Chalk Outlines: How I Plan A Novel

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Outlining: Not Just For Bodies Anymore.

It’s no secret that I love my outlines. And, man, I mean love. Like the way I love coffee: I may drift away, but I always come back, and while I know it’s not entirely healthy, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Anyway.

I used to outline on paper, with the straight-up Roman numeral system I learned back in the sixth grade*. Then I switched to doing the same thing in a Word document, because it meant less little directional arrows when I had to add something in the middle.** Then there were index cards, which could be endlessly shuffled around but inevitably lacked space and got eaten by the cat.

But now I have found my ride-or-die outlining system, and most of you are going to be entirely unsurprised that it’s Scrivener. I’ve mentioned this particular piece of software before, but never really gone into how I use it. Probably because that would take forever. I use Scrivener for everything from research to planning to editing. It’s a powerful suite of tools all rolled up in a good interface.

For outlining, there is a very convenient feature called the Outliner. It has a number of pre-set columns, but—and this is important for me—you can also customize those columns. Mine are as follows:

-Scene Title: often something basic like ‘Jimmy Finds Orthotics of Power’ but occasionally something more entertaining, like ‘HOLY SHIT IT’S ALL FUCKED UP NOW’.

-What Happens: does what it says on the box. Mostly a Coles Notes version with the pertinent points laid out

-Who’s There: Because characters are like cats: hard to keep track of and then they turn up somewhere you weren’t expecting.

-Questions Raised: Anything dangling hook of information that gets introduced in the scene. I keep track of these so I can make sure that all the important ones get answered eventually.

-Notes: Because sometimes I need to remember something that doesn’t fit in one of the above categories.

Once I have a bunch of these laid out, I use to Label feature to colour-code everything. Partly because it’s pretty, but mostly because it’s helpful. Sometimes it’s by point-of-view character, to make sure I’m not spending all my time inside the wrong head. Other times it’s by plot line: main, sub 1, sub 2, romantic, whatever. The colour coding makes it easy to take in, at a glance, the overall spread of attention. Am I not developing sub plot two enough? Maybe I don’t need it at all. Is Talulah the Overly Sarcastic Orderly taking over a lot of scenes? Consider bumping her up to major character, or scaling back the scenes from her point of view.

Of course, the outline thus created changes once I start writing, but I track those changes, too. Then, when I’m done, I compare what I did with what I meant to do, and see where the changes improve the manuscript and where they were the products of too much coffee and a bad dream the night before.

Most of the above can be done with any spreadsheet program, or a table if you have the patience for formatting. I prefer Scrivener because it’s simple and I have to change programs far less, but if you have something that can do all of this, more power to you.

So that’s my system. What do you do to outline?

*Heeeeeeey, Mr. Butler.

**Also less hand cramps.

Subvert The System: 6 Ways To Hack NaNoWriMo

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Quick, before the NaNo Police arrive!

So I’m doing NaNoWriMo this year. Kind of a last minute decision. But, since I’m already in the process of doing something else—namely The Big Edit—I figured this would be a good chance to kick start it.

Now, I won’t be starting from scratch; I’m actually rewriting the last NaNoWriMo project I did. Don’t tell the NaNo Police*, since it isn’t strictly by the rules, but rules were made to be broken, baby. Or at least severely bent.

I know there are more than a few of you out there who might have considered NaNo as a jumpstart for writing, but you don’t feel that your project fits their guidelines. Well, guidelines be damned; this is about writing. So here are a couple ways to hack NaNo to fit your project.

1) Go Short And Sweet. A small but interesting group writes short stories instead of novels for November. Some do thirty in thirty days; others try to tally 50,000 words worth of short stories in a month. If you’re more into short fiction, this could be your project.

2) Hack and Slash. Maybe, like me, you’ve got a project that needs editing. NaNo can jumpstart that, too. Depending on your needs, maybe you could edit a chapter a day. You’d be through those edits in no time! Or, if you need to spend a little more time on it, go for a page a day and really fucking dig into it.

