Plotting and Planning: NaNoWriMo, Novel Outlines, and the Linear Comforts of Asparagus


Welcome back to the second “cooking up a novel” segment of “Cooking up a Storey”! I’m happy to report my novel project is chugging along, still on the milk run, but making forward progress nonetheless. In fact, I just finished a provisional outline of the book, which I’ve forwarded to my writing buddy for our quarterly literary dinner at the beginning of this month. (You can read the first segment of “cooking up a novel” at: Trying to Get the Feeling).

To outline or not to outline? As this is a question very much on my mind this month, I thought it might be appropriate to share my experiences on the topic both with my first novel and this second time around. I know each writer has her own ideal way of creating new fiction. Some authors thrive on the freedom to let the story wander where it may—think Jack Kerouac’s On the Road . Legend has it that Kerouac took only three weeks to type out his famous first novel on a continuous scroll of paper. (History shows the path from inspiration to publication really took nine years). Other authors can’t write a word without a careful outline, especially action-adventure and mystery writers who must keep their complex plots consistent.  Most, however, acknowledge that any finished book involves a combination of planning and creative freedom.

I myself am the type of writer who needs some sort of road map before I start off into the wilds of a new fictional world.  With my first novel, Amorous Woman , I took the helpful short cut of borrowing my plot from a late seventeenth-century Japanese erotic classic. That made it easy to develop an outline.  I merely copied out the chapter titles of my model onto a piece of paper and translated the basic story arc—a sexually curious woman’s episodic “fall” from innocent beauty to wizened prostitute—into modern terms section by section. While the details are radically different, the basic structure of my novel is over three hundred years old.

My current project is an extension of a short story I wrote a few years back, so I started out with characters and a pivotal scene, but no over-arching plot. Although I eventually developed a very detailed outline, in truth I let the story simmer for a few years, allowing my imagination to try out different scenarios, which I recorded in a “novel notes” file.  Thus, the final result is a marriage of wandering fancy and textbook structure. However, I’m finding it very reassuring to have that outline in hand as I get ready to sit down and write.

As you might expect from a how-to-write book addict like myself, before I began to outline my novel, I took a good look at my extensive writer’s reference shelf to see if I had any useful resources in my library.  I found two books that seemed especially pertinent: Chris Baty’s No Plot? No Problem!: A Low-Stress, High-Velocity Guide to Writing a Novel in 30 Days and Karen S. Wiesner’s First Draft in 30 Days: a novel writer’s system for building a complete and cohesive manuscript. While both authors promise results in a month, their views of the value of upfront outlining are radically different.

As one of the founders of the worldwide phenomenon, NaNoWriMo—National Novel Writing Month during which participants try to crank out a 50,000-word novel during the month of November—Chris Blaty’s endorsement of the just-sit-down-and-write approach comes as no surprise. Blaty argues that plot is merely “the movement of your characters through time” and the very act of writing itself will produce plot since our imaginations naturally create structure.  Too much planning freezes you up and makes you a “one day”novelist, which is not a NaNoWriMo participant on speed, but someone who is waiting to write his novel one day in the future.  Best to get those words on the page and worry about quality later.  However, he also admits that if you hope to publish your NaNoWriMo novel, it will probably take at least a year of careful revision during which you will find and refine your “story arc” from your high-velocity first draft. Thus Blaty does not deny the value of the outline, he just moves that part of the process to the later editing phase.

While Blaty himself hasn’t published a novel, only a novel about writing novels, I’ll admit I found his “just write it” approach liberating. I even copied down this motto and posted it on my filing cabinet for inspiration: “It’s just for me, it’s just for fun.” I plan to repeat that to myself every time I sit down to write.

Karen Wiesner, on the other hand, believes that outlining does not stifle creativity. Making an outline requires as much imagination as writing a first draft. It can even replace that first draft and save you months, if not years of effort. An outline enables you to see weaknesses in your story so that you can correct them before you start writing. The more you use the first draft method, she claims, the more efficient you become, enabling some authors to complete several novels in a year. And her method can also be used to reorganize finished drafts as well—indeed there’s no reason you can’t apply her method to your NaNoWriMo manuscript!

