Nov 2, 2010

Before you trash your outline

It's day two of NaNoWriMo and I hear rumblings of getting-started issues.

Before you trash the outline you've so carefully crafted, consider Point of View (POV) first:

1.  Are you writing in the correct POV to tell the story you want to tell? You don't have to change your story to match the POV.  You can change the POV to match the story. You're a writer doing magic and this is one the tools of your trade.

Maybe 1st person doesn't work for this piece.  Maybe 3rd person doesn't work.  Are you writing this from the perspective of the right character?

2.  If you are writing in 3rd person, are you settling into one or two heads or are you head-hopping from one to another? A lot of new writers head-hop.  (I did.  I liked it.  I didn't want anyone telling me to stop.)

If you head-hop, you have to write a lot of phrases like "she thought he was gorgeous. . ." and "he noticed how she couldn't stop looking at him."  If you don't head-hop.  You can say, "Delicious from leather boots to belt to. . . oh god, those eyes.  He tilted his head toward her, smiled, and her knees quivered."

You don't have to say who thought he was hot because you're staying in the woman's head.  Clearly he sees her, clearly he notices her, but you don't have to be in his head to say that.

Or maybe you're in his head:  "The woman at the bar kept sizing him up, probably thought him a mark, probably planned to roll him and take his money just like the last bitch.  When he got her alone, she'd see that flashing her legs at him wasn't such a good idea.  He tilted his head and smiled."

At the very least, if you are going to write both perspectives, separate them with a # marker, so the reader won't be so confused.  Keep in mind what each character knows about the scene and keep them straight.

3.  If POV is the issue or you think it might be the issue, take some time to write the same intro in a few different ways.  Try on some different possibilities before you commit yourself any more to this path.

SO POV isn't the problem?  Back to the outline then.  (BTW, I rarely outline.  I do big boards, phase drafting, and cluster plotting, but actual outlining has never worked for me.  I use the word outline here to mean PLAN.)

4.  Do you know the beginning and end? The beginning is the point when everything changes.  The end is the point where the main plot is resolved.

5.  Do you know how your main character gets from the beginning to the end? I'm talking about the main turning points, not every beat in the story?  Do you have that? This is the through-line.

6.  Do you have an opening scene that makes the reader want to be in your main character's head? Does your character do something or say something that makes the reader take his/her hand for the rest of the novel?

If you have those things, carry on.  Do not go back and rewrite your entire novel plan.  There's no need.  You're on solid ground.

If you're having trouble getting from one turning point to the next, you may need to know your character better.  You may not be sure how your character would get from one point to the next because you need more information.  Stop and interview your character.  Draw sketches.  Ask basic questions.  Do role playing.  Explore the motivations.  Ask yourself:  why does my character care about what happens?  What does my character hope to get out of this?  The better you know your character, the better you'll be able to move that from point A to point B.

If you're struggling right now, the plan for the book is probably secondary to something else.  Explore your options, have fun, and keep writing!


  1. Some great advice here, Johanna. POV is a tricky bugger. I settled for writing the same section from each person's perspective to get a better view of it all. It seems to help. (For those of you playing along at home, I just wrote three novels in first person. The NaNo novel is in third. Having a little trouble shifting *my* POV, much less the characters'.)

    As always, you're encouraging as well as informative. Thanks for this, it really helped.

    Take care,

  2. For me personally, I find it amazing how often trouble with writing boils down to a lack of conflict in the scene. It seems like ANY time I have trouble, a lack of conflict is at the root of it. Once I realize it and figure out the conflict for the scene, things tend to pick up and go much better.

  3. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by BJ Muntain, Johanna Harness, Johanna Harness, Janelle Boys-Chen, Jessica Rosen and others. Jessica Rosen said: Don't miss @johannaharness's article about saving your outline and POV issues: #amwriting #NaNo #NaNoWriMo [...]

  4. Jess--It's always difficult to learn new tricks, but great fun once you have them at your disposal!

    Aislinn--Yes! Conflict in the scene wakes me up in the morning, gets me typing. You're so right.

  5. I have an award for you at my blog. Thanks for all you support this year x