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Anne R. Allen's Blog


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Anne writes funny mysteries and how-to-books for writers. She also writes poetry and short stories on occasion. Oh, yes, and she blogs. She's a contributor to Writer's Digest and the Novel and Short Story Writer's Market for 2016. 

Her bestselling Camilla Randall Mystery Series features perennially down-on-her-luck former socialite Camilla Randall—who is a magnet for murder, mayhem and Mr. Wrong, but always solves the mystery in her quirky, but oh-so-polite way.

Anne lives on the Central Coast of California, near San Luis Obispo, the town Oprah called "The Happiest City in America."

Anne blogs at Anne R. Allen's Blog...with Ruth Harris 
and at Anne R. Allen's Books

Sunday, June 22, 2014

How to Plan a Novel without Actually Outlining: 3 Awesome Tips from Nathan Bransford

I'm so jazzed  we're hosting Nathan Bransford this week!

 Mr. Bransfordwho is a children's author, former literary agent, and blogging legendgave this blog its start when he offered me a guest spot on his blog in 2010. I wrote a piece on why you should keep writing, no matter what, called You May Be a Bestseller on Trafalmadore

In spite of endless rejections, I was able to follow my own advice, partly because of the growing readership of this blog, due in part to that guest post. A year and a half later, I got three publication offers in the space of a week. I chose to go with two small presses, and within a few months, I had seven books in print. Two of them have become bestsellers. 

Which shows how a little leg up can be all  you need to start climbing that old success ladder. So thank you, Nathan, for being the catalyst that got my career going again after half a decade of disasters...Anne

How to Flesh out a Vague Novel Idea Before You Start
by Nathan Bransford

As much as it may disappoint us, entire plots do not spring forth fully formed from our brains for us to breezily channel into words.

You will not have a Eureka moment where you suddenly have an entire idea for a novel, from start to finish, that you can transcribe in mere days, and even if this should miraculously happen to you once, you should not tell another writer because they will hate you forever.

More likely, you’ll have a vague idea that might be the merest embryo of a novel. A tiny shard. A little novel sapling that needs to be lovingly coaxed not just into a tree but into an entire forest.

The entire Jacob Wonderbar series emanated from a single idea I once had when I was feeling very relaxed. 

(Incidentally, the last relaxing moment you will experience is the moment before you figure out what you’re going to write your novel about. This is the life you’ve chosen.)

Here is the idea: a kid gets stuck on a planet full of substitute teachers.

That’s it. That’s all I had.

When I thought about that kid running away from the substitutes on a strange world, I knew I was going to write the novel. It was that unshakeable needle sticking in my brain. I just had to figure out what in the world was going to happen to fill out the rest of the story—which ended up being three novels.

I had to flesh out the idea.

And yes, all you improvisers out there, this chapter is starting to sound like planning in advance, and you have likely already broken out in hives. But bear with me. Even if you’re an improviser, following these few steps will go a long way toward helping you flesh out an initial idea, and this process will give you some surer footing before you start.

Here’s how you do it:


Let’s look back to the then-unnamed kid stuck on a planet full of substitute teachers. Here are some of the questions I asked:

  • How did he get into space to begin with? (Answer: he traded a corndog for a spaceship).
  • Why is he stuck in space? (Answer: when he blasted off into space, he accidentally broke the universe, and now he can’t get home).
  • Why are substitute teachers in space? (Answer: there’s an entire galaxy full of wacky space humans).
  • Did this kid really go to space by himself? (Answer: no way, a twelve-year-old would bring his best friends with him.)
  • Who are his best friends? (Answer: a sassy tomboy and a timid sidekick who the protagonist is always getting into trouble.)
  • Well, where did they go if the kid is stuck on the planet by himself? (Answer: they got split up along the way.)
  • Who split them up? (Answer: a rogue space pirate.)

And as they say in The King and I, “Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.”

The more questions I answered while brainstorm- ing, the more I began to flesh out and add flavor to the world of the novel. These questions aren’t just about deciding what actually happens in the plot (much of that can and will change later, anyway). Instead, you’ll begin to get a sense of what type of novel you’re going to write. Is it a funny novel? A sad one? Is it dark? Is it for kids? Adults? You’re learning about the setting of the novel, the style of the writing, and where the story is eventually going to go.