3) Draw Me A Picture. I am a long-time lover of comics and graphic novels, as evidenced by the contents of my t-shirt drawer, and I see nothing wrong with taking NaNoWriMo and working on a comic script. Whether you’re writing a poignant narrative about life during the Enlightenment, a heady space adventure, or a rocking cape story with heroes galore, this could be your time.

4) Just The Facts, Ma’am. Or maybe you need to grind out some non-fiction. Honestly, if I’d known about NaNoWriMo when I was working on my theses, I would have jumped on it like a meth-addicted cat on a slow mouse. Talk about footnotes with your fellow academics! Or compare dodgy research methods and start messing up Wikipedia articles!

5) Roll A Craft (Writing) Check. All you tabletop gamers out there: do you think those books of rules, monsters, scenarios, and dodgy magical items write themselves? Jump in and have a go. There’s a small group that sharpens their pencils and rolls the dice to make up scenarios for their favourite games. Or maybe writes their own game. Break the rules by making other rules!

6) Something Else Entirely! There’s a group on the NaNoWriMo forums called NaNo Rebels. There’s not as many things in there as you might think; the rules have changed a little in recent years to allow for other sorts of projects than the puke-it-up-as-you-go zero draft. But if you’re not sure what it is that you want to do—if, in fact, all you have in an amorphous idea blob that could become any number of things—then trawling through there might give your project a shape.

And if you are in doubt about the legitimacy of your project, they will be more than happy to tell you whether or not you belong in the regular forums or in with the rebels. Also, I hear that they might be giving our eyepatches and parrots to eligible candidates.

Still think it’s not for you? Fair enough. But know that the doors are more open than the title ‘National Novel Writing Month’ might imply. And, even if they’re not, there’s no harm in squeezing under the door when no one’s looking.

*No such thing, but a trip through the internets could leave you thinking differently.

Five Things You Need To Write A Novel

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Here. You’re going to need these.

1) A Fine Set Of Big Brass Ones. Balls or ovaries, dealer’s choice. You will need these to start, because without them, you’ll likely be discouraged by naysayers, lingering self-doubts, or the idea of putting words in order for several months with no promise* of a giant pile of money at the end. There are a million reasons not to, and before you’re done you’ll find out what most of them are and maybe invent one or two new ones on your own. If you’re pitting your will against all that, it’ll help to have the stones to follow through.

So strap on your biggest pair, because you’re going to need ‘em.

2) An Idea. Ideally, an idea that you’ve worked with a bit and which has spawned a whole colony of sub-ideas, all of which can go into creating an interesting whole. But in a pinch you can substitute a brand new Flash-In-The-Pan and see how it goes. Maybe it’ll fizzle out after a chapter or two, or maybe it’ll make a fire big enough to toast your brain from the inside. Only one way to find out, right?

3) A Practical Concept Of How You Write. Do you prefer to pick at it a little every day? Or are you the weekend binger, knocking out whole chapters while watching the Sunday afternoon games? Do you want to get up in the morning and scratch out a couple of pages while your spouse sleeps and the paper boy runs from the neighbour’s murderous Rottweillers? Or do you want to stay up past your bedtime, pecking away by the blue light of the computer? Have an idea of how you work, or how you want to try to work. This will give you discipline.

Don’t worry if it’s your first time; if it doesn’t work, you can always change it. I’m not going to come to your house and kick your door in.**

4) A Sub-Atomic Transcription-ator. Or a computer. Or a notebook. Some means by which you will take the raw, fresh squeezings of your brain and turn them into a useable form. Like making booze, you’ve got to have the right container. Charred white oak or a brand-new journal, sherry casks or a clean Word document: each will give your writing a different feel and a different flavour. Pick the one that suits the story.

5) Desire. You have to want it. And you have to want it enough that you are willing to invest something of which you have a finite amount: time.

So want it. Want it right down in your mitochondria.

That’s my list. What do you need to write a novel?

*If you do have a promise of a big pile of money at the end, congratulations on the satanic book deal for which you sold your soul.

