Image courtesy of National Novel Writing Month

I’m doing National Novel Writing Month again this year. I started in 2011, where I completed the challenge by rambling 50,000 words of useless nonsense about a reluctant Djinn and … a guy? …Who wishes for his wife’s boobs to be bigger? I think? I’m not sure. It got weird.


I skipped 2012 intentionally, as I had a lot of other projects I wanted to work on and didn’t want the disappointment of failing. Turns out the disappointment of not even trying wasn’t much of an improvement. So I resolved to go for it again last year, and barely squeaked out my 50K on a fantasy/detective hybrid thing. Again, I didn’t outline the plot (though I did a ridiculous amount of world building prep) and it turns out writing a mystery/noir thriller without a very clear idea where the plot is going is Not A Good Idea. So I finished—from a NaNo perspective—but, as with the Djinn story, it didn’t get any further than that. I may revisit the fantasy/noir later; it’s shelved for now.

Now this year I’m back at it. If you’re following along on Twitter you may have noticed me griping late last month about trying to come up with a project idea. I had a few concept seeds that seemed like they might be worth exploring in a longer format, but I had a hard time making them mesh in any cohesive way. I toyed with crime story frameworks, science fiction trappings, angsty YA-lit variants, all sorts of things to make something click. Eventually I settled on a horror/supernatural story and set out trying to outline the thing.

Here’s a little secret: I abhor outlines. I mean, in theory, they’re great. The most complete novel I’ve ever tackled I wrote from an outline. My writing software has loads of tools to help build outlines. But honestly, the problem with outlines is that my brain just doesn’t work in that linear of a fashion so at best they’re like directions you get from a guy at the gas station: technically they’ll get you there, but the potential for getting irreparably lost is far from nil.

By accident, as I was procrastinating from getting my outline put together, I re-stumbled on Dan Wells’ 7-Point Story Structure series. It’s one of many techniques for breaking down plot elements, but one thing I like about this approach in particular is that it allows what Wells refers to as “braiding” to happen. Which is to say, if you map individual plot threads to this 7-point structure, including character arcs, subplots, and the story’s main plot, you can then lay them out side by side and align scenes that correspond to each point. What happens is that you can then overlap points from various threads into specific scenes, making these really dramatic, affecting moments happen in the narrative. The example Wells uses is The Matrix (the first one), where during the climax we have the story’s main plot, Neo’s character arc, and the Neo/Trinity romance subplot all hitting key points or resolutions in the exact same scene (Neo faces the agents, gets shot, Trinity confesses, Neo becomes The One). This makes this moment really satisfying to an audience because it feels like—and truly is—a culmination of everything in the story up to that point.

So I decided instead of a traditional outline I would create 7-point structures for my plot, main character arcs, and key subplots, then weave them together and create the scenes based on what needed to happen to accomplish those overlapping moments. It was an experiment, but it worked out beautifully. In fact, whether I complete NaNo this year or not, if the only takeaway is this trick to help plan pivotal scenes, it has to be considered a success.

I’m still not terribly enthusiastic about the project, which is somewhat problematic because I have a few other, shorter, pieces I’m wanting to get back to and a novelette I just received some great feedback on. Each of which I’d be happier to try this 7-point thing with, but neither of which are rich enough to warrant novel length treatments. Still, it’s also good exercise for me I think to focus on the project I ought to be working on instead of the ones I might rather be, even if right now that mandate is more or less self-imposed. Someday a deadline might put legitimate gravity to such a situation and it would be nice to know I’m capable of exercising sufficient discipline to overcome my tendency to chase shiny objects.

I do have a second installment of The Short List planned for this month as well, although reading through the magazine and writing up the piece while also maintaining a 1,667-word per day pace is asking a bit much. I will do my best.