Brainstorming & Outlining for People Who Hate Outlines

We have to tell stories to unriddle the world - Alan GarnerThis post is for people who are having trouble getting past the exciting beginning of their story and into (and through) the mushy middle. It works for novelists and short story writers.

Beyond The Beginning

Starting a story can be hard. But once you get started, the excitement carries you through some initial world-building, character-developement and scene setting. Then what?

Then, you get stuck, going around in circles, with your characters doing stuff, but not really going anywhere (either literally or plot-wise).

This is the perfect time to outline the next part of your story and start thinking about where you want to go from here. If you hate the thought of  outlining, think of it as brainstorming. You do this in your head, if you’re a pantser (someone who writes by the seat of their pants), but sometimes it can be helpful to catch some of your ideas on paper.

Brainstorming (Not Outlining)

If you’re not a natural outliner, don’t go crazy with this. You know you’re going to write something that captures your interest and throw out the outline, or maybe a new character will do something unexpected and interesting. So don’t outline. Just brainstorm a few questions like:

  • What is my character’s main desire?
  • What is stopping her from getting to that desire?
  • What does a ‘victory’ look like, in story terms and for my character?
  • How can I make things worse for her?
  • How can I make things even worse for her?
  • Who does she need to ally with to help her reach her ‘victory’?
  • Who/what is the antagonist and what does it/they want?

Even if you’re not a fan of outlining, keeping these questions (and the answers you discover) in mind as you write, will help keep your enthusiasm high for your story.

Revisit these questions every few writing sessions, or after every couple of scenes. Map out what needs to happen next to advance your character’s journey. Let future ideas dance around the back of your brain.

Then add another scene to your story.

More Resources

I’m posting these with the caveat that you should use as few of these as possible and ONLY when you are absolutely, dead stuck. Do not think these will help you if you aren’t actually writing. You must be writing your story for these resources to make any meaningful contribution.

Worksheets

Jill Williamson has a fabulous resource page full of everything from Novel Brainstorming Worksheet and one for short stories, to scene planning worksheets (one and two POVs), to character archetypes, genres & subgenres, even a worksheet for thinking about your characters’ hobbies!

Larry Brooks has a one-page checklist to help you plot out your novel. I find this one a little overwhelming, but if you take it step by step (i.e. write  your way to a point when you’re stuck, then consult his list to see what you need to think about for the next quarter of your story) it might be more manageable. You can also find his Character Checklist here.

Books To Get You Unstuck

The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide To Character Expression by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi is one of three books they’ve written (along with the Negative Trait Thesaurus and the Positive Trait Thesaurus) that can help you if your characters are feeling flat.

Book Architecture: How to Plot and Outline Without Using a Formula by Stuart Horwitz. Can’t recommend this enough. It takes a fresh look at how to keep your plot interesting, by examining through-lines of themes and imagery and character traits rather than focusing on the old ‘Plot point I”, “Plot point II” “Dark Night Of The Soul” structure, which I find really unhelpful. This book, on the other hand, make small explosions go off in my brain. If you’re resistant to the idea of outlining, this might be the book to help you keep your story on track, nevertheless.

Million Dollar Outlines (Million Dollar Writing Series) by Dave Farland. Unashamedly commercial in outlook, this book is stuffed with examples (mostly from the movie world) of what makes a compelling story, what readers are looking for (even down to age and gender breakdowns) and leaves you feeling totally convinced that anyone with a modicum of talent and the will to persist, can do this and maybe even make a living at it. Why not you? Hoo-ah! Also stuffed with practical advice on how to make YOUR story sing.

Write Your Novel From The Middle: A New Approach for Plotters, Pantsers and Everyone in Between by James Scott Bell. I found this very encouraging, particularly his insight into what the ‘midpoint’ of the novel really is, and the kind of moment you can write for your protagonist that crystallizes both the midpoint and what comes next.

