In an earlier blog, I wrote about how NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) reignited my love of writing. That inspirational month is almost upon us again, and I’m dithering over what to write this time. I have an idea for a psychological thriller, which is outside my wheelhouse but is also a genre I enjoy reading. I also have the third WIREGIRL novel lined up. Or maybe I should try something completely different? It’s hard to decide.
Whatever I choose, I know I’m going to go into November with a solid outline. I never used to be an outliner. In NaNo lingo, I was a “pantser.” Someone who writes by the seat of their pants, never looking farther ahead than necessary. A famous analogy compares writing to driving in the fog.
“Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”E.L Doctorow
I used to enjoy the freedom of not knowing where the story was taking me, and I often thought that if I didn’t know what was going to happen next, there was no way the reader could anticipate the plot twists either.
I no longer think that’s true. If I don’t know where the story is going, I’m more likely to either a) write something nonsensical that turns the reader off, or b) write the first idea that comes into my head, which is probably the most obvious direction and is easily predicted.
As my career progressed, my opinion on outlining changed. A couple of key events turned me into the planner I am now.
Some Action & Adventure
When I wrote my sadly defunct novel for Pathfinder, I had to turn over an outline first. That might have been the scariest part of the process—I wasn’t an outliner by nature. When I did send outlines, they tended to look like this (my original outline for “Whispers in the Wastelands” from the IRON GODS Adventure Path):
So the first story has Protag teaming up with the android, getting cyber-armed, and heading out into the wasteland to escape the Technic League (which kind of sounds like “technically” if you say it out loud). Once they’re out in the wilds they find Robo stuck in a rut–literally. Some kind of rockslide has trapped the little ‘bot and he’s wearing a groove in the stone trying to get out. Protag finds that his cyber-arm gives him unusual strength and he’s able to free Robo, who immediately takes off in a straight line. Android notices a symbol (? Maybe a number pattern?) on Robo’s case that matches one on the cyber-arm. Hoping to find a way to remove the cyberware (and learn cool Pathfindery stuff), Protag follows after.
Unbeknownst to the duo, ShadyRobotThief follows along. SRT used to be a junior-level member of the Technic League. He thought he believed fervently in the tenets of the group and he served faithfully until the point where the League asked him to do something evil. Not just evil, but horrible and gruesome (some kind of experiment, probably). Still fleshing out this part but SRT wasn’t able to commit the act and fled instead, but the split between his belief and his ability drove him a little nuts. He wants to return to the Technic League for another chance and thinks Robo would make the perfect peace offering. (I might do a few scenes from SRT’s point of view to reveal some of this backstory and underscore the ‘belief’ theme–the line where belief must become action).
There’s some action and adventure, exploring the downed satellite piece of the spaceship, skirmishing with the League and whatnot. They get back to Protag’s village and he faces some huge problems with his cyber arm (which is maybe getting stronger as they get closer to the ship). Then, drama! SRT kidnaps Robo! This is especially shocking because Protag’s arm generates some kind of empathic link with Robo. Robo’s not just a machine, he’s got some intelligence and personality too (thinking the equivalent of a robot dog–friendly and curious but currently driven by the return-signal). Protag has been building a relationship with Robo and is genuinely distressed by Robo’s disappearance.
Protag and Android hunt down and defeat SRT, but through commune spells (or something similar) and/or visions from Brigh, Android learns Robo’s purpose. He’s to be assimilated into the spaceship for repairs, but the effort will be futile. Too much of the ship was damaged and too many repair-bots were destroyed to ever restore the ship. I’m still working on this part, but basically to save Robo, Protag sacrifices his arm. Maybe not literally, but something like he shoves the cyberware into the “main computer” or whatever and the resulting electrical shock causes terrible nerve damage or something.
As you can see, details weren’t my strong suit. “Some action and adventure happens” was a common sentence in most of my “outlines.”
But I was moving in the right direction, and after I wrote an actual outline for my Pathfinder novel, I started to realize how nice it was to work on a book with the ending already in mind. Then I promptly went ahead and did exactly the opposite.
Driving the Death Race
After I wrote WIREGIRL for NaNoWriMo, my gaming group encouraged me to turn it into a “real” novel. This was a difficult process, as the original text was heavily steeped in game world mechanics and lore. I had to strip all that out and build the book from the ground up. By the time I finished, I was exhausted, and I vowed never to write another major project without an outline again.
Fast forward to October 2018. I had finally completed WIREGIRL to a place I was happy with, and I had a great idea for a sequel. Even though I hadn’t found a publisher for the first book, I decided to go ahead with a second. I’d joined a couple of NaNoWriMo support groups and forums, and I started to hear about “Preptober.” The idea was to spend the month of October preparing for your writing launch on November 1st.
Preptober came in a variety of flavours. There was InstaWrimo, which sparked creativity through pictures. There are dozens of guides that come up on personal blogs with a quick search. There are official NaNo events as well.
Eventually, I found a blog guide that I liked: the Prep Calendar from Writing.com. I decided to follow it and plan out my next novel—WIREGIRL: DEATH RACE.
It was like magic! When the time came to write, I had so much of the book planned. All I had to do was sink into my world and characters and have fun. It was exhilarating.
The outlining process didn’t work perfectly. I had trouble with the ending of DEATH RACE and had to revise the outline several times. But I learned each time, and now I have a system that works very well for me (I think. I hope!) And I’m looking forward to trying it again this year.
My plan is to start a blog series for Preptober, walking you through exactly how I outline a novel. Then, hopefully, I’ll actually write it.
I probably won’t blog every day, but I can sum up the exercises once or twice a week. I’ll share the changes I made to the original prep calendar and my thought process as I work through the characters, plot, setting and structure. I might even post polls for ideas on what I should do next or what plot twists to include.
Sound fun? Great! Let’s start with a poll on what kind of book I should outline:
This is going to be fun. Looking forward to the magic of outlining and NaNo again this year!