NaNoWriMo is on the horizon, that wonderful, crazy month when you put everything you’ve learned to the test, squeezing out word after word after word for 30 days until you finally collapse, puffing, on top of your keyboard with a novel-length, rough-draft manuscript to show for it. Congratulations, you’ve gotten through all of the conferences, critique groups, and exercises this year like enduring months of intense combat training, and now you finally get a chance to step into the octagon or the pentagon or whatever shape you’re into. It may look scary to the average person, but writers, we live for this.
Naturally, this month’s column is going to be a bit heftier than usual as we give our loyal readers an inside look at a new resource. Write for Success by our client, Joan Bouza Koster (who also writes as Zara West), is a forthcoming series of ebook guides covering different aspects of the writing process, tapping into her decades of experience as an award-winning author of fiction and non-fiction. The first ebook, out next Monday, is Fast Draft Your Manuscript: And Get It Done Now. Perfect for NaNoWriMo, this 79-page guide introduces the Fast Drafting method that has helped Joan get so much writing done, balancing two pen names, several genres, trade and academic books, and a career as an educator. In the same 24 hours we all get each day.
We’re pleased to offer an excerpt.
CHAPTER 2: GETTING STARTED
“You can, you should, and if you’re brave enough to start, you will.”
Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft
The first step in finding flow is to know where you are going. You can’t Fast Draft unless you have a finish line—Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s all-important clear end goal.
In this chapter, we will be defining that goal and setting guideposts to reach along the way. By the time we are done, you will have a figurative racetrack in place to follow as you fast draft.
Step 1: Determine the Format and Length
To begin, note how many words you need to write and exactly what the topic will be in a clear, simple statement, i.e. I must write a ten-page critical essay on Shakespeare’s Hamlet. I need to write a twelve-chapter textbook on teaching biology to high school students. I can’t wait to write an eighty-thousand-word novel about a woman who is mistaken as a killer and pursued by a madman.
Step 2: Gather Your Data
There is an old saying, “Write what you know.” No matter what writing approach you use, and that includes before Fast Drafting, you should have all the data you need at hand. If you are writing about Hamlet, you should have read the play and other critical essays on it. If you are writing a textbook, you should have collected all the references and quotes and facts you think will be necessary. If you are writing a novel, you should have researched the time period, the setting, and culture (even if you are writing a contemporary set story), and prepared information sheets or journal-type entries for all the major characters.
None of this has to be fancy. You don’t need elaborate notes on everything. Much of the information you require might be inside your head. In fact, that is a marvelous place to have it, because that knowledge will flow out of you as you Fast Draft.
But what if you prefer to sit down and start writing? Don’t worry. In Fast Drafting that is exactly what you will be doing most of the time. However, if you constantly have to pause to look things up or leave major portions of what you are writing blank, you will have a much harder time entering that all-important state of flow.
Step 3: Create Guideposts
In order to Fast Draft, outlining is essential. An outline provides a series of guideposts that will keep your writing on track. It does us no good as writers if we end up with a disjointed draft that will take months to arrange into a workable whole any more than running off into the woods next to the racetrack and having a picnic would help us win the race. Having an outline allows you to keep going forward in an orderly way toward your ending goal without veering off sideways and wasting your time.
Now, what that outline looks like is up to you. Your outline can be very simple or complex. There are many ways to create one. Here I will present several that I do myself to prepare for Fast Drafting. You can pick and choose the one you feel will help you the most or come up with your own. And you don’t have to make just one outline. Sometimes it is helpful to use two or three different methods. Yes, this will take time. But spending time on organizing your thoughts and materials upfront will streamline your writing process later.
Method 1 for Fiction Writers: The Tell-a-Story Outline
This is a great method for seat-of-the-pants writers and people who don’t like to make detailed outlines. In this method, you write a brief one to three-page summary of your imagined story or non-fiction work. Think of it as relaying your story, argument, or procedure to a friend or colleague.
As you jot down your tale or ideas make sure you include the three essential parts of any piece of writing: a beginning, a middle full of exciting events or strong supports for your ideas, and a thrilling end or powerful conclusion.
Fiction writers should follow the requirements of their chosen genre. If you are writing romance, the end goal is easy. The lovers end up happily together. In your tale, you need to tell what obstacles and events lead to that enduring love. If it is a fantasy based on the hero’s journey, what will the main character win in the end and how will they do that? If it is a mystery, what problem will need to be solved, who or what will interfere, and what will be revealed at the end? Whatever you decide, quickly write out your story.
Now take each sentence of your story and paste it into your blank draft. Note: Using the Tell-A-Story method also gives you the advantage of having a basic summary on hand if you need to pitch the story or idea to an agent or a publisher. This is the method I always use first.
Method 2 for Fiction Writers: Plotting Outlines or Beat Sheets
There are hundreds of plotting templates and beat sheets available on the web. These are more complex than the story outline above but provide a strong safety net as you write.
If you are a fiction writer, be sure to choose a template that best fits your genre. A science fiction plot template will not work for a romance story, for example.
Simply search for “Plot Templates” online to find one you like, or click the following links for some of my favorites.
