Outlining: Easy As A, B, C

Alright now, before we go much further we have to introduce a common held belief in the NaNoWriMo culture: the idea that there are two kinds of writers, those that plot out their stories in detail beforehand, and those that write by the seat of their pants. They’re affectionately referred to as “plotters” and “pantsers.” Neither is right or wrong; it just comes down to how your brain works.

With that said, I believe that we’re all a bit of both. The most meticulously planned out story can still take a wild turn, and even the most spontaneous story can often benefit from at least a bit of direction, even if it’s only so much as a vague idea or a few prompts. I’ve tried both, and while I find that more complicated outlining techniques are great for second and third and fourth drafts, I need something simpler for rough drafts.

This technique is not unique or original. I picked it up from watching Star Trek: The Next Generation.

The idea is to have three plot lines (A, B, and C, get it?), which you can jump back and forth between. Imagine an episode of TNG: the ship has been sent on a diplomatic mission, and Captain Picard is in charge of handling contact with an alien planet. That’s your A plot line. In the meantime, Wesley Crusher has discovered something strange in his studies, and Riker is humoring him and helping him figure it out (B plot line). And periodically, we see Data and Geordi preparing for their weekly poker game (C plot line). Throughout the 45 minute episode, we’ll jump back and forth between these. Ultimately, Wesley’s project may prove to be related to Captain Picard’s mission. Or maybe Geordi and Data will unearth an important malfunction while they’re trying to create the perfect poker program on the holodeck, and we’ll discover that Wesley was right all along, while Picard continues on undisturbed. Occasionally all three plot lines will overlap.

You will see this format a lot through television; sometimes very overtly, like in the example above, and sometimes more subtly. But the point is, these three plot lines allow you the freedom to jump around in the story. It gives you something to turn to when you’re stuck, or when you need a change of pace to undercut tension, or a break for comic relief. It keeps your story new and interesting, for your future readers but also for yourself.

With Nano, your biggest danger is feeling trapped in a scene you don’t want to be writing. If that happens, I recommend you skip it, and the easiest way to do that is to swing over to one of your other plot lines. Your goal here is to keep momentum going. You can come back to boring scenes in the editing phase (and chances are, you may not need them after all).

You don’t have to use three plot lines, but too many and you’ll lose track of what you’re doing, and too few will leave you with not enough variety to keep your brain going.

Now, how to keep track of those plot lines? I do it with three columns, shown below. Let’s use that theoretical Stark Trek episode, shall we?

Three columns:  A Picard preps for the first meeting. Picard is shown around the alien planet. Picards meets the two conflicting cultures he must mediate. Things go awry during the negotiations. Picard consults with Troi back at the ship. Through an interaction with Westley, they learn that the teenagers of the two cultures have been intermingling through an MMORPG They confront the adults with the help of the teens, and show that cultures can work together to overcome their differences. B Westley is studyng an MMO. He joins a new guild, and discovers that they’re not from the ship. He determines that his new online BFFs are from the planet below. But shocker: they’re made up of people from both cultures. He confides in Riker about what he’s learned, and they go to Troi and the Captain As they leave the area, Westley signs on for a session with his guild, still connected through the same server due to help from Geordi and Data. C Data and Geordi get ready for their next poker game, but they want to shake things up. Data has a new holodeck program for their game, but Geordi thinks it’s a little too clinical. He tells Data to consult old Noir novels. Data goes a little hard on the Noir theme, and Geordi has to reel him in, explaining that he needs to take his friends’  personalities into account. They all gather around the game at last, happy and content in the bar Data designed for them.

I’ve laid out the main plot points above. You can see that the three plot lines don’t all line up perfectly, and there are a lot of holes to fill in. But this way when I sit down to write, I just have to pick a plot line to focus on. If I finish a scene and need a change, I can jump to another one. It’s all right there; I just have to connect points, build up to others, and let inspiration strike. Most importantly, I always have something to turn to if I get stuck.

I find this method really easy to generate quickly, and just as easy to adjust or ignore when I’m in the thick of writing. Hopefully, it’ll help you start building that road map to your own novel!

