Thursday, October 23, 2014

Preparing For NaNoWriMo: How I Outline (Alex Steele)

Alex Steele here today to share with you my outlining method in preparation for NaNoWriMo!

Keep in mind, this is just how I outline. You don't have to outline at all for NaNoWriMo and if you do, remember there is absolutely no right or wrong way to outline! I have seen many posts and videos about outlining. A lot of them include a complicated sounding structure along the lines of say a 3 Act, 9 block, 27 chapter method. Basically, you would split your book into 3 acts - beginning (setup), middle (confrontation), and end (resolution). Then each act gets 9 chapters for a total of 27 (or something like that). I think that's too much math! Seriously, it sounds complicated! Next, I guess you outline each chapter!? What? So, no. That's not what I do. Others, like my co-blogger Grace, do a simple 7 act outline(which she talks about here). I don't like to be so specific and yet I like to be more specific. Basically, I don't like to be so technical.

I tried to make this as simple as possible so first I'm going to list out what I do in what order and then I'll go into details about each part.

Alex Steele's 3 Step Outline Method:

Step 1: Character Boards.
Step 2: Brainstorming
Step 3: Full outline

First, usually whatever idea I have has already been brewing in my mind for awhile, so I already know the basics. What kind of world is it? Meaning the real world or fantasy, maybe dystopian? I know the most important things about my characters and what they're like. And the basics of my plot. Is it an epic adventure with a villainous dragon? Or a simple coming of age story? Is it about an inner struggle? An outer struggle? Ghosts? Zombies? Mutant monkeys????

Character Boards: 
Basically, I start with my characters. I make a document for each of my main characters and the most important side characters. I start with 3 categories:

  • Description: So basic version - what they look like, how tall they are, even down to their gestures and everything. Do they bite their lip? Raise a condescending eyebrow all the time? Do they walk hunched over? And so on.

  • Oddities: This is where I put all their quirks, their likes and dislikes. And other bigger characteristics: how they think, how they talk. Are they shy? Outgoing? How do they show this? Also, things like their fears and dreams, all very important.

  • History*: Obviously everything about their past, their family, mental and physical health. What big moments have changed their lives? Did they fall out of a tree when they were nine and break their wrist?

All this is to get to know my characters, how they think, how they talk, how they act, and so on and so forth.

*sometimes I switch this up by doing 4 categories with family as it's own

Here is an example, this is for my main character Lacey from This World In Gray (my NaNo novel), I cut it down just enough to show you without it being super long.

Lacey James 
Age: 16 or 17? -obviously I'm undecided here 
Eyes: Brown 
Hair: Blond, golden. Pixie cut and dyed blue. -here I showed how she's going to change her appearance 
Height: Short. 5’1’ 
Birthday: February 29th 
Other: She looks like a pixie, sharp chin, wide eyes, small nose, big ears.  
Has one tattoo on her right forearm, half a heart with a black outline filled in red with black lines streaking away from it looking like an odd cross between blood poisoning and lightning. The heart she and Grace got when Grace first got diagnosed, she had the lines added after the funeral.
-Mom (Candace) is Irish, a red haired beauty. She used to be a model until she fell in love with their dad and discovered a love of photography which they now do together. Widely curly hair, tall, lithe body, slightly wide shoulders. Strikingly wide green eyes. Parents died when she was young. 

-Dad (Pierce) is from France. Still has a light accent that he works hard to cover. Fair haired. Fair skinned. Brown eyes. Lacey and Grace got most of their looks from him, expect the shape of their faces, wide eyes. 

-Grandmother (on their dad's side) kind of a crazy old lady. Small and fierce, big on stories and legends. Neighbors lovingly refer to her as a Witch. Spends most her time in the garden, thinks a few minutes pulling weeds and you can figure out your whole life. They’ve never seen her much as their dad and her had some sort of huge argument(?) right before their mother and him got married. 

-Loves hot chocolate can’t even stand the smell of coffee.
-obsessively listens to her dead sisters IPod.
-loves poetry and words in general.
-doesn’t really know what she wants out of life and has never been very worried about it.
-keeps a journal where she writes free verse poetry.
-isn’t overly shy, but not outgoing either. Has never really needed friends or had to worry about anything.
Not shy just awkward.
-loves metaphors.
-hates eggs
-is afraid of water (Grace is actually more afraid even though she’s not the one who almost died)
-loves black and white photos, walking, exploring 
Big moments -
-She almost drowned when she was eight and fell off a boat, this causes her great anxiety
-First kiss: she was 13 and Grace arranged it
-Grace getting diagnosed when they were 15, she had to step up and be the strong one, always acting as if everything was fine, never once allowing herself to think anything different.
-The fulfilling of Grace’s bucket list. On their 16th b-day Grace asked her to help her do all the things on her bucket list
-Grace dying.

