Guest Post: “Confessions of an Outline Phobic” by Cathy Moeschet


Photo by Ryan McGuire from Gratisography

As of yesterday, I have my first-ever NaNoWriMo under wraps. Although I’m sure that anyone reading this already has an interest in writing, there may be someone under some far-flung rock who doesn’t know yet that NaNoWriMo is a shortened form of National Novel Writing Month! That’s right – every November, I-have-no-idea-how-many-of-us lose our minds and commit to writing 50,000 words of a novel in 30 days. This, in a month that has a major holiday in it. A holiday that, for many, involves travel and a major disruption of routine. It’s doable. Many people manage the word goal, staying on pace by banging out the 1,667 requisite words per day, even if it’s all stream-of-consciousness stuff that may or may not lead to anything useful later.

I bring this up because I totally wiped out on my first shot at the elusive 50k word marathon that is NaNo. I finished with an unimpressive 33,638 words. There were many disruptions, not all of them due to the holiday.

Like massive writer’s block. And the sound of someone moving around in the same house. Sometimes, even breathing in the same room.

Of all the nerve!

But we’ve all been there, right?

I love my work in progress. I believe that it has real legs under it. Out of my several failed attempts at novel writing, I think this one has the most oomph yet. I think this time, I’ll finish.

Why? Because I did something important – I did a bit of very public chest-thumping to announce the birth of this book. I declared myself by telling people about and then participating in NaNoWriMo, so that I would have something, someone (actually, a lot of someones) to hold my feet to the fire and keep me moving.

No, I didn’t make the word goal. Not even close. Still, it’s not a loss, even after that, because it’s the furthest I’ve ever gotten. Usually, the wheels come off of my longer works, even good stories, at about 30-60 pages in. I’ve far more than doubled the sixty page mark on this one.

I already told you that one thing I did right was to take this plunge publicly, so that I would have outside pressure. Sometimes, when your drive and inspiration fail, vanity can still get you a long way. No one likes to wipe out in front of an audience.

What I did wrong – what I always do wrong – is to not outline completely. I am a pantser by nature (someone who flies by the seat of the pants when writing). I was determined to change my destiny, and the destiny of my book, by approaching NaNoWriMo differently, and actually planning the darned thing.


And now we come to the confession: I suck at outlining. I am a miserable, pathetic, hopeless mess at outlining, which is what always goes wrong with my longer projects. So I did what anyone in her right (or write?) mind would do under the circumstances:

I cheated.

No, I didn’t plagiarize. And those of you who write are probably howling that the only other way to cheat is to pay someone to write it for you and not give them credit. I didn’t do that, either.

I fell back on a tool from my Masters program in creative writing, which was, in my case, geared toward producing a screenplay inside of a year. One screenwriting version of the traditional outline is called a beat sheet (originated by the late Blake Snyder. If you’re interested, pick up a copy of his fantastic book, Save the Cat! Alternately, look up “beat sheet” online). As it happens, someone with my same chronic aversion to outlines adapted Snyder’s beat sheet to work with a novel. The idea, since the beat sheet determines which points of action (beats) happen by which page, is to keep the same main points of the plot, but to spread them out a bit.

It’s a wonderful tool. It didn’t save my book or help me to reach my NaNo goal, because I didn’t nail everything down precisely. That is, I did, for the first half or so, but not for the second. I was stuck for an ending, frankly, and I just put something down to finish the beat sheet.

I didn’t like my ending, and predictably, I wandered away from my road map. I knew I would. I always do.

But I at least have a start, and you can have one, too. Even if you hate and fear (and suck at) outlining, there are tools out there. Even if you’re looking for help with a short work, instead of a novel, one of them will fit you. It doesn’t have to be a beat sheet. It can be a visual story map. It can be a spreadsheet. It can be a stack of index cards. It can even be a flow chart. There’s also some killer software out there, if you have money to spend on it.

It just has to be whatever works for you. I’ve seen a lot of things on social media lately that say we’re not all snowflakes. Truth: when it comes to writing, at least if you don’t steal and you don’t ride on someone else’s back to do it, you ARE a snowflake. You may not get rich. You may not get famous, but if you’re doing it by your own hand, even with a collaborator, you are an original, and there is a tool that will help you. I’m including a few links at the end of this piece to get my fellow outline phobics started. So, going forward:

Tell people you’re writing! Please, because they’ll keep you motivated to finish.

Pantsers, there is hope.

Pantsers, planners and plantsers alike, we ARE snowflakes.

Now, quit screwing around online and go write!

