Changing Your Outline as You Go
Hopefully by now you’ve got a good idea what you’re going to write for NaNoWriMo, and if you’ve been following along with this series, you’ve now got a pretty long and complex outline. By now, though, you might be feeling a bit nervous about the whole business. I mean, what happens if you suddenly change your mind about something?
Maybe in your outline you wrote that your heroine Mary runs off to the south of France with Bob, but you’re still not sure whether you really want Mary to end up with Bob or not. What happens if you get three weeks into November and you realize, much to your horror, that Mary and Bob are totally unsuited to each other? Or what happens if, three weeks in, you’ve grown to like Janet, Bob’s wife, so much that you really don’t want to see her hurt like that? Can you change the outline?
Yes. Of course you can. That’s one of the questions people always ask when they see the huge outlines S and I do for our stories: “What happens if you change your minds?” And the answer is, “Well…we change the outline, obviously.” I mean, duh.
But bear in mind that you have to follow through on every change. Changes have consequences, and you may find yourself having to stop and re-outline the story from that point on. If Mary and Bob don’t run off to France, then all that research you did on Nice and Saint-Tropez just went down the tubes. If Bob doesn’t leave Janet, then what happens between them? Do they end up reconciled and happy again? And what happens to Mary, your heroine? Does she find someone new? Or does she go to France on her own? (Hey, you get to use that research after all!)
My rule for using my outline is that I’m allowed to change it, but I can’t cheat. What’s the difference between changing and cheating? If I decide to keep Bob and Janet together, that’s changing the outline. That’s fine (as long as I remember to change everything from that point on to fit with the new direction of the story). But, on the other hand, let’s suppose that late one November night I look at my outline and find that it says:
(500 words): Mary and Bob enjoy a drive to Monaco. Description of the sea and coast. Interior monologue from Mary, torn between living in the moment and her regret for hurting her friend, Janet.
If I see that and think, “Oh, good grief. I just don’t feel like writing all that scenic description and angst right now. I’ll have Mary think about that in the NEXT chapter, which I’m doing tomorrow! Ha, ha!” Well, that’s cheating, and I try my best not to let myself do that.
One last tip: last Wednesday, when I posted the character prompts I was going to do in preparation for NaNo, did you notice that the last one wasn’t really a character prompt at all? Instead, it asks you to come up with a brief description or teaser for your story. This is fun because then you can go post the description on the NaNo site. It’s always interesting to know what other people are working on, and if you’re counting on other people to post a description of their novels, well, it’s only polite to post one yourself.
But doing a brief synopsis, or even just a tagline, for your novel can be useful, as well. It helps focus the mind on what’s most important in the story. Here’s the description I just came up with for In A Womanly Fashion (the first of two novels I’ll be writing):
After years of failed dates, Thyra has resigned herself to an arranged marriage, but there’s one final catch: she has to complete a sea voyage as an ordinary sailor to prove her worth to her demanding future mother-in-law. Once onboard, however, Thyra is caught up in the plots of Leila, a notorious thief who is planning one last, great heist in order to salvage a relationship that she stupidly scuppered. Leila may finally discover that no woman is an island; Thyra may find love in unexpected places. But first they’re going to have to escape the ambitious young spy who is chasing them. It’s Persuasion meets Treasure Island, only with a lot more sex.
As I sat down to write that, I kept thinking about all the plot twists, and I tried to come up with a way to work some of them in. But that made it too long. So I just whittled it down to what’s really important: the goals of the three main characters.
Next time: screenshots and practical examples of our outlining process from our real NaNo outlines!