Instead of setting out ahead of time to write a particular type of novel, I let the idea guide me. When I had that first glimmer of an idea for Jacob Wonderbar, I had no prior notion that I wanted to write a wacky middle grade novel. I just went with the idea. When I started fleshing it out, it sounded like it was for 8- to 12-year-olds, so okay. I had the beginning of a middle grade novel.

Ask questions until your idea starts to make sense and you know what you have. The more you know about your world, the more you can build around your central idea and let it guide you.


Don’t stop with questions. Think about what matters in your novel.

A secondary idea I had while brainstorming for Jacob Wonderbar was that his dad could perhaps be lost in space. It would be too easy if Jacob knew for certain that his dad was out in space, so I created a mystery around it: Is his dad wandering around somewhere in outer space, or did he really just move to Milwaukee when Jacob’s parents got divorced?

With every character I introduced, I tried to figure out at least two things they wanted, preferably the type of things where I could put a “but” in the middle when I described them because they don’t easily go together. The space pirate loves pulling off wild stunts, but he also wants to be president of the universe. Sarah, the sassy tomboy, cares about her friends, but she also wants to be tough. Dexter, the timid sidekick, wants to stay out of trouble, but he’s also loyal to Jacob.

For the novel as a whole, I raised the stakes for everyone: space humans might just want to destroy Earth.

Again, not all of this has to be figured out before you start. It’s okay to go in with unanswered questions, but starting to think through the motivations of the characters will help you to guide the story.


Once I knew that Jacob wanted to find out what happened to his dad, I created one huge obstacle and one huge thing he cared about: he didn’t know where his dad was (obstacle), but he really wanted to find him (the thing he cares about).

And oh yes, there is that pesky obstacle of having broken the universe, so it’s not easy to get home.

Don’t just think about how to get your characters from Point A to Point B as you flesh out your idea, but think about how to make this journey as difficult for them as possible.

With just these initial questions, a few big obstacles, and the underlying motivations of the main characters, I had the basic arc of the entire first novel, and the groundwork for the series, before I started writing.

Jacob trades a corndog for a spaceship and blasts off into space with his best friends. They break the universe (obstacle), they get separated by a rogue space pirate (obstacle), and Jacob eventually begins to suspect his dad is in outer space (obstacle + what he cares about), but he also wants to get back home (another thing he cares about, which competes with his desire to find his dad).

This still wasn’t enough material for an entire novel, and there was a ton I didn’t know about the story and the characters before I started. However, I had a rough idea of where things were going to go, and I was well on my way.

If you ask yourself these questions and begin to figure out what your characters want, why it all matters, and why their task is difficult, you will be on your way, too.

How about you, Scriveners? Are you a pantser or an outliner? If you're a pantser, do these tips help to flesh out that vague idea in your mind? Do you have any other tips for getting that idea growing without hemming yourself in with a rigid outline? Do you have any questions for Nathan?

Nathan Bransford is the author of How to Write a Novel (October 2013), Jacob Wonderbar and the Cosmic Space Kapow (Dial, May 2011), Jacob Wonderbar for President of the Universe (Dial, April 2012) and Jacob Wonderbar and the Interstellar Time Warp (Dial, February 2013). He was formerly a literary agent with Curtis Brown Ltd. and is now the Director of Community and Social Media at Freelancers Union. He lives in Brooklyn.


Note to readers of How to be a Writer in the E-Age: Yes, Catherine Ryan Hyde and I have been promising a new version of the print book for ages, and it has been delayed once again. Our agent left for a new agency and our book got lost in the shuffle. We were actually unpublished for about 24 hours, but my intrepid fiction publisher, Mark Williams, got up from his sickbed to help me self-publish it. So it is now available again in ebook, although the reviews haven't yet migrated. The paper book may take another month. The cover art seems to have been misplaced. Publishing! Never a dull moment....Anne


How to Write a Novel by Nathan Bransford

Available at Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon CA , NOOK and many other retailers

Read the guide that New York Times bestselling author Ransom Riggs called “The best how-to-write-a-novel book I've read”!