Next time, we’re going to dig into characters!

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Habits for A Happy NaNoWriMo

My first rule of NaNoWriMo is: start on time.

I really can’t emphasize this enough; there may be no mathematical difference between being 5,000 words behind in Week 1 and 5,000 words behind in Week 3, but that 5,000 words will feel a lot easier to make up when you’ve already written 35,000, as opposed to staring down a big blank page.

The key to starting on time, and keeping on top of your word count, is to build good habits, and build them early. Since we’re spending this month prepping for November, I say, start building those habits now, while the stakes are low.

Figure out when you can fit writing into your schedule. It won’t happen naturally; otherwise, you’d already be doing it. If you’re planning to do NaNoWriMo, chances are you like writing, and have at least thought about being a writer before. Well, this is how you do it: writing, consistently, ongoingly. I’m not saying you have to write every single day or you’re not a real writer, but you do have to write to be a writer. And the easiest way to do that is to make it into a habit.

There is no cookie cutter answer to this question; the habit will be different for everyone. Maybe you’re a night owl, so writing before bed works the best. Maybe it’s easiest for you to get up a little extra early, and write before you go to work or wake your kids up for school. Maybe you’re going to go to a cafe everyday after class and bang out your word count. Try one thing, and if that doesn’t seem to work, try something else; you’ll find your sweet spot, and it’ll make the whole process easier.

The more of a ritual you can make of this, the easier it will be to trick your brain into being productive on a daily basis. My first year doing Nano, I bought packs of instant apple cider mix, and whenever I wrote, I made myself a warm cup of cider. To this day, warm apple cider is something I associate with writing, and when I have it, it’s that much quicker for me to slip into Writing Mode.

Of course, you won’t really know what works until you’re in the thick of it in November, but now is the perfect time to experiment. Set aside some time, start jotting down notes about the stories in your head, and find out what habits work best for you.

Next time, we’ll look at building a rough outline for your Nano novel!

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Gearing Up for NaNoWriMo 2018

Fall is in the air. Halloween decorations have started appearing on porches, leaves are falling, and pumpkin spice lattes are back on the menu. I love October, mainly because of Halloween. But thirteen years ago, this season gained a new meaning. In 2005, my freshman year of college, I first heard about National Novel Writing Month, and my life would be forever changed.

I had a tradition in college. Halloween night, I’d come back after midnight from whatever party or gathering I was at, open my laptop, and write the first few paragraphs of that year’s novel.

In a post-college world, I’ve had trouble keeping up that exact tradition (when you work at 8am the next morning, it’s a lot harder to justify staying up past midnight just to sleepily type a few lines of text). But I’ve participated in every NaNoWriMo since 2005.

I don’t intend this year to be any different. But this time, I want to take you with me.

Some of you may be wondering, what is NaNoWriMo? National Novel Writing Month is a challenge writers set for themselves: to write a 50,000 novella within the month of November. It works out to about 1,667 words a day, which is, roughly speaking, about three single-spaced pages. It’s a doable task. Not necessarily easy, but achievable. Imaginable.

One of the hardest parts of writing a book is getting the first draft out. NaNoWriMo forces you through that process; it gives you the drive and motivation to overcome the planning stage, to actually put words on paper. To learn how to turn your inner editor on and off, and to push through the writing blocks, even if that means you might not be writing your best. I can guarantee you won’t be writing your best, not every scene, not every chapter. But you’ll be writing, and that’s really more important.

It doesn’t matter if you’re a strong writer. It doesn’t matter if you’re a good writer. Whoever you are, you will be a better writer on the other side of November.

And we’re going to get there together.

NaNoWriMo doesn’t start until November 1st, but just because you can’t be writing your novel yet, doesn’t mean you can’t be preparing. Everyone does this in a different way, and you don’t have to go into NaNoWriMo with a strict outline (there’s a strong tradition of writers just diving into it on the 1st, writing by the seat of their pants), but I’ve found I’m much more likely to finish the month if I have something to fall back on when I get stuck. You don’t need to have every little twist and turn of your novel figured out, but this month we’re going to work on building a roadmap. You can take as many detours as you need to, but at least you’ll have something to go by.