I found many useful tips in her book, although officially her thirty-day method includes actually thinking up your story and mine was already brewing for quite some time. Some points to note include her identification of various plot threads, beginning with the all important “story goal,” or the catalyst of the book: “the reason why the characters are there, the reason why the story evolves, the reason why the reader opens the book, starts and keeps reading.”

I also appreciated the reminder of the importance of plot tension to involve the reader in the story. When your reader is on the edge of her seat wondering “what’s going to happen next?” then you’ve succeeded in keeping the tension high. It’s harder to judge tension from the writer’s side of the equation, but I do know in my own work my pulse races at points when a character must make a decision. Do I sleep with my husband’s best friend or remain faithful in my marriage? Do I proposition the handsome hotel clerk who looks like he might be bored enough to make a special visit to my room or just retire to bed alone and masturbate?  As the author, I know what my characters will do (have sex whenever possible, of course), but my reader doesn’t and that will keep her turning the pages.

Another key point in your plot outline is what Wiesner calls the “black moment.” This occurs in the first part of the last section of the book and is more often referred to as the climax (rather different from the climax in an erotica story!). The black moment is when the protagonist truly believes the story goal will never be achieved, when it seems the forces of evil or despair will surely prevail. Thanks to First Draft in 30 Days, I was able to identify and develop the black moment in my novel, which in turn gave me a better sense of my story goal. Although I have no way of scientifically measuring this, I do feel my revised map of my novel will help me with the actual writing.

The words of wisdom that made it to my index card from this book? “Don’t revise at all until the first draft is done.” This will be a challenge for me as I’m always polishing my prose obsessively. But if I can follow this at least some of the time, I know I’ll be able to write more fresh, if flawed, prose each day, with plenty of time for polishing later.

Now for some real cooking. Not all plots are linear, but a nice straight asparagus stalk is always pleasing to the eye and satisfying to the palate. April brings bundles of lovely green asparagus to my local vegetable market, at a price that is hard to resist. After all that plotting and planning, why not take a break for a delicious treat, my favorite spring company dish, asparagus risotto? With salad and a glass of wine, it’s the perfect way to relax after a hard day of novel outlining, and it might even inspire some flights of fancy that will let your well-plotted story soar!

Spring Asparagus Risotto
(Serves 4; adapted from Sundays at Moosewood Restaurant)

5 cups vegetable or chicken broth
2 Tablespoons olive oil, butter or a combination of both for health and flavor
1 small yellow onion, finely minced
1 1/2 cups Arborio rice
1/2 cup dry white wine
1/2 lb. asparagus, trimmed and cut into 1/2-inch pieces, reserving tips separately
1/3 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese plus more for sprinkling

Bring the stock to a simmer in a medium saucepan.  Cover and keep warm over low heat.

Meanwhile, heat the oil or butter in a large, heavy saucepan on medium heat. Saute the onion, stirring occasionally, until translucent but not browned. Add the rice and stir for one minute to thoroughly coat the rice with the oil, using a wooden spoon to keep from breaking the rice kernels.

Add the wine and stir constantly until it is absorbed. Set a timer for 20 minutes. Stir in 1/2 cup simmering stock and the asparagus pieces and stir until broth is absorbed. Continue to add stock, about 1/2 cup at a time, stirring after each addition until absorbed. Add another 1/2 cup about every two minutes or so, adding the asparagus tips about five minutes after the initial addition of stock. At the end of this time, the rice should be tender but al dente.

Remove risotto from the heat and stir in the grated cheese. Serve immediately and pass additional cheese.

Donna George Storey
April 2010

“Cooking up a Storey” © 2010 Donna George Storey. All rights reserved. Content may not be copied or used in whole or part without written permission from the author.

Treasure Chest Categories

Treasure Chest Authors

Treasure Chest Archives

Smutters Lounge Categories

Smutters Lounge Authors

Smutters Lounge Archives

Awesome Authors Archive

Pin It on Pinterest