"Nathan Bransford's book on how to write a novel is smart, generous and funny as hell. Read it. No matter where you are in your writing life, whether you're on your first book or are a grizzled, multi published veteran, you'll find practical advice to help you through the process -- and plenty of wisdom to inspire you along the journey."
Lisa Brackmann, author of ROCK PAPER TIGER

"In his 47 brilliant rules, Nathan Bransford has nailed everything I've always wanted to tell people about writing a book but never knew how. Wonderfully thought out with lots of practical examples, this is a must-read for anyone brave enough to try their hand at a novel. It's also a great review for experienced writers. Highly recommended." 
-James Dashner, New York Times bestselling author of THE MAZE RUNNER


Short Romance stories with holiday themes: Crimson Romance Ebooks (A division of F & W, publisher of Writer's Digest Books) is looking for holiday themed shorts (10K-20K words) Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanzaa 2014, New Year's Even 2015, Deadline: August 15th

BLUE EARTH REVIEW FLASH FICTION CONTEST $2 ENTRY FEE. 750 words or less. Limit two stories per entry. First place $500. Second place $250. Third place $100. Winners will be published in the Blue Earth Review, the literary magazine of Minnesota State University. Deadline August 1.

A ROOM OF HER OWN FOUNDATION ORLANDO PRIZES $15 ENTRY FEE. Four Orlando prizes of $1,000 each and publication in The Los Angeles Review are awarded twice yearly for a poem, a short story, a short short story, and an essay by women writers. Deadline July 31, 2014.

Mash Stories: No entry fee. $100 prize. Quarterly short story competition aimed at promoting new talent. Flash fiction up to 500 words. Must incorporate the words: monkey, cathedral, relativity. Stories are voted on continuously throughout the submission period. Shortlisted stories are featured on the Mash website, professionally narrated on Mash podcast, and included in their magazine Deadline July 15.

The Saturday Evening Post "Celebrate America" Short fiction contest. $10 ENTRY FEE. The winning story will be published in the Jan/Feb 2015 edition of The Saturday Evening Post, and the author will receive a $500 payment. Five runners-up will each receive a $100 cash payment and will also have their stories published online. Stories must be between 1,500 and 5,000 words in. All stories must be previously unpublished (excluding personal websites and blogs). Deadline July 1.

MARK TWAIN HOUSE HUMOR WRITING CONTEST  ENTRY FEE $12 or $22. First prize $1000. Other cash prizes. Celebrity judges. Two age categories: Adult (18 and over) and Young Author (17 and under). Submit 10,000 words (or fewer) of any original work of humor writing. Submissions are not required to be in the style of Mark Twain or about Mark Twain. They want you to make them laugh! Deadline June 30, 2014.

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Blogger Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

It's all about the questions and the goals of the characters.
I'm a definite outliner. I spend more time planning the outline than writing the first draft. My idea is always the ending, so I have to work backwards to figure out how the characters arrived at that ending. Then it rolls forward in my head like a movie many, many times as the details emerge. And considering I'm working on my fourth book that was planned that way, I think it's my style now.
Good tips, Nathan.

June 22, 2014 at 10:06 AM  
OpenID liebjabberings said...

My method - which I'm not sure I recommend (steep learning curve): take that initial idea, turn on your copy of Dramatica, and answer as many of their questions as you possibly can (usually lots), storing your answers in their little text boxes. Do not necessarily do this in order (although they provide short versions to get you started) - answer only the questions that seem to make sense first.

My brain starts connecting dots almost immediately - and the pieces start finding their places in a whole, which generates more questions and answers to other questions.

Just be willing to back up and start again, keep part and fiddle with other options. It costs nothing at this stage.

Caveat: I'm a plotter - I don't like to expend hard-written words on things I end up discarding. I think you can use it as a pantser if you're just willing to try lots of false starts, but I wouldn't necessarily recommend it. I'm sure there are better ways for those who are creative in following their nose and characters.

I've posted a bit about how I use it, on my blog.


June 22, 2014 at 10:08 AM  
Blogger Linda Maye Adams said...

I'm a pantser, and a lot of it is trusting that you can write the story. Unfortunately, there's a lot of writing advice that says, "You don't know what you're doing and you're going to get it wrong anyway," For pantsers, it's even worse because all of the writing advice is mired in some form of outlining techniques that doesn't understand how we write -- but it's presented as if it's the only way to write.

Tip #1: Think only in terms of the scene you're writing, not the whole story. It's very easy to get overwhelmed by the idea of an entire book. One of the absolute worst things for me was three act structure and story beats. I wound up writing to get that goal, and left out the subplots, the character arc ...

Tip #2: Do move around in the scenes and make changes as you go along (as long as the changes are real changes, not "This scene doesn't work, and I don't know why."). I know that's contrary to what common wisdom is, but if your ideas don't occur in the proper order, it's the only way they get in . I'm like a pinball game when I write -- bouncing all over the place.