**Unless you have coffee when I’ve run out. Or pecan pie. Big pie fan.

Eleven Things The Writer In Me Is Thankful For

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Honourable Mention: Michael Bay, for ridding us of that pesky drive toward nostalgia.

1) Supportive Peeps. Family, friends, cats, that other cat who comes to sit on our deck in the morning…thanks for being you. And for not clawing my eyes out while I sleep.

2) Good Books. For the inspiration. Or the maddening, liver-gnawing jealousy that can pass for it sometimes.

3) Bad Books. For making me feel better about myself.

4) Coffee. For giving me the energy I need to vibrate at exactly 4.346 x 10^6534 times a second. No, 4.347 now. 4.346. 4.347. 4.346.

5) Scotch. For being scotch.

6) Music. For giving my days a rhythm, a rhyme, and a beat that I can dance to.

7) The Comment Block and Twitter Mute Buttons. For making it possible for me to ignore all the mouth-breathing pieces of shit that demand that I send them tit pics.*

8) Fountain Pens. For being elegant, timeless, and sharp enough to stab people.

9) October. For being the prettiest damn month I’ve ever seen.

10) The Delete Key. For destroying the evidence of my mistakes.

11) Readers. For making this whole writing thing seem a little less like a crazy person ranting into the void.

Happy Canadian Thanksgiving! What are you thankful for?

*I like to imagine all the creepy randos that demand tit pics of me are all locked in a tiny little Rapunzel tower together every time I hit one of these buttons. The only way out is to be a decent human being, so they’re never going to see daylight again.

BUSY BUSY: Announcement

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Busy Adult With Many Important Things To Do

All right, you little confound-its. Bring it in and take a knee. It’s announcement time.

I have a bunch of writing projects that I’m trying to juggle and some aren’t getting the time they deserve. I did an audit on Uses Of My Time, Legitimate And Otherwise*, and have made a plan to finish them, which starts now.  The blog will be going to two posts a week. Check here on Mondays and Wednesdays for the finest second finest interestingly profane writing complaints, advice, harangues, rants, bitchfests, pep talks, and absurd pop culture references that you’ve come to rely on. Mondays will not always be writing prompts, though those will still appear.

I’m also looking for those interested in doing guest posts here for times when I’m away. Got a story coming out? Have a writing story to share? Whiskey recommendations? Get at me. If you’ve got a writing axe to grind, email me at bareknucklewriter@gmail.com and we’ll talk.

All right, that’s it. Get back in the game. And I’ll see you all back here on Monday.

*Watching my neighbours grow increasingly sketchy, yet still not as sketchy as their “DJ” landlord, is, sadly, not on the list of necessary things.

5 Things I Learned Doing NaNoWriMo

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Now the trick is to just get it out…

It’s that time of year again. The hills are alive with the sound of little NaNoNauts, about the embark on their first–or second, or ninth–cruise through the turbulent, maddening waters of NaNoWriMo. The word-puck officially drops November the First, right after Halloween.

In case you missed them, here are some of my past profanity filled takes on NaNoWriMo:

-4 Reasons To Do NaNoWriMo

-4 Reasons To Skip NaNoWriMo

-NaNoWriMo Survival Guide: Participant’s Edition

-NaNoWriMo Survival Guide: Rubbernecker’s Edition (my personal favourite)

But there’s something I haven’t addressed yet, and it’s this: what I took from doing NaNoWriMo at various points in my writerly growth.* So here they are: all the lessons I dragged from my brain.

1) An Outline Is Not Necessary, But, Damn, Does It Ever Fucking Help. You don’t need an outline. The popular “no plan, no problem” approach is often touted for NaNo. And it can work. I’ve done NaNo with no plan. But while I finished, what I created was such an abysmal festering mess that I can barely look at it, let alone try to edit it. Plus, going at the breakneck speed of words that NaNo requires, if you don’t have a plan you’re going to write some weird-ass shit. Guaranteed. Maybe that’s what you’re going for.

