I’m a firm believer you can create some form of outline for your novel and still follow inspiration. It’s happened for me before, but never to the extent it happened this year for NaNoWriMo. Today is Thanksgiving in the U.S. and I’ve never been more thankful than when I completed my novel—except maybe for the inspiration that saved it.
Yes, saved it.
So you know, I do have an outline process. I begin with notes and then use those to create a narrative outline. Later, I go back through the outline and break it up where I expect the scenes to be. This year I had those breaks correct about 75% of the time, but it wasn’t a big deal when I was off.
I also was free, as I always am, to follow inspiration…
Originally, this project was supposed to be me writing a half-hearted, for-myself backstory tale because I wanted to explore the characters and issues that influence Book2 in my series.
Yeah, it didn’t quite go that way.
In quick order I realized those events also influence, to a lesser degree, what happens in two other books. Too, there were glimmers of something deeper that I couldn’t put my finger on. At that moment my backstory tale became a prequel.
Still, a problem remained. The primary arc revolved around the love interest from Bk1 and the research project that led him to the events in Bk1. In other words, my prequel readers might not know the details, but they’d already know the outcome.
Then, a spark, though I didn’t recognize it for what it was. While still in the narrative outline stage, and on a whim, I decided there had to have been a love interest in his past so I invented one and, on another whim, decided she’d died two years before the prequel opens. I gave her a name, Vessalia, and created a brief description.
In swift order the research thread became a McGuffin, the true arc becoming about her, the person she was, and how much he loved her. It could have spiraled into a story solely about his grief, but she wouldn’t allow it and elevated the story to a place I’ve never gone before.
How? She’s mentioned in the fourth scene (I don’t have chapters yet) when one of his students, and one of the few girls at the university, reminds him in some ways of Vess (the girl and her boyfriend are a subplot). In the next scene I was caught off guard. On the way to visit her father—a close friend and man he hadn’t seen in two years—he stepped out of a cab at a location where there was a strong memory of her.
In remembering, he heard not quite two full lines of dialogue. Her voice, in that moment, changed the story. She became a presence I couldn’t stuff back in the box. Her voice was a mix of her passion for living and his grief. It was beautiful, and it was tragic.
“You know, of course, that for each kiss there comes talk about the Keepers. I’ll make you one of us yet…”
She was a memory come alive. A rebel and a visionary who converted him to a cause he hadn’t cared about until he met her. Playful and serious. Loving and strong.
All that he loved about her, I heard too, along with his longing, pain, and guilt. In an instant I understood that all the attributes he loved—were what doomed her.
Good gosh, how does someone get past that? I had my story.
Yet, strangely enough, as great as her impact was, I didn’t have to alter the outline at all, just adjust my thinking in some of the scenes. She’s not caricature, not a dead girlfriend making cheesy jokes. In fact, despite her impact, she’s in the story quite little. Her impact is a result of her depth of character, and that was her doing. At the moment she used an endearing pet name for him I knew exactly why he loved her so deeply.
And, oh, the twist at the end! It’d have been nice if she’d let me know ahead of time.
None of this is to say the rest of the novel is boring. Quite the contrary. He cleverly uncovers secrets while navigating dangers, endures a failed romance, and takes on a young assistant, but it’s Vess who ties it all together.
Anyway, my point is as it was, that there’s much inspiration possible even with an outline. There’s no need for it to be a straightjacket. In fact, Vess wasn’t the only surprise. In a second arc that’s tied to his I was stunned by the revelations surrounding a female character and her family, romances, and wounds, including a stunner at the end (and here I thought I knew how all this would go … go figure). I could make a long list of moments, minor characters, and revelations that are nowhere in the outline.
Yet, the outline held up.
One novel and 105K later I’m thankful my outline worked and inspiration still came to call—often.