Tip #3: After you finish, do a fast edit and get rid of anything that wandered in and shouldn't be there. When I took Holly Lisle's How to Revise Your Novel, which is really for outliners, I darn near went crazy with all the lessons that would not let me touch what I knew needed to come out. I probably could have gotten a better handle on the story if I'd been able to jettison the unnecessary flotsam first so I could see what worked and what was still needed.

Also, there's a brand new book specifically for those of us who don't outline: It's called Story Trumps Structure. It's written by someone who does not outline, so you're not going to get vague advice that doesn't fit.

June 22, 2014 at 10:16 AM  
Blogger Ruth Harris said...

Nathan, thank you for proposing such an elegant approach to writing fiction. For me all the really good stuff comes from the unconscious and IME the only way to get my unconscious working for me is to immerse myself in the work. Kind of like—but also more free-form/less deliberate than—your approach.

Is your actual working process less organized than it sounds in this post?

June 22, 2014 at 10:25 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Alex--I think writers who can work to an outline are more efficient. I wish I could do that. I do write my ending first. But Nathan's tips are going to be a big help to me.

June 22, 2014 at 10:55 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Alicia--It sounds as if you've found a great tool to help with your outlining. I'm not familiar with Dramatica, so thanks for the tip. I'll check it out.

Us pantsers do waste a lot of words on dead ends. I wish I could avoid them, but even when I write an outline, it often doesn't work when I get down to the nitty gritty. Sounds as if you're a whole lot more efficient than I am.

June 22, 2014 at 10:58 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Linda--Of course writers are all creative people, and creative people are always looking for a new and different way to do things. And we're all different. I think Nathan's tips can work for most people because they're not hard and fast rules and you can adapt them to your own writing process.

June 22, 2014 at 11:04 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Ruth--Nathan will be stopping by later today and I hope he can answer that. I don't think this process sounds as constricting as most "how to write" guides, so I'm going to try this for my next book. I'm pretty sure it will help me avoid some of those dead ends I waste so much time on.

June 22, 2014 at 11:06 AM  
Blogger Wm. L. Hahn said...

Hey Nathan, what a fabulous creative ride that was to read and ponder. I like how things roll out naturally, and you can steer clear of complex labor as you sort of orbit the story this way.
I spend a lot of time in orbit, that's for sure- I just watch and watch, like a favorite TV show I don't mind the reruns. I'm not strong on asking questions or identifying obstacles, but eventually the characters show me what they're doing.
If I WERE making this stuff up, I must say I would have gone in a completely different direction from you. Kids and Sub-teachers on the same planet? That's a horror/adventure tale for grown-ups- it focuses on the subs and it's a lot like "Escape from New York"!

June 22, 2014 at 12:02 PM  
Blogger Jan Ryder said...

I must be a hybrid pantser/outliner. Any initial planning takes place in my thoughts (that's the outlining part). The plot idea has to be in place, I know where my story starts and how it finishes. Those two crucial scenes are fixed in my head. Between them I’ll have worked out three or four set-piece scenes that I want to include. During the thinking process I get to know my characters, who they are, what they want. Then I start writing. After that it's pantser all the way! An interesting post from Nathan. I like his approach. I'll give his tips a try next time around.

June 22, 2014 at 12:03 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Wm--It's the way Nathan helps us avoid the "complex labor" that really works for me in this post. There are so many writing gurus who tell you to write thousands of words of backstory and outlining that seems like pointless busy work to me.

I think Nathan must have had a better elementary school experience than some of us, since he chose to go back there. :-)

June 22, 2014 at 12:17 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Jan--My process is a lot like yours. But I do hit some dead ends. So this post is really helpful for me. I'm glad you're going to try it too.

June 22, 2014 at 12:18 PM  
Blogger sue mcginty said...

So true. Great reminder that these have worked for me in the past, and I need to visit them again for the Bella book I'm currently working on. I also have to keep in mind that some of my ideas melt like wet Kleenex when I put them down on paper.

June 22, 2014 at 12:28 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Sue--I've had those soggy Kleenex disasters, too! The ideas sound so good until you actually try to put them in a scene. I think these tips are going to help me a lot.

June 22, 2014 at 12:46 PM  
Blogger Elizabeth Varadan, Author said...

Thanks, Anne, for sharing this interview. I've always enjoyed Nathan Bransford's blog, and he's the one who got me started blogging a few years ago when I heard him at an SCBWI conference.

