3 Reasons You Can’t Survive Without an Outline for NaNoWriMo

You’re hours away from October, which means you’re only a month away from National Novel Writing Month. In honor of the annual 30 days of masochism, I’ll be sharing weekly tips here for anyone—especially young writers—who wants to maximize their literary productivity this November.

If you’re participating in NaNoWriMo 2019, then first of all, you have my utmost respect as someone who has always been too intimidated to attempt it. Chances are, you’re bracing for late nights (or early mornings) of fevered scribbling, determined to cross that 50,000 word finish line. It’s tempting to dive directly into your story with nothing but inspiration in hand.

When November is over, you’ll have reached a new level of daily dedication to your craft, but that doesn’t mean that what you’ve written will be useful going forward.

If you want to maximize the quality—not just the quantity—of your daily writing output, an outline is your best friend.

Here are 3 reasons why.

#1: Outlines don’t have to be restrictive.

It’s been said that there are two types of writers: pantsers, who treat writing like an impromptu attempt at white-water-rafting in a leaky kayak, and plotters, who know every dimension of their plot in millimeters before they set sail with a new story.

Somewhere between the two extremes, I’d argue there’s a middle road where the waters are calmer and your story can breathe.

Your outline doesn’t have to constrict your creative freedom. Lit Reactor suggests several different types of outlines for different types of writers. You can try a traditional outline, organizing major arcs under rising action, crisis, climax, and resolution. You can take a more visual route with a mind map, or you can gradually lengthen your written thoughts with a snowflake outline.

The possibilities for your outline are as broad as the possibilities for your plot.

Your outline doesn’t have to be extensively detailed. Some function like maps, others more like a simple compass, but they serve the same purpose—they keep you from getting lost.

#2: Outlines prevent writing yourself into a corner.

Like any other skill, you might be excellent at writing, but chances are, you still have your persistent weaknesses.

When I first learned how to drive, I was terrified. My mother’s well-meaning warning that I was “driving a weapon” echoed in my head, and I gripped the steering wheel like it might spontaneously dislodge from the car and roll away for a vacation. Over time, driving became mostly automatic, but there was still one looming obstacle—parallel parking.

Confession time: The first time I took my driver’s test, I couldn’t parallel park at all. The second time, I eased into the spot with the delicate precision of an Olympic figure skater, only to get so excited that I promptly drove over a curb (automatically failing the test). The third time, I finally succeeded.

To this day, though, I avoid parallel parking at all costs.

If I’m going into Philadelphia for a day, I reserve a parking spot in the nearest garage weeks beforehand. If it’s a smaller, unfamiliar area, I would rather park blocks away from my destination and walk than risk scratching someone else’s vehicle while squeezing into a spot.

Why? Parallel parking is my weakness as a driver, and I know it’s more costly to repair a damaged car than to spend 10 minutes walking to my destination.

Every writer, no matter how experienced, shares one weakness: they can only see their story from the inside.

You might have enough passion to write 7 books, but you still risk painting your protagonist into a corner without realizing what’s happened until 10,000 words later. Sometimes, you can write yourself back out of that corner, but other times, you’re well and truly stuck. You have to backtrack.

During NaNoWriMo, you can’t afford to trash 10,000 words.

An outline gives you a bird’s eye view of your plot from outside of the story. It’s the best way to catch contradictions, plot holes, or seemingly insurmountable obstacles before your character wakes up in a dark cell with a mortal wound and no key. Yes, you might have to trudge uncomfortably for a bit—but that’s better than the risk of damaging your story beyond repair.

#3: Outlines enable major changes with minimal effort.

If you realize at November’s end that the events of chapter 1 would fit better in chapter 3, restructuring your manuscript might feel like a chore.

What if you could fit each scene of your NaNoWriMo novel in the palm of your hand?

What if you could shift their order and their associations with one another at will?

Turns out, you can. That’s why I’m a huge proponent of the index card method, either alone or in conjunction with another preferred outline style.

Basically, you write a one-sentence summary of each planned scene on an index card. You can also include setting, relevant characters, or other details you deem important on each card. You can even color-code the cards for different strands of your plot, such as pink for scenes involving your romance subplot and red for scenes that advance your murder mystery.

Physical index cards are easy to manipulate—but if you, like me, struggle with your handwriting and/or organization, software like Scrivener includes virtual index cards. In Scrivener, each scene you write can even remain linked to its index card so if you move the digital card later, the entire scene will move inside your manuscript. It’s worth a look if you share my tendency towards brain clutter.

What NaNoWriMo tips do you want to read next week?

Tell me in the comments, or connect with me on Facebook and Twitter. I’ll get back to you as soon as I can in between revisions of my debut YA fantasy, The Fire Breathes (which you can read more about here!).

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