Preparing for NaNoWriMo: Organizing and Outlining Your Novel

While we're talking to our featured guest, Karen Wiesner, this week about writing novels and planning fiction series, it seemed an appropriate time to talk about NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). With NaNo just over a week away, thousands of authors and aspiring authors are getting ready to write a novel during November.

Before jumping into a first draft, many writers opt to outline their novel first. Let's explore novel outlining, whether or not it's necessary, why you might want to consider it, and other options for preparing for NaNoWriMo (or any novel draft).

Should You Prepare a Novel Outline?

I'm a big fan of outlining any writing project -- from blog posts to books. An outline can help you map out your story and get a better feel for your characters and the situations they'll find themselves in. And it's far easier to make drastic changes to an outline than to a manuscript.

One of the biggest arguments I've heard against novel outlining is that people feel it stifles their creativity and makes the story too formulaic. But that's only true if you let it be. The truth is that an outline is only as formulaic as you make it, and outlines are incredibly fluid tools. You aren't stuck in some rigid story structure or plot line just because you've created an outline. You can change that outline at any time. And you don't have to follow it exactly. Think of it as a guide more than a template. It can be as simple or as complex as you want.

That said, outlining won't be right for everyone. And that's okay! I'm a planner by nature, and an organization nut when it comes to my business. So I wouldn't take on novel writing in any other way. The best thing you can do is find a system that works for you.

Novel Outlining Options

Here are a few specific ways you might choose to outline your novel:

  • Use index cards to briefly describe each scene in your story. A perk of this method is that you can shuffle the cards easily if you need to rearrange scenes. You can even do this digitally with note card applications (like the Cardboard Novels Android app).
  • Create a simple scene list. This is similar to the index card method in that you only briefly summarize each scene. You just do it in list form -- typing it up or handwriting your list.
  • Summarize your story in a 3-act structure.
  • Write up scene sheets -- one page per scene. I use something similar to Evan Marshall's "section sheets" (see the resources list below). I map out the scene basics and jot down any specific dialog that comes to mind.
  • Map out only the major turning points of your story (if you want to outline but you want to maintain as much flexibility as possible with the rest of the story).

These are just ideas. Your novel is your own, and you can create it any way that you'd like. You can mix and combine these. You can test different options (which is what I did before creating a mashup of outlining systems that's all my own). Do whatever you think is going to help you get through that first draft.

Other Options for NaNoWriMo Prep

Even if complete novel outlining isn't for you, that doesn't mean you can't go into writing your book in an organized way. Here are some other tools you might use and things you might do to prepare:

  • Create character sketches or bios.
  • Develop setting sketches or take photos if it's a real place.
  • Write a short synopsis as if you were pitching the idea to an agent or publisher.
  • Prepare your office or other writing space. Make it comfortable. You'll be butt-in-chair for the better part of a month.
  • Stock up on supplies (from office supplies to coffee to fingerless gloves for typing on a chilly morning).
  • Talk to family and friends about your commitment and explain the importance of them giving you time and space to write.

What other things would you recommend before starting NaNoWriMo?

Novel Outlining Resources

Whether you're taking part in NaNoWriMo this year or you simply want to write a novel at some point down the road, here are some resources that might help you outline and get through your first draft.

Do you outline novels before writing, or do you prefer to jump in and just write? Tell us why in the comments below.

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Jennifer Mattern is a professional blogger, freelance business writer, consultant, and indie author. She runs numerous websites & blogs including All Freelance Writing, Freelance Writing Pros, NakedPR, and Kiss My Biz.

Jenn has 25 years' experience as a professional writer and editor and over 20 years' experience in marketing and PR (working heavily in digital PR, online marketing, social media, SEO, new media, and thought leadership publication). She also has 19 years' professional blogging and web publishing experience (including web development) and around 18 years of experience as an indie author / publisher.

Jenn also writes fiction under multiple pen names and is an Active member of the Horror Writers Association.

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