I really like the idea of simply asking questions, once you have the idea, and then adding the obstacles and clarifying what the characters care about. I think I'm more of a panster than a plotter, but recently I started a cozy mystery, and it really helped to do some of that dreaded plotting in advance that I generally don't do. Thanks, too, Anne for the links.

June 22, 2014 at 1:11 PM  
Blogger S B James said...

I do a backwards outline: I pants first and then plot once I've written about 15k words. The backwards outline helps me to make some more sense out of the first plot ideas.
The thinking about the characters' motives and what they care about is super-essential! These are all great ideas and sound simple (though we know they really aren't nearly that simple).

June 22, 2014 at 2:05 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Elizabeth--So Nathan started your blogging career too! He is inspiring (and funny.) The questions work for me, since I'm also a pantser. It's about planning without too much structure.

June 22, 2014 at 2:06 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

SB--That's a fabulous idea! I think I might try a backwards outline on my WIP! Thanks much for the tip. These ideas are simple, but they aren't always easy. :-)

June 22, 2014 at 2:09 PM  
Blogger S B James said...

It was something I did right before I worked on my final draft of my first book. It was an act of desperation (you know, that whole thing about necessity being the mother of invention) and now I'm doing it for book two. It's especially good if you're pantsing your way through NaNoWriMo. :)

June 22, 2014 at 2:16 PM  
Blogger Susan Gourley/Kelley said...

Thanks for the tips, Nathan. I usually start with a shard( I like that word) too. I never thought about it as asking questions but I usually write down bullet points and then flesh them out from there. I guess by asking myself questions.

June 22, 2014 at 2:20 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Susan--Bullet points. Why didn't I think of that? So easy. But I tend to write out a few random paragraphs and then dive in. I'm going to go write some bullet points after asking myself a few questions. I love how much I learn from our commenters!

June 22, 2014 at 2:34 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Here's a comment that came via email from Dolores Riccio

As a pantser, I’ve written myself into many a corner without knowing how to escape. When trapped without an idea of how to continue, I usually pose that question just as I’m going to sleep. I won’t say I wake up the next morning with a perfect answer (although that has happened in a rare instance), but if I keep doing that every night, it will work, eventually. Meanwhile, I write something else, or another part of that same novel.

Also, I make a list of threads that have to be tied up before the end of the novel, because it’s easy for a pantser to get so enthralled with her story, she may forget the character left hanging from a window ledge in chapter three.

Great blog…you and your guest bloggers always inspire.

June 22, 2014 at 2:35 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Dolores--Thanks so much for commenting even though it's hard to get Blogger to let you in! Great tip about making a list of threads to tie up. I hate it when an author leaves you hanging!

June 22, 2014 at 2:37 PM  
Blogger Nathan Bransford said...

My process is *somewhat* organized, but I'm not someone who can plan too far in advance. I have some big benchmarks I know I want to hit along the way and I try to get enough of a sense of where things are going that I can write toward those goals, but scene by scene I kind of let things take their course and plan one step at a time.

June 22, 2014 at 2:56 PM  
Blogger K.J. Bryen said...

I love this post. So true, we must get some direction and flesh out our stories a little bit before we dive into them.

Personally, I'm more of a planner than an improviser. I improvise some, but improvising too much just turns my novels into a jumbled mess. I always have to go into a novel with the knowledge of my characters, their goals, the main conflict, an idea of how they'll face it, and the ending. Once I have those figured out, I can go from there.

Truly great. Thanks for this post, Nathan.

June 22, 2014 at 2:56 PM  
OpenID paulfahey said...

Great tips. I love how they center around asking questions. I do a lot of what-ifing in my own prewriting strategy, but now I think I'll refine the steps and be a lot more specific in what I ask BEFORE I start a novella. These questions should really help. Thank you, Nathan, for this straightforward approach. And thank you, Anne, for another helpful and insightful blog post. :)

June 22, 2014 at 2:58 PM  
Blogger Nathan Bransford said...

Thanks for the great comments and thanks so much for having me, Anne!

June 22, 2014 at 3:03 PM  
Blogger Julie Musil said...

I read Nathan's book, How to Write a Novel, which is great.

I'm a big time plotter. I definitely start out with a germ of an idea, then marinate on it and take notes for months before even writing the first word. I leave plenty of room for creativity. I don't box myself in at all.

I love how blogging works...how Nathan's blog gave you a big leap, Anne. And look at you now!