This October, you should be thinking about what story you want to tell. It can be something that you’ve been kicking around in your head for years, or something new that you’re itching to develop. It can be something you’ve written before (as long as you start writing again from scratch). Honestly, you can take something you’ve already started, and write a continuation, as long as you only count the words actually written in November as part of your word count. You just need some spark; some little nugget of a story that you’d like to develop over 50,000 words.

Start thinking about that this week. And tune in tomorrow for our first deep-dive into Nano prepping: building writing habits.

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Musical Monday #10: No Hopers, Jokers, and Rogues

Ok, I’ll admit, it’s been a few…uh, weeks, since the last Musical Monday. If you’re new here (or it’s been so long you’ve forgotten), this is a weekly series I’m doing where I stare my discomfort with talking about music right in the eye, and see where it takes me. I don’t claim to know what I’m talking about, but I”ll try to keep it interesting!

“No Hopers, Jokers, & Rogues”
by Port Isaac’s Fisherman’s Friends

Lyrics | iTunes

Every summer, me and a couple thousand other people take to a small town in Oregon, and play pirate for a week. The event is called Sea Dog Nights. It’s kind of like a music festival, meets Burning Man, meets a Renaissance fair. Basically, a flat park is converted into a village of personal tents, merchant stalls, and yes, pirate ships, for a week of immersive fun. You’re expected to be in costume, and keep your campsite as period-appropriate as you can (some people have the kind of period tents you’ll see at an SCA event, and many of us make covers for our mundane tents or construct period-appropriate structures around shade popups or carports). It’s a little less structured than more reenactment-heavy events, though. Most people are in pirate or similar garb, but you’ll see the occasional fairy costume, cosplay, or steampunk outfit running around, too.

This was my fourth year attending the event, and while there are many aspects of it I love, one of my favorites is the music.

See, we have a tradition on our ship of gathering around a fire pit and singing songs. Most of them are sea shanties, but some of them are celtic or folk songs, and we’ve snuck in a few pop songs here and there.

No Hopers, Jokers, and Rogues is one of my absolute favorites.

This song to me says: summer. It says leaving my normal life behind for a week, hanging out with some of my closest friends, unplugging from technology while I drink a beer and gaze at a clear starry sky. It says new friends, new adventures, and a sense of community that often feels unattainable in normal city life. For a week, we become a village, and this song always takes me back there.

“Leave all your furrows in the fields where they lie,
The factories and offices, kiss them all goodbye
Have a little faith in the dream-maker in the sky
There’s glory in, believing in, and it’s all in the beholder’s eye…”

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Musical Monday #9: History Maker

Happy Musical Monday! I was feeling pulled in a lot of different directions this week, but finally decide to look at a song that’s been on my list for awhile.

This is one of those songs I love for a few different reasons. First off, it’s used as the opening to the anime Yuri!!! on Ice, which is fantastic in its own right. Secondly, as an opening, it’s accompanied by some truly stunning visuals that really set the tone for the series. And thirdly, it’s just such a catchy, up-beat song.


“History Maker” by Dean Fujioka

Lyrics | iTunes

(For the record, I really like the full version of the song also, and I think it’s worth downloading if the song catches your fancy.)

Yuri!!! on Ice is the story of the titular Yuri, a professional figure skater who, as the series starts, has failed pretty hard in a number of important competitions. The show follows his comeback, and the ups and downs of overcoming his own insecurities as he strives to open himself up to those that care for him. Yuri’s helped by his idol, champion-turned-coach Victor, and as the two begin a quiet romance, the show becomes as much about how you define yourself and your relationships as it is about the sport and any concept of winning or losing.

For a show that is all about chasing and overcoming dreams, this song couldn’t be more perfect. It’s a call to overcome darkness–those thoughts that creep in and try to bring you down, and are sometimes manifested in people around you. Yuri is a bundle of anxiety, and although Victor has the best of intentions, he has to learn how to help Yuri just as much as Yuri has to learn how to accept help. And at the same time, that help can’t just come from outside; both characters have to draw on their own strength as well.