Motivation for Creative People: How to Stay Creative While Gaining Money, Fame, and Reputation by Mark McGuinness. This book won’t tell you how to write a novel, but it will help you think about all the ways your poxy brain is holding you back, and how to make it work for you, instead. This is not your average ‘rah-rah, tell yourself you can do it’ book. McGuinness uses everyday examples and his background as a coach to show you how different types of motivation work on you. Grounded in academic studies, this is a chatty, accessible and inspiring look at how you can free yourself to create.

Other Resources

The Snowflake Method – From Randy Ingermanson, this is another wonderfully logical way to avoid the whole inverted-triangle, unhelpful story structure plotting that drives me crazy. It helps you focus on the key points of the story you want to tell (which you’ll discover while going through his exercises). It has the added bonus of creating your story summary and proto-marketing materials before you’ve even written it (which is the part most people say they hate even more than writing the thing in the first place).

This works even if you’ve started your novel. I was stuck at the half way point of a novel I’d been tinkering with for years, when I came across this method. Spent a few hours following Randy’s advice and pounded out the second half of the novel in a couple of weeks!

 

NaNoWriMo Word Count Tracker

I know you lot are always up for a challenge. A significant portion of the crew here takes on NaNoWriMo each November.

So I have a gift for you.

A Month Without Math

NaNoWriMo Tracker from StoryADay.org

I’ve created a word-count tracker that dynamically calculates how many words you need to write every day to hit your targets. It works whether you faithfully write 1667 words every day, or whether you binge-write 5,000 then sleep for 48 hours before writing again. Just plug in your numbers and the spreadsheet will tell you your remaining daily average number of words required to hit the magic 50,000.

But That’s Not All

If you hit the minimum daily number of words required to stay on track, the spreadsheet rewards you by turning the ‘Words Today’ cell a happy bright green.

NaNoWriMo Tracker with green gold stars

When you hit the magic 50,000 words, all the remaining “Words This Month” boxes turn green too.

(It’s silly, but it is incredibly motivating to see those little green boxes stack up!)

Available Everywhere

(as long as you can access Google Drive, that is).

This is a Google Sheets document. That means it’s stored in the cloud and you can update it from anywhere you can log in to Google: on your phone, in the coffee shop, in bed, from your laptop, during meetings (ahem!)

Easy To Use

This comes with foolproof instructions including “Where to type” and “Where not to type” and “how to use this again next year/for other projects”.

NaNoWriMo Tracker instructions

Download a copy now, to your Google Drive (you’ll need a free Google account) and use it with my best wishes for a frantic, fiction-filled month of creativity!

 

Good luck!

Julie

That Awkward Moment When I Met NaNoWriMo Founder Chris Baty

or: Confronting Your Fears Can Be Fun!

OK, I’m inviting you to write a story a day in May, just like that.

How’s that making you feel? Feeling some resistance? That’s normal. Feeling a cold rush of terror? Not unusual. But I’ll bet you’re feeling something else too: a little thrill at the idea. (C’mon, you’re a writer. Of course you’re tempted.)

Sharing your creative efforts is a risk and taking a risk requires bravery.

And sometimes, taking that risk leads to something completely unexpected.

Let me tell you a story about what happened when I met Chris Baty, the founder of National Novel Writer’s Month, an insane creativity challenge I in-no-way-ripped-off when I started StoryADay.

How I Absolutely Did Not Rip Off NaNoWriMo

In the late 1990s, when the Web was young, I had a writer friend who was a real sucker for collaborative creative challenges: Illustration Friday, Livejournal memes and, eventually, this crazy new thing called National Novel Writer’s Month.

It was the first time I had entertained the idea that writing might be anything but a solitary endeavour.

Over the years, I tried a few of these challenges (100Words.net, NaBloPoMo) and even came close to signing up for NaNoWriMo in 2009. I had read NaNoWriMo founder, Chris Baty’s book “No Plot, No Problem” and loved his ‘creativity for all’ outlook — but by this time I had I had two small kids and my creative life had contracted to the point where I was reduced to drafting critical analyses on Thomas the Tank Engine and his friends (I have a whole thesis on Gordon’s daddy issues, and Percy? Classic victim mentality.)