June 22, 2014 at 3:27 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

K.J.--I always know the ending. That's often where I start. I wrote the last scene of Sherwood, Ltd first. And I think I know the characters, but sometimes a new person walks into the story and won't go away.

June 22, 2014 at 3:43 PM  
Blogger Karen said...

Linda: Finally a voice that speaks to my soul! - Your fellow pantser

June 22, 2014 at 3:52 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Paul--I like the term "what if-ing" I probably do that too, but these questions will help with that kind of brainstorming.

June 22, 2014 at 4:05 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Thank YOU, Nathan, for everything! As you can see, you're helping a lot of writers with this post.

June 22, 2014 at 4:06 PM  
Blogger Phyllis Humphrey said...

Thanks Anne and Nathan; I'm definitely a plotter. I like to write a short outline, which then expands - and changes - as I go. Yes, I always know the ending. in fact the final dialogue for one of my novels was written first, and stayed in the book through publication. And it won the San Diego book Award in 2002.

June 22, 2014 at 4:08 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Julie--Isn't it a great book? Listen up everybody!! Buy Nathan's book!

I'm a "marinator" too. Some books take 20 years to sit in my brain. If I see an article on the subject, I'll save it to a file. (Those used to be paper files full of newspaper clippings in the old days--I finally cleaned out those files a few months ago.)

My experience guest posting for Nathan shows how much blogging can help your career. There was even a point last month when this blog had the same exact Alexa rating as his. :-)

June 22, 2014 at 4:11 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Phyllis--So I'm not the only one to write the last scene first! Congrats on the awesome award!

June 22, 2014 at 4:13 PM  
Blogger Anne OConnell said...

Great post! Thanks Anne and Nathan :)

I have found myself alternating between pantsing and plotting (or outlining). The first thing I would recommend is to sit down and do a brain dump, in no particular order, of everything in your head that relates to the idea you have. Just keep typing random thoughts about who the characters are, what happens to them, what they look like and where they live. You might have a vague idea of the plot line so just sketch it out and don't worry about the holes. Once you've done your brain dump you can go back and start to organize into separate files like character development and plot line or story arc. My first novel just flowed out, beginning to end, and I wrote every day non-stop until it was finished (it was my first NaNoWriMo). It went on to win an award. I was so stoked I thought the next one would come out the same way. NOT! It's been much slower slogging but I'm almost done. With this one I stopped halfway to do a scene tracker. It's a little more complicated with more characters so I also did a character chart to keep everyone straight. I think I still have a foot in both camps but I've decided for my next novel I'm going to give Scrivener (the software) a try.

Happy writing everyone!

June 22, 2014 at 5:23 PM  
Blogger Natalie Aguirre said...

Great post. I love Nathan's questions. They are such good ones to ask when starting to develop that seed of a story idea. Can't wait to read his new craft book.

June 22, 2014 at 5:42 PM  
Blogger G. B. Miller said...

The only time I actually outline something is if I happen to get lost while writing a particular scene and/or character (yes, this happens to me with a degree of frequency that I really loathe). Otherwise, I usually come up with basic plot line and a vague idea of where/how I want it to end, and basically go from there.

Father Nature's Corner

June 22, 2014 at 6:02 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Anne--You've hit on a universal truth of writing: each book is its own entity. Just because your muse gave you one novel fully formed doesn't mean it will happen with the next one. I think all these plot mapping rules do help especially when you're stuck in a third or fourth novel and find your muse sometimes goes AWOL.

Ruth Harris loves Scrivener. She'll be talking about other helpful tech tools for writers next week!

June 22, 2014 at 7:38 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Natalie--Me, too. I found those questions really useful. His book is great!

June 22, 2014 at 7:38 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

G.B.--Don't you hate it when the scene gets out of control? You have to write it down, because there are the characters in your head, saying things, and you're just trying to keep up. Then the next day you read it and say. "What just happened here? This is not the way the story is supposed to go." Then you have to decide how to make it work with your original idea--and that's when an outline really helps. Or sometimes it means changing the idea, and sometimes it means cutting the scene--hopefully to use somewhere else.

June 22, 2014 at 8:05 PM  
OpenID liebjabberings said...

Not necessarily more efficient - and I still have to write the thing - but it sort of gives you a natural outline - and makes you think about a lot of things up front. The terminology can be arcane, but I've written a short story, a play, and I'm working on a trilogy with it.

June 22, 2014 at 8:09 PM  
Blogger CS Perryess said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

June 22, 2014 at 9:07 PM  
Blogger CS Perryess said...