The animated sequence that accompanies the song is truly lovely, and seems to so perfectly fit the song, the characters dancing fluidly across the screen as the music swells. I really appreciate that the animation is unique; often anime openings will just take animation from within the show, and re-cut it. I’m sure this partially comes down to budget constraints, but it’s a nice touch to not only use original animation, but also keep it so abstract. Yes, the story is about figure skaters, but most of the scenes in the opening are symbolic rather than literal; a lovely depiction of the thoughts and actions of the characters, if it were all rolled into one musical number.

It’s also just damn catchy.

“Can you hear my heartbeat?
Tired of feeling, never enough
I close my eyes and tell myself that my dreams will come true…”

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Writer’s Block

A beige brick wall. Overlay text reads "Writer's Block".

Some people don’t believe in writer’s block. I do think that blindly throwing up your hands and declaring that you just can’t write seems a little melodramatic and unproductive, but I think completely discounting creative blocks puts too much blame on the creator themselves. In fact, in general the term “writer’s block” feels weighted. Like it’s being thrown around as an excuse for lazy writers, or a mysterious blight only the truly creative can understand.

Of course, it’s somewhere in the middle. Creative blocks happen. But they’re not the end of the world, and they’re not all in your head; they’re your story trying to tell you something.

I think of creative blocks as the backlash of inspiration. For all those times that you fall headfirst into the story, when it feels like the story is writing you, there are going to be times where it feels like drugery. Where you’re just going through the motions. This is because writing is work, and work isn’t always fun or easy.

Creative blocks often mean that somewhere, you have taken a wrong turn. Maybe it was even in a burst of inspiration. Not all story threads are meant to be followed through to the end. Sometimes a day of inspired writing is just necessary world-building and character developing. Something you, the author, needed; but that the finished story doesn’t.

No writing is wasted writing. I once overcame a block by completely eliminating a perspective character, and cutting 30,000 words from my story. Were those words wasted? Certainly not! They informed my view of the story, and my understanding of all the characters, so that the story could continue on all the richer.

Creative blocks are your instincts saying “wait, something’s not right here.” But it can be incredibly hard to figure out what and where. We’re told that writer’s have to keep writing, push through the blocks, and sometimes this is true, but sometime’s it’s the pushing that creates the blocks. Sometimes you need to stop, go for a walk. Play a sport. Spend a week hanging out with your friends and re-fueling, or working on a different creative project.

A great writing teacher I had in college taught me that most of writing actually happens away from your computer. It happens when you can’t write anything down; happens in the quiet moments, when your brain is focusing on something else. I try to remind myself this when I’m facing a block, or when I’m procrastinating (because they are not the same, even though they can feel like it). Sometimes, the story just isn’t ready to be told. And that’s ok. That’s part of writing.

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Musical Monday #8: Never Been in Love

Musical Monday, y’all! You know the drill. I’m a day late, I don’t know much about music. Let’s do this thing!

This week is actually going to be a little different. Normally I’m delving up songs from my past—or at least, songs that have had a few years to resonate with me. But today, I felt like taking about a song that’s completely new to me. As in, I discovered it yesterday, new.

“Never Been in Love” by Will Jay

LyricsiTunes

If you remember my post on Tik Tok, you’ll remember that I have a not-so-secret love of pop music. Especially auto-tuned synthy pop music. I know some people hate this kind of thing, but I kind of love how artificial it sounds. Like we’re already in the future, and everyone’s robots.

This song filtered to me through Tumblr, because Will Jay is (apparently) known for making songs that challenge the status quo. I don’t know much about his other work (come on, it’s been a day), but I like that this sythny pop song is about not being in love. And not about the sad, pining side of that, but just being content in singledom.

Anyone who knows me could probably tell you that I’m usually single. I’ve dated here and there over the years, but I’m not one who goes from one relationship to the next. In fact, the last thing I want to do when I get out of one relationship is deal with another one. There’s nothing wrong with doing that, but personally, I like my alone time, and it’s something I do miss when I’m dating someone. There really are only so many hours in the day, and as much as I like spending them with someone else, I also like having them just for me. It’s pretty rare to find a song that actually talks about that, let alone in such a catchy, pop-y beat.

