Outlining Fiction with Phillip M. Locey

I am gearing up for Nanowrimo 2022! If you don’t know what Nanowrimo is, you can read my old blog post HERE. Or I can give you the gist: Nanowrimo stands for National Novel Writing Month and it’s been around for, what?, twenty years? The basic and original premise is an online space/club for people to set the goal and write 50,000 words in any given November, which is an arbitrary “novel.” Nano (for short) now has other things, like summer camp where you can set your own goals in April and July and programs for kids and schools, but the big to-do is still November and the 50,000 words. This is my first year in seven actually, really doing Nanowrimo since I am not homeschooling and teaching co-op at the same time. (I have done it occasionally in the last seven years, but not really to hit 50,000 words. Also, I do always lose like five days of the month to Thanksgiving and my daughter’s birthday, so I have to write slightly faster on the other 25 days.) This year, I am not only a full-time writer, but I am in need of getting a whole lotta words on the page. And I have an excellent idea for a new book. So good. (Please picture me drumming my fingertips together and smirking over how great of an idea this book/trilogy is.)

I am so all-in this year that I am even going to attend in-person events like a kick-off, a couple workshops, and—my fave—write-ins (where you sit and don’t talk and write together. It’s an accountability thing). Last weekend, barely home from my residency, I swept away on a Saturday afternoon to a local library for my first Nano workshop, ever. Hosted by a library where a published, Nano writer works as a librarian, the workshop was “Outlining for Fiction Authors” with Phillip M. Locey. Honestly, I didn’t think I needed a workshop on outlining, but I figured I wanted to join in somewhere. (I ended up being wrong, anyhow.)

Among the community, swag, fundraising, and vernacular that has built up around the Nano website over the past more-than-two decades are the terms “planners,” “pansters,” and “plantsers.” Planners are people who have it all figured out before they put one word on the first page of a novel. Pantsers fly by the seat of their pants, I presume, and don’t have anything but a dream or a vague idea—whatever’s in their head and heart—before the start the rough draft. Usually, they don’t know where they’re going, just a simple who or what. Plantsers, which probably includes most writers, lie somewhere between. They do some planning but then write, maybe do some more planning along the way. I often write short stories as a pantser, but for novels? I am always going to be either a planner or a plantser. Thanks to this workshop, I am going to enter this Nano season more planned than I ever have before, because Locey gave us his (developed over time) strategy and I really like the look of it.

I don’t want to give too much away; after all, this is Locey’s shtick. But I will say a few things. First of all, the anecdote with which he began really stuck with me. He had attended a workshop or maybe a reading of a more famous author (who will go here unnamed) and she balked at planning. Like other die-hard pantsers, she believes (so he said) that writing has to come directly from the intuition, from the creative flow, and in the moment. She shared at her reading that planning would dampen, nay destroy, creativity and that no writer could produce a good book by planning it nor should they try. After some time, another question came around and this same author shared that she had to re-write some novel of hers eight times. Locey must have chuckled to himself internally, if not into his palm. Eight times! But no wonder. Planning—or outlining as he calls it—could have saved this poor author from eight re-writes! (Or, at least, planning after a more “spiritual” draft-one could have cut down the rewrites severely.) Personally, I think I’d be so sick of the book by the eighth rewrite I might chuck it out the window.

(Personal note: I have blogged before (like HERE) about how I don’t believe in writer’s block. Likewise, I don’t think all—or even most—good things come from pantsing it. If you have talent plus tools, you can write good, even great, stuff when your muse feels mute. Passion sure does make things more enjoyable and maybe points us in the right direction, but you don’t stop or even pause doing a thing just because you’re not feelin’ it right that second (at least if you want to thrive/be a successful human being), and, as I’ve said before, when you just write you often end up with stuff that is… hey, this is actually something.)

Here are some of my favorite pointers from the workshop:

  • You need to really define the stakes for the protagonist. Say it clearly and give the alternative outcome if they don’t get what they want. What’s standing in their way? What happens if they don’t succeed? If they do? High stakes are ideal.
  • The four phases of novel planning are: figure out the concept, the big idea, the “What if?” and then the premise (the character + conflict + stakes); map it out as a story structure (Locey uses a seven-point structure, but there are other options); put some meat on the narrative by thinking outside worktime and writing paragraphs explaining how to get from point A to point B; choose actual scenes, figuring out how information like foreshadowing and location are going to play out. (By the second or third step, you would actually start writing the book. Step four can be done as you get to each scene.)
  • It doesn’t matter as much if your ending is bitter, sweet, or bittersweet, as much as it is satisfying. (I often use the word “inevitable” here.)
  • During scene selection, line up your plots and subplots and color code by scene/time so you know when each one needs to be addressed. (I love this idea!)
  • We’ve all heard this before, but “ideas generate ideas,” and every scene should progress the plot or develop a character.
  • Subplots should be brought up every two to four chapters and don’t generally span the whole book.
  • Write to the tropes of your genre. (Break rules in moderation, I think.)
  • Any good conflict or tension deserves a scene. This shouldn’t happen off-camera.

I really enjoyed this workshop. Was it ground-breaking? For some people, probably. I didn’t exactly hear too many new things, but it was really beneficial for me to hear Locey’s opinions and approach so that I could reevaluate the way that I plan/write and remind myself of some things. I am going to use his system basically how he presented it to get ready for Nanowrimo this year. I have a brand-new book, barely a few hundred words in notes, and this will be a great project to try out a more planner-ly approach, especially as it should allow me to put more actual words (50,000!) on the page in November. Now to finish one novel (two chapters left!) and get all this planning accomplished. I have—yikes!—two weeks.


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