As you can see, some of this is probably stuff that will never even be mentioned in the book but it helps me know my character. I left out a lot of "oddities" as to not overwhelm you, and some of the history stuff as it's spoilers, but I feel this gives you a basic understanding of this part of my process.

This is the start of my real outline.
Using my whiteboard, I write out all the big scenes. This can be as simple as: "The first kiss", all the way to the more complicated: "the sad scene where so and so dies". Okay that doesn't sound very complicated, but you get my point(I hope?). 

I get it into the right order and then I sit back and think, "So, what else does it need?" I go from point A to point Z and figure out the biggest plot points and scenes, even smaller scenes that are simply labeled "cute scene between MC and Love Interest".
Now this can take some time and be difficult but remember it can be vague, simply "the quest stalls here", you don't need to have every scene completely figured out at this point. This helps you get a better feel of your story before you move on to the full outline.

This is an example of what my whiteboard looked like when I was outlining FreindZone:

I have lovely handwriting don't I?

Full Outline: 
I use a notecard method for my full outline.
Basically, each scene off my whiteboard gets a note card. I put the title of the scene on the top of the card and then two or three sentences explaining the scene and what exactly is going to happen/where it's set. Some scenes get more than one note card and more than two or three sentences. Some scenes turn into only one chapter when I write it while some span two chapters depending on how much actually happens and everything.

So I do this to every "scene", even when they'll inevitably end up as no more than one or two paragraphs in a chapter. And that turns into my outline! I have my note cards in order, all the big and small yet important plot points have been written out, put in order, and detailed. I will inevitably have to rework parts and add chapters, but I know where my book is going. How it gets from point A to point B and all the way to point Z. I even know the little side journey's that my characters go through along the way.

Here is an example from the first scene of FriendZone, and then like the fourth or fifth scene also from FriendZone:

One example of how things changed is that in the first scene(the orange note card) it changed from a run in at the mailbox to at their lockers. Also you'll notice I have perfect handwriting, didn't misspell anything, and am an expert at punctation (also that I obviously don't care about that while outlining).

See? Simple! Pretty much. 3 steps that can be lifesaving when it comes to NaNoWriMo. I hope this helped and please let me know if you have any questions about my outlining methods!

So, tell me, do you outline? How do you outline? I want to know! Share your secrets with me!

Write on, write on.

-Alex Steele


  1. This is an awesome post, Alex! I WILL STEAL EVERYTHING. Just kidding (but not really). I definitely think, when outlining, you NEED to start with your characters. I spent like two months trying to write one chapter and I realized the reason I couldn't write it is because I didn't understand the character the chapter surrounds.

    I lol'd at your Friendzone scene cards. So many hilarious situations. So good.

    I don't know if I'll do NANOWRIMO this year b/c I FAIL IT EVERY YEAR. Also, because I already started the book I want to write... but I'll definitely check out some of my chapter meetings, to meet up with other local writers. And maybe I'll whip out this blog post while outlining, hehehehe.

    1. I have only two things to say.

      1. Hahaha. I got here before Alex did.
      2. Good luck with your NaNoWriMo. It is a real mountain to climb, but I think it is worth it. Even if you don't finish the word count, you got more of a book than what you had at first.

    2. Thanks! Yeah I think all writers at first tend to forget that characters are kind of the most important part of a novel. I know it took me a little while to realize that the first concern when preparing to write a book is characters and it led to a lot of re-writing.
      Also, I totally don't mind if you steal everything, I developed this method by stealing parts of other peoples outlining process!

      You should totally do NaNo! You can even use the book you already started just start counting whatever you write for it starting on the 1st! And as Grace said, you really don't have to write all 50k, maybe even aim for something lower? =)

      p.s. wow

  2. Wow, looks like you have your method all worked out. I don't do anything like that when I outline. I'm mostly a pantser, so my outlines end up as a messy, handwritten bullet point list of plot points that might be important, and the chapters and scenes get worked out while I'm writing. Mostly I just like to work my characters out before I write. It makes everything ever so much easier.

    1. Yeah characters, I feel, are the most important thing to have outlined and worked out before you start writing! I envy writers who can "fly by the seat of their pants", but the one time I tried it was an epic failure. =)


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