Oh, she means outlines, you might think.
But no, in fact, I don’t.
Outlines are key for writing non-fiction manuscripts, in which the author needs to present information in an organized format, but fiction is a whole different animal.
In my novel-writing experience, outlines kill creativity. I’ve written a couple novels that stuck right to the outlines I prepared for them. I would write a scene, then have to look and see what to write next. I didn’t write anything without consulting the outline first because I was afraid of messing up what I wanted to happen later in the plot, but the result was that they read like someone dragging the novels along against their wills. Those novels are now collecting virtual dust because I haven’t touched them in years.
There is a time to tidy up your mess of a novel, and it’s the next stage: editing. When writing, it’s good to have bullet points, things that you know need to happen over the course of the story, but I am here to say that some of the scenes I thought were the most important at the start of a book ended up on the cutting room floor.
If you’re querying and have to provide an outline, you should create it from a book you’ve already written, not the other way around. But that’s not to say that I think books—especially serial novels—should be written without any direction whatsoever. This is where the book birth plan comes in.
If you’ve ever had a baby and tried to have a birth plan, you’re probably laughing. From experience, I can tell you that birth plans are often tossed out with the bath water (just not with the baby). It’s more about comforting the soon-to-be parents by letting them think they have control than actually checking off every box on the list.
So if you’re gearing up to start your novel on November first, what would your “birth plan” look like? How will you know you’re ready to tackle this huge task?
I have a file for “notes” for every one of my NaNoWriMo novels. For my first, I didn’t even decide to participate until late October, so there was no time to plan at all. I had a few scenes in my head and just let the story flow with a vague idea of what I wanted to happen. Once I started writing, I wrote notes, like a quick reference guide, so I wouldn’t have to scroll through the entire document to remember something like a character’s birthday.
The next two years, I had notes already written before I started, so I had a general idea of where the books were going, but like having a baby, they certainly didn’t cooperate with all my expectations. The one thing I wish I’d done with the third book in particular was to decide on how to begin the thing. That little hiccup had me stuck in front of a blank document for a long time.
So write notes, by all means, like how to start your book (who’s narrating? where does it happen? etc.). You can scrap that scene or put it somewhere else later, but at least it will get you rolling.
If you’re dying to write a scene but know you can’t until November, jot down the parts you don’t want to forget: “Brenda runs into her ex at the store”; “Josh’s future plans change when he doesn’t make it onto the football team.” Your character(s) may have a complicated family tree, or you may have a timeline that jumps all over the place. Write these down if you’re afraid you’ll forget, but don’t stay married to them! Therein lies the trap. Read over your “plan” before you start typing on November first, but then set it aside, and write whatever wants to be written. You may discover that your story has some surprises that you never imagined—and that wouldn’t be realized if you stuck to a rigid plan.
This year, I know how I’m going to start the book and certain events that I want to happen, but this one is more about the characters than the plot. And there is every possibility that these characters will be difficult. Actually, I kind of hope that they are. Since I won’t actually be having a baby, it should be fun to see how far this story deviates from the “plan.”