2) A Writing Community Helps When Everything Tastes Like Fail. Having a group of other writers to bitch to when things aren’t going as planned is very valuable. You might find the group in one of your local meetings, or you might find it online in the forums. Wherever you track them down, they can make writing a little less fucking lonely.

3) Competition Can Help Or Hinder, But For God’s Sake Don’t Be A Dick About It. Don’t be that guy who shows up to the local meeting bragging about how far ahead he is. Or the one that goes to a write-in and pouts if he loses the word-sprint. If you want to let competition power the tiny little engine that is your soul and push you to new heights, fine. But don’t bring that drama with you to the coffee shop, hoss. Nobody likes that guy.

4) People Will Just Not Fucking Accept “No, I’m Staying In To Write” As A Valid Reason To Miss AnythingI don’t care if it’s a night at the pool hall or your cousin’s ritual slaughter of goats, you use writing as an excuse, you’re going to get some serious shade thrown your way. Find a way to be okay with it or make up another excuse. Perhaps, “My writerly growth just burst.”

5) Flailing Around Like A Drunk Wombat With A Keyboard Can Be A Great Learning Experience. Maybe you’ll learn that you need to outline, or that you can do without. Maybe you’ll learn how to pace a story. Maybe you’ll learn how to meet a deadline. Maybe you’ll learn that writing novels isn’t for you and you prefer short fiction, or poetry. Or maybe you’ll learn that you don’t like writing that much after all. The one thing I guarantee, though, is that you’ll learn something. Even if you don’t like it.

So, how about you guys? Anyone participating this year? Anyone bowing out? Tell me of your plans, word goblins.

*That sounds like a tumour. “We removed a writerly growth that was the size of a basketball!”

Monday Challenge: Now It’s Personal

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Hairy Frank eventually achieved levitation, but his mullet elected to stay behind and enlighten others. Namaste, Hairy Frank.

I’ve recently gotten back into journalling. I did it for many years, mostly in that awkward/angry period between 14 and 25, but stopped because:

1) Life happened. Shit got busy fast, yo.

2) I rather stupidly believed that, once I was past 25, I had most of life figured out. At least the stuff that I would have been journalling about, anyway. Which just goes to prove that, while age might come with its own indignities, nothing makes you cringe like Younger You. I mean, goddamn, I don’t regret stuff that I’ve done, but the stupid was thick on the ground some years.

All of this is a long-winded way of saying that I’ve started journalling again, and am currently trying to remember what faulty brand of logic led me to stop in the first place. Near as I can tell, it seems to be the same sort of logic that makes you stop working out just when you start feeling really strong and fit, because, hey, you don’t need it anymore.

Seriously, Younger Me: cringe.

I prefer to do my journalling offline, in an actual paper notebook, with a pen that spews ink. Like a Muggle. Not entirely sure why, though the possibility of destroying any incriminating evidence with nothing more than some gasoline and a BBQ lighter has come to mind. I’ve got so many safeguards on my computer these days–after the Great Hard Drive Failure of ’14–that I could reasonably resurrect anything if I had to.

So I’ve been getting my Carpal Tunnel on and scribbling in a notebook, filling it with…stuff. because that’s what a journal is, isn’t it? A repository for all the random crap that you don’t want cluttering up anywhere else, including the inside of your own skull? That, and drawings of dragons and robots.*

I recommend journalling to anyone who occasionally feels, to paraphrase Albus Dumbledore, as if there are too many thoughts inside your head. In the absence of a working Pensieve, a notebook can do.

And what do you write about? I’m so glad you asked.

Monday Challenge: write a journal entry. It may be your first, it may be your millionth. Doesn’t matter. What does matter is your subject. Write a journal entry about whatever the hell you’re thinking about right now. Your errands, your writing, your family, the way your neighbour has started doing topless yoga**. Even how weird journals are and how you don’t know what to write about. That was the subject of my first entry, and, damn, if that thing didn’t go on forever.

Go forth and write, goblins.

*To guard my thoughts. Obviously.

**Hairy Frank has a killer Peacock Pose.