Hey Nathan & Anne,
I'm a pantser, & my pantsing ways often get me into trouble, but they also give me a heap of joy. Typically I start out with absolutely no plan, no place, & no character -- just some background music that sets the tone. The character(s), setting & situation(s) pop in mysteriously. At some point I stop & ask whether I care enough to keep going. If the answer is yes, then I do something along the lines of what Nathan suggests. Thanks for another fine post.

June 22, 2014 at 9:08 PM  
Blogger Anne OConnell said...

Ha ha... muses going AWOL. How true! Have you seen Elizabeth Gilbert's Ted Talk called 'Your Elusive Creative Genius'. She addresses the issue of a muse that lurks in the corner and won't come out. She's fun to watch and hear about her writing process and fears.

I'll look foward to Ruth's blog.The timing's perfect for me. I'm a little intimidated by it so need a little encouragement!

June 22, 2014 at 10:53 PM  
Blogger Claude Nougat said...

Thanks Nathan for the tips, I'm sure that works great for fantsay pieces (or science fiction). I'm not so sure that's the way to go about a psychological novel, say a "deep" romance or a complex family relationships story. There you have to start not with an idea, and ask more ideas and dig into motivations and throw obstacles, you have to start with the character. You really need to know your characters IN DEPTH...

So, while I think the advice is great for genre literature, especially fantasy, I am not quite sure it works for literary fiction. Let me point you to just one example so you can see what I mean: Knausgaard's "My Struggle"...
To write something like that, whether a panser or an outliner, you need to start with deep knowledge of your character(s)...

Just my humble opinion and let me quickly add I haven't read your book about novel writing, Nathan, and I've placed it now on my TBR list - I assume that in there you address this issue that is pertinent to literary fiction and certainly not to genre fiction

June 23, 2014 at 2:28 AM  
Blogger Pip Connor said...

Excellent post. This may sound slightly arrogant, but I was surprised to read that my process is very much like Nathan's. It nice to find that what works for me works for someone else who has proved that it can be done, now all I have to do is figure out how to get the finished project completed enough for someone else to take it seriously. Thanks for the post Anne and Nathan, one day when I'm an infamous writer I will buy you both a drink. I hope you're not too thirsty, LOL. Stay cool.

June 23, 2014 at 2:32 AM  
Blogger Lexa Cain said...

Great post! I've discovered that when I'm stuck, if I find the right questions to ask myself, I can then find the right answer. Never underestimate asking yourself the right questions. Thanks, Nathan! :)

June 23, 2014 at 8:53 AM  
Blogger Christine Ahern said...

Thanks for the great post. I am a panster all the way. It does lead me into some writing spirals and corners so I love the idea of asking questions. Once I know who my characters are why not ask them directly and early what they want. They are going to tell me eventually anyway. I think this idea could keep me on a smoother, easier track. So...thanks again!

June 23, 2014 at 9:04 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

CS--I've never been able to write with music playing, but I know many other writers who start with "a soundtrack." Sounds as if it's working for you. Then going to the "question session" sounds like a great plan.

June 23, 2014 at 9:30 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Claude--I'm not sure new authors would be well-advised to emulate Knausgaard. Like imitating Joyce or Kerouac, it can lead to disaster and disappointment for newbies. You need to be a trained, brilliant artist to be able to hold a reader's interest though your own personal ramblings. And a literary author needs a day job (usually teaching at a University.) Experimental literary fiction generally does not pay its own way.

I think every author should learn how to tell a story, just as every painter should learn to draw the human form. If you want to go abstract or experimental--do it after you've mastered the basics.

June 23, 2014 at 9:37 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Pip--Isn't it great to find out you're doing it right? Take your own work seriously (as in get it edited and polished) and other people will too. We just may take you up on that drink. I think Nathan and I both favor Maker's Mark. :-)

June 23, 2014 at 9:40 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Lexa--I don't think I have literally asked myself those questions before, so I'm going to try it. Sounds as if it works for you!

June 23, 2014 at 9:40 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Christine--My thoughts exactly. I usually know my characters pretty well before I start putting a story into words, so I think asking them questions is going to make for "smoother sailing" for me, too.

June 23, 2014 at 9:42 AM  
Blogger E.J. Wesley said...

Nathan has been an inspiration to lots of folks. (Including me.) Great seeing him here on one of my favorite blogs. :) Tons of great tips, too!