I’m also really charmed by the video. The colors are adorable, and I love the sketchy animation. It probably helps that we’re in a very 90s throw-back time, style-wise, so this video feels very much like something I could have watched on tv as a kid. Are music videos still on tv? Do kids still watch actual tv? (I’m pretty sure everyone just watches YouTube, but that’s not the theme of this series!)

This song has instantly won me over. We’ll see if it has staying power, but for now, it’s definitely been added to all my go-to playlists.

“You can have your romance, go on a perfect date
But for me, there just ain’t enough hours in the day
And I, don’t mean to rain on your happiness
But I’m alone, with no loneliness…”

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Musical Monday #7: I Think I Need a New Heart

Wait, is it actually…Monday? On a Musical Monday? Well, let’s not ruin it; time to get to it!

If you’re just tuning in, Musical Monday is a “weekly” series I’m doing on songs that are important to me. It’s an attempt to get over my discomfort with talking about music, and maybe learn a little bit about myself along the way. You can learn more from my first post.

So far, I’ve learned that I’m really drawn to wistful songs. I like that bittersweet twist of longing for something lost, maybe something you never had…maybe I lean too hard into nostalgia, but what are you gonna do?

Anyway, without further ado, this week’s song!

“I Think I Need a New Heart” by the Magnetic Fields

LyricsiTunes

Music can be a form of time travel. There are some songs that are so ingrained in a place in my past, it’s impossible to listen to them without being transported back there…mentally and emotionally, anyway. For me, the Magnetic Field’s album “69 Love Songs” is an instant transmission to my college days. It takes me back to sophomore and junior year, living on campus, and just starting to figure out who I was as an adult.

More than that, this album reminds me of the specific story I was working on at the time. It’s current working title is “False Starts”, but it’s had a lot of names over the years. Usually I don’t have strong musical associations for stories, but this is the exception. I was gearing up for NaNoWriMo, and every day on my way to work I’d listen to these albums and think: “What would Blake do next? Why is Logan the way he is?”

False Starts is the first novel-length story I ever finished. It’s the first time I “won” NaNoWriMo (met the 50,000 word goal within the month), and it’s a story that has grown with me. When I first wrote it, the characters were barely older than I was, and I had them dealing with a lot of crap that at the time felt adult and in retrospect was very melodramatic (there was even a fake pregnancy). A few years ago, for a different NaNoWriMo, I rewrote it; aged the characters up, toned down the melodrama, and threw in a few more years of my own wisdom and experience behind it. I reread that draft a year ago, and it’s actually pretty good (it’s main flaw is that it lacks a middle).

The whole album reminds me of that story, but this song, specifically, is special to me. It feels very appropriate for my two main characters; Stephin Merritt’s voice is how I imagine Logan sounding, but the words are all Blake.

False Starts is all about Blake and Logan falling in love in the messiest, silliest way possible. Both characters make a ton of mistakes, hurt each other and their friends, and generally make all the wrong choices. And I love them. There’s a lot of me in both characters. I’ve had a lot of writing projects over the years, but this one is really my baby.

“You’ve lied, too, but it’s a sin that I can’t tell the truth,
Cause it all comes out wrong unless I put it in a song, so the radio plays,
‘I Think I Need a New Heart’, just for you.
‘I Think I Need a New Heart’…”

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Musical Monday #6: Boogie Back

Happy Musical Monday! On Wednesday…eh, it’s not the first time, and it won’t be the last.

Dragon Ball Super ended about a month ago (you may remember I had feelings about this), and I’m definitely missing my weekly shot of DBS. So today I wanted to look at my favorite ending theme from the series.

“Boogie Back” by Miyu Innoue

LyricsiTunes

While opinions about the series as a whole vary, I personally think that one thing consistently awesome about Super was its ending themes. It was interesting to adjust to the modern trend in anime where ending themes (and often opening themes) change every 13 to 26 episodes, instead of lasting 100+ episodes like in earlier decades. In the whole three-year run of Super, we got a total of 11 endings, and I enjoyed everyone one of them. But the eighth ending, “Boogie Back”, is by far my favorite.

