It’s been a few weeks since I’ve posted a Thursday Writing Prompt. Between the crush of trying to finish my NaNo novel and the holidays it’s been a crazy time. I won NaNo with 66,275 words written, but I did not finish the novel. About three chapters into it I found myself pretty much lost and just writing what felt like filler material. My characters are doing things but I don’t have a good backstory for the plot yet. I think it was a novel not ready to be written!
I’m thinking of it as a “zero draft” instead of a first draft, which means it’s more than an outline but not coherent enough for a first draft, and certainly not a finished story. In case you can’t tell, I’m a “pantser,” which means I write first and then worry about sorting out details and making sense of a story. Some people will tell you that you must outline first, and I have no doubt that an outline is very useful. If you don’t know where your story should go, how do you know when you’ve gotten there? The problem for me is that I just can’t work “cold.” I need something on paper before I can sketch the outline.
So, for this week’s Thursday writing prompt, try working backward from a written story to give it structure and fill in some details about characters and their relationships. Take something that you’ve written and create an outline for it. Go with the kind of list-type outline that you were taught in school, not one of the mind-mapping outlines or visual aids. It doesn’t have to be one of those outlines with many levels and roman numerals. Don’t worry over what level an item needs to be.
Try this approach: write an outline as a series of sentences or a bullet list that gives a rough shape to the story. Each item on the list could represent a chapter in a book, for instance. The idea is that once you’ve written this outline you’ll have a clear path from start to finish of where the story should go. And once you’ve finished that, you add more detail to each item as you see fit. So an outline for chapter one of a novel could have a sentence that tells where the story begins. Then there might be additional bullet items to list the characters in a scene, weather, setting, etc.
My outlines when I’m writing an article or research paper tend to be a list of sentences on the page — what I call “notes to self.” Remember, you’re not getting graded on this outline. Its sole purpose is to provide a plan for your writing, no matter how pretty or ugly it is. And speaking to beauty: if artwork is your thing, try hand writing your outline and using colored pens or pencils. Sometimes taking a slightly different approach to writing helps loosen the creative spirit in all of us.