So I chickened out. Again.

What Do You Do When You Hit Rock Bottom?

The winter dragged on and I sank into a deep slump.

I was grumpy with everyone all the time. I needed a creative outlet but every time I started anything, even my beloved short stories, I failed to finish.

You know that feeling when you’re scared to start because you might let yourself down again?

One memorable day in March 2010 I hit bottom. Driving along a bleak country road in Pennsylvania – the bare tree-limbs reaching out to claw out the last shreds of my creative soul as we sang along to “Cranky, He’s The Dockyard Crane” – I snapped. That’s it, I thought. I have to do something really scary to jolt myself out of this. I’m going to write a story a day for a month. I can do a story a day, right? I’m going to finish each one, and I’m going to tell everyone about it, so they can shame me if I stop writing.

It was terrifying.

So I did it.

See? “Inspired by” NaNoWriMo. Not “Ripped Off From”.

Fast forward to this January.

With two years of StADa under my belt I was ready to stretch my wings. My wonderful husband practically pushed me out the door to the Writer’s Digest Conference in NYC (If you haven’t been to a conference, I can recommend it: being surrounded by professionals and passionate would-be-professionals has a powerful effect on your motivation and self-respect, never mind what the workshops do for your skills).

The keynote speaker was to be NaNoWriMo’s own Chris Baty, which was a bit thrilling, but I wasn’t actually going to, you know, meet him or anything. (Not if I could help it, anyway.)

The first evening was a whirl: so many ideas, so much inspiration, so many notes to take, so much preparation to do for the Agent Pitch Slam (like speed dating, with literary agents). I was up so late preparing my pitch than I hardly slept.

I Blame Sleep Deprivation For What Happened Next.

I stumbled into the wrong session. After ten minutes, I ducked out early to look for the right session. As I wandered past the author area, my heart gave a little lurch. There was a tall, bald man sitting behind a stack of Chris Baty’s books. And I’d just made eye contact with him. It couldn’t be, could it?

The long moment stretched. My internal thermostat went crazy. I think I did that darty-eyed thing small animals do when cornered.

What would I say? Would he be mad at me? And would he even understand me, now that my tongue had swollen up to three times its normal size and my mouth had turned to sandpaper?

The next thing I remember, I was standing in front of the great man (really. He’s very tall) handing him a card and confessing my sins.

He looked at the card.

He looked at me.

“Is it free?” He asked, somewhat unexpectedly.

“Um yes, yes!” I said. “I mean I have some courses and ebooks people can buy if they want, but the challenge? Oh yes, totally free. They don’t even have to sign up at the site. I just think its so important to encourage people to be creative and…”

I was babbling and breathless.

“Huh,” he said, looking up at me (he was sitting down). “This is so GREAT!”

He beamed.

I beamed.

We started ranting about creativity and the importance of people giving themselves the permission to write. We raved about community and the other creative challenges on the web (he gave me generous, concerned advice about running a challenge), and we shared typical-writer-insecurities. We talked about the thrill of writing and the joy of having a hand in other people’s growth as writers. We promised to stay in touch. I may have started to refer to him as “m’new-boyfriend-Chris-Baty” (it’s OK, the wonderful husband understands). I walked around on a cloud for the rest of the weekend.

The last person I saw, as I wheeled my suitcase out into the New York streets, was m’new-boyfriend-Chris-Baty, sitting in the lobby, tapping away on his laptop. He looked up and waved. I had a new ally and it felt wonderful.

Confront Your Fears And Wonderful Things Can Happen

Starting StoryADay was scary.

Walking up to Chris Baty was scary.

Sitting down to write every day is scary.

But pushing yourself to do the scary thing is almost never a bad idea. (Unless that scary thing involves heights. Or venemous snakes. Don’t do them.)