- Creative Writing Templates: A collection of different methods plus some other handy templates
- Plot Outline: Simple and clear plot outline for an adventure
- Genre Story Templates: A variety of templates for different genres
- Six Plot Outlines: More detailed plot templates for those who really like outlining
Methods for Non-Fiction Writing
For non-fiction writers, follow the format required for your type of writing. Do you need a statement of theme or premise, supporting ideas, a summary, or a conclusion? Do you need to organize what you are saying into steps or a series of stages?
One of the best methods for organizing your work is to find a comparative example and use it as a model. Writing a marketing blog? Find three or four that are similar to what you want to write. Writing a textbook, magazine article, or how-to-book? Familiarize yourself with comparative publications or other articles or books by your chosen publisher. Almost all non-fiction publications have specific requirements, so be sure to check what these might be. Once under contract, textbook companies and non-fiction publishers should provide detailed author guides.
If you are working on your own, search online for templates related to the type of piece you are writing. Here are some to consult.
- Non-Fiction Formats: A wide variety of non-fiction formats
- Write an Outline: Here are step-by-step instructions for creating a simple non-fiction outline
Graphics for Planning
If you are a more visual person, you may prefer to make a graphic of your outline. This approach works for both fiction and non-fiction.
- Sticky-Note Graphic. Use sticky notes to write down your guiding ideas or plot events and arrange them in order on a piece of paper or a board. I like to use an open file folder. While writing, I can stand it up in front of me. Later, I can fold it up and file it away when I am done.
- Mind Maps or Webs. A mind map is much like a branching tree. The trunk starts with the main topic or story idea in the center of a piece of paper. Lines or limbs are then drawn outward from the center representing the secondary themes, events, or chapters. Lesser topics, argument supports, or scenes then branch out from these branches. Mind maps can be hand-drawn using colors and symbols, or various software can be used, like Microsoft SmartArt found in both Word and PowerPoint or the Lucidchart app in Google Docs. Check out these other free online tools: MindMup, Canva Mind Maps, Mindmaps, and Creately.
- Digital or Physical Index Cards. Another approach is to write the important information that must be included in a non-fiction work or the story events in a fiction work on index cards and then arrange the cards into the best order for making your argument or developing your story. Two digital index card sites are Trello and for fiction writers Scrivener.
Step 4: Insert Your Guideposts
You should now have a list of events or ideas you will be covering on your way to reaching our end goal. The next step is to insert them into your blank draft and make them stand out so you can write to them easily.
One way to do this is to make each a heading using your word processor’s heading tools. The value in using headings is that you can easily see your Fast Draft racetrack guideposts by opening the Find Navigation box and clicking on Headings in Word or clicking on the Table of Contents view in Pages.
Here is how to create headings in Pages (note: scroll down to Headings).
Here is how to create headings in Word.
Organizing with Headings
Headings are a great way to organize your information. Not only do they allow you to see your outline visually, but they also help you build the structural elements in a consistent way.
For Fiction Writers. In my fiction writing, I list setting, point-of-view, day or time, and most importantly, the goal, motivation, conflict, and dilemma or decision for each scene or chapter. This helps guide me through writing the scenes that will be in that section and helps induce flow as I have the end of that section of writing (usually a scene or chapter) laid out before me so I know where I am ending.
- For Goal. I note what the POV character needs to accomplish by the end of the scene or chapter.
- For Motivation. I list the inner desire or need and/or the outer forces pushing the character.
- For Conflict. I name the people or events stopping or hindering the character from that goal.
- For Dilemma or Decision. I imagine what problem (dilemma) the character will have at the end of the scene/chapter OR I have the character make a decision about what to do next—this is almost always the wrong decision by design. That helps create tension and keeps the reader turning the pages.
A great resource to learn more about this is GMC: Goal, Motivation, and Conflict by Deb Dixon.
For Non-Fiction Writers. One thing that non-fiction writing requires is a consistent structure. It helps to start out right from the beginning with one well-designed template you can use for every chapter or every blog post. Headings help you do this.
For example, for one of my blogs, I use the following structure:
- Introduction to topic – 1 paragraph
- Example 1
- Example 2
- Example 3
- Question for the reader
In my textbook, I structure the chapters so each has the same number of top headings, and the first heading is always in question format.
Headings and subheadings help the reader remember information better by breaking it into organized chunks. Usually, three levels of headings will suffice. If more subheadings are needed, bullets or numbered lists can be used.
Step 5: Know Where You Are Going
Whatever outline you make, keep a visual copy handy so you can consult it quickly while writing and check your position on the track.
- You can print it out and post it near your work area.
- You can hang it on a wall nearby.
- You can put it at the front of your notebook.
Ready to Go
Once you have your basic outline set, you can be confident that no matter how fast and sloppy you write, what you produce will have coherence and need less revision that when writing without one. You can also use a printed out copy as a way to keep track of your progress. As you complete each section of writing, checkmark it or cross it off. This allows you to see where you are at a glance and have a clear view of where you are headed.
Explore: Setting Goals
Using a piece of writing you are currently working on, write down your end goal in specific terms and then try one of the outlining methods suggested in this chapter. If you already have some of your piece written, be sure to include outline headings for that part too.
Remember, NaNoWriMo is all about getting the raw words out onto the page. You’ll get a chance to revise later. And if this guide helps you through NaNoWriMo, Joan will have another one on revision for you very soon.