June 23, 2014 at 11:52 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

E.J.--Nathan inspires me, too. He's always so positive (and funny.)

June 23, 2014 at 12:17 PM  
Blogger ryan field said...

I usually follow a pattern like this...it's natural to me. But I have had publishers request full detailed chapter by chapter outlines and, of course, I delivered them to the publisher because I wanted the deal and advance. But I never liked doing these chapter by chapter outlines. (And I never follow them either.)

June 23, 2014 at 9:37 PM  
Blogger Claudia H Gruy said...

I usually have these voices in my head that tell me about what's happening to them. As I need to get on with my own life I scribble that down on tiny index cards. Next I have on big index card the 12 stages of the writers journey which I lay out in my living room - first the way they usually follow each other. On these the scribblings are placed depending on where they fit in matter of arch and such. Finally I play a little spin the cups and shift the 12 steps around until everything makes sense. And then it's time to write!

June 24, 2014 at 7:19 AM  
Blogger Nicole said...

Thanks for the great advice, Nathan! Characters are usually the first pieces of the story to form in my brain, and once I know them, the rest of the story is just kind of *poof* there. It takes refining to connect all the dots of course. ;)

Fun to learn more about how Jacob Wonderbar came to be!

June 24, 2014 at 7:55 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Ryan--It's those chapter-by-chapter outlines that many publishers require that soured me on outlining. They leave the book dead and wooden. Nathan's plan is dynamic and open-ended. Much better for the creative mind.

June 24, 2014 at 9:19 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Claudia--I've met other index card writers. It sounds like a great plan. I tend to jot things down on odd slips of paper which I promptly lose. :-) Doesn't work as well as your system.

June 24, 2014 at 9:26 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Nicole--I've had some books "poof" in my brain. It spoiled me, because sometimes they refuse to poof. That's when Nathan's plan will come in really handy.

June 24, 2014 at 9:27 AM  
Blogger ryan field said...

I agree. That's why I always do them when asked...but I rarely ever follow those outlines during the writing process. I can see it with a new publishers. I understand that. But I've been asked to do this with publishers I've worked with who know what I do, which I never really get. The good thing is that so far no one ever got mad at me for not following the original outline :)

June 24, 2014 at 11:31 AM  
Blogger Kathryn McKade said...

Chiming in to say that's pretty much how I write, too. Certain things I must have figured out before I ever start writing (starting and ending points, a few set pieces, primary character motivations/baggage) and then I let the rest come as it will. I admit I'm not terribly efficient, but interesting things I never could've come have planned for come out this way.

Thanks Nathan for the great advice, and Anne for your always-helpful blog!

June 25, 2014 at 4:07 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Kathryn--I've been sticking to that not-so-efficient model through 8 published novels and a couple of duds as well as my WIP, but I'm eager to try the new method. Always allowing that new character or twist to throw everything out the window!

June 25, 2014 at 6:39 PM  
Blogger Kathryn McKade said...

Really great advice! I've linked to this in my latest blog entry: http://kathrynmckade.blogspot.com/2014/06/answer-me-these-questions-three.html

June 26, 2014 at 12:37 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Kathryn--Your three questions are great, and make a great addition to Nathan's post. Check out Kathryn's blog, people! Nice post.

June 26, 2014 at 1:31 PM  
Blogger Kathryn McKade said...

Thanks, Anne! :-) I've been putting all my WIPs to those three questions, and gotten some good stuff. I hope they can help others, too!

June 26, 2014 at 5:00 PM  
Blogger Suzanne said...

I love this. It helps me a lot. I am good with notes and ideas rather than outlines. Last year someone told me to ask questions and "What if? Then what?" kind of ways to brainstorm.

June 29, 2014 at 4:14 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Suzanne--I love the idea of "brainstorming" rather than outlining. One sounds creative and the other sounds tedious. It sounds as fi your friend's advice was a lot like Nathan's. But Nathan's gives us just a little more organization.

June 29, 2014 at 8:53 AM  
Blogger Sara C. Snider said...

I'm a pantser, but I think these tips really will help flesh out ideas. In fact, I've got a vague idea for a novel that I really don't know what to do with. I'm looking forward to trying out this advice and seeing what happens. Thank you! :)

July 3, 2014 at 10:26 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Sara--I agree. These tips look like fantastic tools for pantsers who want to brainstorm and provide some guideposts for going forward with that "vague idea". I'm planning to use them for my next novel.

July 4, 2014 at 9:45 AM  

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