Outlining Nerdiness

I must confess, I’m a complete outlining nerd.

I scheme, plot, sketch and play around with my ideas pre-November, stopping just short of the ‘No prose before November’ rule.

When I tried discovery writing (Nano ’09 and ’10), I found myself wandering aimlessly from November 5th onwards. Though I enjoyed writing these novels, I know that’s really not what works best for me.

That’s not to say discovery writing isn’t a good way to go (in fact it might be the best way to go for you), but simply that there are about as many ways to get ready for Nano as there are Wrimos.

So if you’d like to do some plotting now, here are some resources and techniques I find useful:

Basic structure

In order to keep up with the pace of month-long noveling, I like to have a structure in place before I start. Not necessarily something extremely detailed, but a road map I can turn to when I don’t know what my characters should do next.

I swear by the first few steps of writer Randy Ingermanson’s Snowflake Method. The idea is to start with the most basic summary of your novel possible, then expand in stages (five sentences, then five paragraphs):

[box]A reconnaissance squad travels across the galaxy to investigate an unresponsive colony.

Setup – A Federation of Planets reconnaissance squad sets off on a mission to the other side of the galaxy.

Initial Problem – A freak storm badly damages the ship, forcing the Captain to take the mission off-course in search of affordable repairs.

Bigger problem – As soon as it resumes its course, the freshly-fixed ship is targeted from the inside by a saboteur, and from the outside by a massive, top-of-the-range rebel warship with a grudge.

Biggest problem – When the truth and horror of the Federation’s methods come out into the open, the crew turn onto one another, treason and murder afoot.

Resolution – Having gotten rid of the spy-turned-assassin, the crew land safely at the colony they were sent to investigate and part ways, escaping the Federation’s dictatorship.[/box]

A word of warning though, I never go past step four as the later steps are way too detailed even for me (it makes for an interesting read, but I would certainly not recommend it for Nano).

Arcs, arcs, arcs

I use the Seven-Point Structure, popularised by YA-author and podcaster Dan Wells to situate character arcs and subplots in relation to the main plot. My favourite way to do this is in a table where I can check things at a glance:


Structure Main storyline Comms Officer
Initial situation
Crew leaves home planet Works for Federation, has memory loss
Plot turn 1
Call to adventure
Mission is taken off-course Hears foreign language she can understand
Pinch 1
Added pressure
Discovery of broken component Realises she is being watched by Federation
From reaction to action
Attacked by rebel warship Hears reports of Federation modifying memories
Pinch 2
Take stand alone
Betrayed by one of their own Gets evidence of what the Federation did
Plot turn 2
Power is in you
Get rid of the saboteur Decides to trust rebel captain
End situation
Crew arrives at destination planet Breaks conditioning, recovers true identity


Have a listen to Episode 7.41 of Writing Excuses for a five-minutes explanation of the system, or if (like me) you’re a dork for in-depth structural analysis, check out Wells’ 5-part YouTube series on the subject.

Filling in the gaps

Once I’ve got a continuous thread to cling to, I start making some emergency bucket lists. Brainstorming for these is pretty simple: I set a timer for 10 minutes and jot down as many ideas as possible without pausing. A lot of what comes out never gets used, but the coolest ideas make it in my notebook.

Around week two, when I have absolutely no idea what should happen next, I’ll use these as custom prompts. For instance, here are some of the dangers I can incorporate if I need a space variant of the ‘Just have something blow up’ strategy:


  • Space pirates, smuggles, slavers
  • Ship boarded by rebels
  • Solar storm, meteor showers
  • Lose lights, power, access to controls
  • Break vital piece of equipment


If you’re of the insane Plot-A-Lot kind, share your Nano outlining tips and tricks below!

Originally posted at


NaNoWriMo is nigh!

October to me is the time of wearing several layers of sweaters, celebrating my Dad’s birthday and getting ready for NaNoWriMo.

National Novel Writing Month is a seat-of-the-pants literary challenge taking place every November. Participants aim to write a brand new 50,000 words story in 30 days.

It’s now an international event, with many local chapters, including here in London!

I was introduced to Nano just after I moved to the UK and joined all four of the lovely people I’d met by then were doing it too. As it turned out, peer pressure is a corner stone of Nano (in a good way, I promise). Since then, I’ve been month-noveling furiously every November.

Keeping up the pace all month is difficult (in fact I always fall behind) and can be frustrating, but there are also exhilarating moments when your story behaves itself, everything is coming together nicely and you have enough points on your Costa card to get your sixth coffee of the day for free. Plus they have all the yummy Christmas drinks already in November. And on the less-inspiring days, there’s nothing better to spur you on than the sound of everyone else in the room typing like the wind. Guilt monkeys are also a corner stone of Nanowrimo.


Now of course neither you nor I will produce a masterpiece worth millions this November, but I know that I’ll be writing. I’ll be writing a lot more than I usually do. I’ll be taking risks, exploring silly ideas, taking dares and coming up with the kind of insane things one can only dream up when on a coffee drip. There will be some dreadful crashes, but I can guarantee there will also be some good stuff.

I know this because four years ago the most writing I had ever done were the first pages of one fantasy epic (complete with red-headed elves with apostrophes in every other character’s name) and about three Harry Potter fanfictions. I’ve now written four novels. They’re all very short, mostly unfinished and not that good, but each of them is a bit better than the last and crucially, the writing that I do outside of November is also massively improved.

So whether you’re new to writing or an old hand I think you should give Nanowrimo a shot. The worse thing that can happen is you ending up with a story you won’t reuse, but you’ll still be 50,000 words of practice better off than before.


Plot Rehauling!

The first time I threw together the words ‘naturalist’, ‘plant swarms’, ‘secrecy’ and ‘upcoming disaster’ in a notebook is dated June 18th, 2011. I’ve considered The Paradise Swarm my main work in progress since then. Meaning that at this point, I’ve been working on it for over a year.

And I realise that in that year, I haven’t accomplished that much story-wise. I have done a whole lot of planning, spent a lot of time world-building in the vaguest terms and written a lot of words that got thrown out, but I realised there still wasn’t much of a plot. I had cool scene ideas, but not a great grip on characters, nor a strong thread around which to weave the story.

Then last week, @TheJonFoulds and I sat down and poked at the holes in the plot and characters with a stick. I can come up with ideas all right on my own, but there is nothing that works better for me than bouncing ideas off of someone else. Especially someone who has an annoying knack for spotting things I did wrong, and a very good instinct for story structure. He also likes being needlessly cruel to his characters (and sadly, mine), which does raise the stakes.

ChaptersI had to put my foot down at some points, because some of his suggestions simply clashed with who the characters I created fundamentally were, but most of the advice was invaluable. Two hours after we started with ‘So what *does* your main character want most of all?’, we had re-plotted the story from start to finish.

I now know what will happen past Chapter Three, which is a good thing because I’m writing Chapter Three right now. I’ve also been able to put down a whole bunch of new chapters and scenes in my Scrivener file, so that it actually looks like I’m working on something substantial. I love how my Scrivener file looks now: like I’m going somewhere with this!