You Can Do This – Today

I cannot stress strongly enough the value of:

  • Making a commitment to your writing,
  • Taking a chance on yourself,
  • Reaching out to a wider community of writers,
  • Being open to support and encouragement from unexpected sources.

StoryADay May is one way you can do all those things. Sure, the aim is to write a story a day, but I’ve always maintained that you should set your own rules. Some people aimed for 3 stories a week and hit that challenge. Some people aimed for 31 but their lives got complicated and they came out of the month with ‘only’ 12 stories … and were still thrilled.

But you don’t have to wait for May and you don’t have to travel to New York to confront your fears.

Write a story today. Post it online, if you dare.

 

[UPDATED] See? I didn’t make this up!

NaNoWriMo or No?

What are your best tips for approaching NaNoWriMo?

I love short stories

I love writing them, reading them, dissecting them.

…but for the past 10 years or so I’ve been tempted by National Novel Writers’ Month: Write a novel in a month.

I’m put off by the time commitment – with two small, demanding kids, a part-time job and a husband i actually like to spend time with – I can’t imagine making time.

But now I have writing friends from Story A Day who are urging me to try it for reals this year. And, for the first time, I don’t have a baby, visitors or crisis hanging over me.

So what are your best strategies for approaching NaNo, all you veterans and pushers?

What do you do before November, during November, when things are going well, when things are going badly? How do you pace your novel? What are the absolute must-do tactics for you? What are the traps and time-sinks?

Please comment below, or write your answer on your own blog and leave a link here. Remember: complete newbie here. Tell me anything, even things you’d forgotten you once didn’t know

An Interview NaBloPoMo Creator, Eden Kennedy

National Blog Posting MonthIn 2006 Eden Kennedy, of fussy.org, inspired by National Novel Writing Month started her own ‘month’: National Blog Posting Month (NaBloPoMo). For those of us who can’t possibly hope to carve out the time to writ a novel in a month, NaBloPoMo was a great alternative: commit to posting something every day, and see what happened.

I tried it and was pleasantly surprised to come away with both new friends and an increased sense of creativity, as I viewed my world in terms of potential creative writing opportunities.

Now, NaBloPoMo is a year-round event, with hundreds of people posting daily.

NaBloPoMo was a big inspiration for StoryADay.org, so I emailed Eden to ask her a few questions:

How long has NaBloPoMo been running?

[EDEN] I started it in November of 2006, running it off my own site, fussy.org. It was basically just a blogroll and a list of prizes people kept donating for me to hand out to random people who managed to post every day that month. A lot of people liked it because it was an alternative to NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), where you write like 6,000 words a day. I, like many others, failed at my NaNo attempt, so it’s like we started a little underachievers club by doing NaBloPoMo. I moved everything over to nablopomo.com in November 2007 so it could become more of a social network, and thousands of new people signed up, to my surprise. Eventually so many people were asking if I could make more events throughout the year, and not just in November, that I decided to just go monthly.

Do you participate every month?

[EDEN] I only participate in November. It’s the original month, and still the month we get the most traffic for, two or three thousand people. The rest of the year we get maybe 400 or 500 people each month.

What have other writers told you they get out of it?

[EDEN] A real sense of satisfaction at having come up with something to say thirty days in a row. Sometimes you have to dig deep to find the will to write something that’s actually worth reading, and not just phone it in or post a YouTube video or something. For most people, one month is enough, but there are several die-hards who go on to post every day for a year or more.

Any tips for keeping going in the middle of the month when the enthusiasm wanes?

[EDEN] Photos. Posting a photo can either be a great writing prompt, because readers will be interested in whatever the story behind it is, or else it can stand by itself as a post and give you the day off. Nothing wrong with that!


Thanks, Eden!

Interesting point about the photos. Who says your Story A Day story couldn’t be a comic strip, a photo essay, a particularly evocative picture?