Visually, all of the endings lean pretty hard on nostalgia, with an array of shots from beloved characters (even ones that barely feature in the actual show). “Boogie Back” is the one that reminds me most of the ending from the original Dragon Ball, probably because of the prominent shots of Bulma.

I also just freaking really love the song, even with only a tenuous grasp of the lyrics (it’s been a long time since college, ok?). It’s the only of the endings that I’ve actually sought out and purchased, because it’s the right type of pop song that really makes my brain happy. It just has this wistful feel to it (especially combined with the visuals) that I’m realizing really pulls me to songs.

“(Boogie Back) Kimi wo oikakete.
Mune no kodou hayaku naru.
(Boogie Back) Setsuna ni koishita.
Yume wo mou ichido…” 

[translated]
“(Boogie Back) Chasing after you,

The beating in my chest gets faster.
(Boogie Back) I fell in love in a moment.
Give me that dream once more…”

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Musical Monday #5: My Shot

Happy Musical Monday! I had the pleasure of seeing Hamilton a few weeks ago, and I’m still, as the kids say, shook. So this week’s gonna be a little different…

I’ve been a semi-fan for a few years now, ever since the soundtrack started making waves across the internet. For the uninitiated, Hamilton: an American Musical is what sounds like a ridiculous premise: a rap opera about the life of the first Secretary of the Treasury of the United States of America, the titular Alexander Hamilton. If that doesn’t sound like a failed 90s-era attempt to relate to the happenin’ youth of today, I don’t know what does, but the reality is so much better than you can even imagine.

Hamilton is especially accessible because, like operas of yore, pretty much the entire story is relayed through the musical numbers, so the soundtrack is the story. It’s practically an audio book, but with much less verbal stage direction, so the listener has to fill in some of the gaps themselves. But by listening a few times, you can pretty much follow the entirety of the plot. (side-note: I actually did basically this with my parents recently, where we each had the lyrics open while we listened to the soundtrack, and it required very minimal explanation….and you can listen to the full soundtrack on YouTube)

I was worried my near-memorization of the soundtrack would take something away from my actual experience seeing Hamilton on stage. But if anything, it enhanced it. Since I already knew the story, already had the dialogue in my head, I was left to focus on the differences of inflection or mood between the recording and the live performance I saw; and focus on the visuals.

And man, the visuals.

Having fallen in love with this musical entirely through the soundtrack (I actually avoided most images, aside from looking up the basic look of the characters), I didn’t expect it to be such a visual treat. But the stage was stunning, the choreography blew me away, and the subtle depth of the acting—from emotional moments between major characters to the small peppering of extras in the background—had me crying from the first song through to the last. I’ve seen a number of Broadway shows as they come through Portland, and this one blew them all away.


“Alexander Hamilton” by Lin-Manuel Miranda

LyricsiTunes

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s very hard to find actual footage of Hamilton performances, but I really wanted a visual for this. This is a version done at an awards ceremony, so it lacks the normal set, but it gets pretty close. Of course, it’s impossible to convey the grandeur of a stage performance in a recording, but you can use your imagination.

Although above is the opening number, my favorite song is actually “My Shot.” It’s the third song on the soundtrack, and the first time I heard it, I knew I was hooked. It’s so fast and so damn witty, with a great mix of longing and determination.

“My Shot” by Lin-Manuel Miranda

LyricsiTunes

I have always been pretty abysmal at history. In fact, I generally suck at anything that involves memorization. I can follow logic, and I can understand a narrative, but I can’t memorize names and dates to save my life. The few times history really resonated in school was when the books we were reading in English happened to align with what we were learning about in History. If I’d had Hamilton as a teenager, I think my relationship with history would have been very different.

“I am not throwing away my shot
I am not throwing away my shot
Hey yo, I’m just like my country
I’m young, scrappy, and hungry
And I’m not throwing away my shot…”

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