idea document, in which I write, in a list, Person, Situation, Outcome — this is the story of my novel, in a nutshell.
Outline as you go: person, situation, outcome
Let’s imagine that you’re starting a new novel.
You need a Person. You decide that your main character will be Nancy, who’s in college, and who’s just started working in a coffee shop.
Her Situation: she’s attracted to a man who completely ignores her. She’s warned away from him. He’s been in prison.
The Outcome: the man to whom Nancy is attracted is a criminal. He gets information from Nancy which leads to someone getting shot. Nancy learns a big lesson: judge people by what they do, not how they look, or what they say.
“Outlining” in this way means that I’ve got the basics of a novel in just a few sentences. My storytelling brain is intrigued, rather than depressed, or intimidated.
Outline as you go by telling yourself a story
I use a book journal for every novel I write. It’s always a paper journal, and I use a double page spread to outline.
I outline as I write.
Before each day’s writing session, I write some notes — just free writing, and brain storming, on the right hand page. On the left hand page, I create a mind map, or a list, of what I want to cover in that day’s writing.
Create scenes as they occur to you: write non-sequentially
Outlining as you go is an organic method. Your novel grows, without you being aware of outlining, in a formal sense.
Be prepared to write non-sequentially. In the Draft folder in Scrivener, I keep a “Scenes” folder. If I want to write a scene which won’t come up for several chapters, I place the scene’s document in that folder. Later, when I need it for the story, I drag it out of that folder, and into where it belongs in the novel.
Outlining as you go eliminates procrastination
Try this method of outlining. It eliminates procrastination, because you start each writing session by noodling in your book journal. You’ll find that the five minutes you spend on your journal leads to faster writing, and a better novel too.
Have fun with this outlining method — adapt it to your own needs.
By the way, if you don’t have Scrivener, try using Evernote for your non-sequential scenes. You can see which scenes you have at a glance.
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Updated: February 13, 2022