Oh, and I promised you pain-killing outlining/story development links. These should at least get you started:

Plot templates from The Wise Sloth (okay, not exactly an outlining tool, and the resulting stories may be a bit clichéd, I guess, but if you are very stuck or don’t have a lot of time to develop something, they may help): https://thewisesloth.com/2009/11/17/4-simple-formula-plot-templates/

Here’s one from AllIndieWriters.com that not only offers outlining tools, but also some for character creation: http://allindiewriters.com/novel-planning-tools-and-worksheets/

Justin Swapp’s blog includes some great templates and worksheets, as well: http://justinswapp.com/free-novel-outline-templates-and-worksheets/

Cathy Moeschet is a writer and editor based in North Carolina. She has been writing since the age of seven, when her father gave her a toy plastic typewriter for Christmas, a move that he surely lived to regret. When she’s not writing or working on projects for clients, she enjoys reading, darts, watching basketball, music and hanging out with four-legged fur babies.

Watch for the upcoming release (in spring or summer of 2017, if the universe is kind) of RedFall, co-authored with Marsa Morse:

RedFall synopsis:

Peter Spencer, undergoing inpatient treatment for alcoholism, is wide awake in the middle of the night when a violent storm hits – a storm in which the rain that hits his window is the exact color of blood.

Unsure whether he’s hallucinating or he’s really witnessed some bizarre phenomenon, Spence enlists the help of his best friend, a biochemist, to unravel the mystery, while his family and doctor take steps to extend his treatment involuntarily, a predicament that could ruin any chance he has of getting joint custody of his young son.

Suddenly, those around him begin to die of a brutal, deadly fungal infection.

Could the deaths and the red rain be related?

Desperate to get out by any means, Spence takes drastic steps to gain his freedom and prove his sanity.


The rain was a snare drum, its drilling rat-a-tat-tat on the roof insistent and almost physically harsh, punctuated by occasional thunder and lightning. Spence hugged himself harder. But no amount of holding onto himself could stop the shaking. This was just the end of day two, and he was stretched beyond breaking. If he didn’t get some sleep soon, he thought, he might just pull a Chief Broom on the window and make a break for it. Maybe the rain would feel better on his skin than it felt to his ears.

The clock on the dresser glared an angry 3:42 a.m. Nothing else in the room looked any friendlier; it was strictly functional, Early Institutional Cheerless. The few personal possessions he’d been allowed to bring with him seemed to mock him from the shelf and the dresser. The last place this felt like was home. A few of his things sitting around wouldn’t change that.

Spence turned onto his side again. The worst part wasn’t even the physical discomfort, he thought. It was the mental movies. All of his fuckups. All of his embarrassments. All of the people who loved him, but whom, with equal disregard, he had disappointed time and again.

They’d warned him that he’d get depressed. No one had told him how bad it could get. As a novelist, he’d created a lot of very flawed characters and housed them in some very bleak realities, but this was a black hole of the psyche that he’d never known existed. That was another reason for the Spartan vibe in the room – as expensive and plush as this place was, it was well-neigh impossible to find a way to injure oneself here, let alone check out, no matter how tempting the thought. No razors, so for the first time in his life, he wore the beginnings of a scratchy beard and mustache. Just as well. His hands shook so badly now that if he tried to shave, he’d probably cut his throat by accident and miss his wrists if he aimed for them. No drinking glass, just Dixie cups. Not even an ink pen. Pencils only. The truth was that he couldn’t smash a window and run – the windows were fortified, in addition to being single panes that didn’t open. He couldn’t even save up the pills they were giving him while he dried out. A male attendant who looked a lot like Andre the Giant checked his mouth each time he received a dose to make sure Spence was taking them according to the grand plan. Nope, this place was safe as a womb. This was what you got when the rehab was also a nuthatch.

It was petty and mean to call it that, but Spence just couldn’t scrape up two damns to rub together for political correctness, or anything else, just now. This night, like the night before, all he saw in his head was failure. All he wanted was alcohol. Any kind. Any quantity. Anything. The goddamned Valium was useless.

Spence bolted from the bed to the bathroom, hovering over the toilet as his stomach tried to reject contents it had long ago purged. He bit back a sob. Long minutes passed before, shaky and sweating, he returned to his bed and eased his long frame back onto it.

A crashing BOOM made the building shake. He jumped right back up and ran to the window. Outside, a tree had fallen, barely missing the roof over his head. Spence closed his eyes, inhaling deeply to calm his pounding heart. Less frantic, he opened his eyes and looked out of the window.

The lightning outside was playing hell with his eyes. If he didn’t know better, he would have sworn that the rain running in frantic streaks down the pane wasn’t water at all.

It was red.

Blood red.

It was blood.

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