My oh-so-scientific approach to outlining.

O is for Outlining

My life is one big outline.

I love outlines like I love soft serve vanilla ice cream with sprinkles in the summer. And beach pizza.

I write outlines for every book I write.

I have several outlines for stories I never wrote. It’s not because I lost the creativity or spark once I had the outline. Usually, it’s because the plot wasn’t right yet so I had to take a step back and re-evaluate. And then ideas I’m more passionate about take their place.

Steps in my outlining process:

  • I scribble down a bunch of ideas in a notebook. I free write. Jot a bunch of what ifs. Then leave it. I’m usually working on another project so that’s okay. It simmers in the background.
  • I purposefully nap, hoping for bigger ideas in the form of dreams. #hasn’thappenedyet
  • Formulate the blurb or logline. I try and nail down the heart of my story. The main conflict. The main antagonist. The setting. Stuff like that. #i’msoscientific
  • Research a bit if needed. Sometimes history produces the best stories.
  • Nail down the major plot points: inciting incident, Lock-in, midpoint, dark moment, climax.
  • Start at the beginning and write a one or two sentence summary of what might happen in each scene.
  • After I have my outline, I check it against what I know about structure and make sure it doesn’t need tweaking.   #yesi’manoutlinenerd

But I do all this so I start off in the right direction. In my current wip I ended up changing a lot. The guy I thought was a co-protagonist turned out to be somewhat of an antagonist. Motivations changed. Backstory needed to be fixed. Secondary characters were fleshed out. Subplots needed to be fixed to fit with story.

But the heart of my story stayed the same. I didn’t know exactly how the climax would end until I got there and knew the story better. I still had lots of flexibility.

My creativity works best within the confines of an outline.

But that’s me. Tomorrow is all about pantsing. So if you’re a pantser be prepared to share in the comments! Curious minds want to know.

Any outlining tips to share? What works best for you?

36 Responses to My oh-so-scientific approach to outlining.

  1. Creepy Query Girl April 18, 2011 at 10:20 am #

    I have to have an outline. I usually start with a blurb. Then I write down scenes- whatever I know I WANT to see happen before the characters. It could just be a conversation. Or something funny. Or something romantic. I do my best thinking in the passenger’s side seat of our car (while it’s rolling) so I’ll sometimes jot down scenes in my Iphone. If nothing comes naturally I make a character chart. I’ll have several lists of what I want to see happen between the MC and each major character, even the villains. Once I write down all the scene blurbs, I put them in an order that should make sense and keep the reader engaged. Then I write! And it all falls apart and gets put backed together several times!

    • Laura April 18, 2011 at 11:12 am #

      I love how we all do it just a little bit differently and a little bit the same. I do usually break out the index cards eventually. 🙂

  2. Tab April 18, 2011 at 10:25 am #

    Thanks for sharing that. I follow a similar thing except that I do it as I write. So I write a bit then outline just ahead of my writing. Sometimes if I have a great idea for climax or something I might jot that down too.

  3. mooderino April 18, 2011 at 10:52 am #

    I like to write stuff on index cards. Easier to switch scenes round or throw them out (but not away, might need it later).


  4. christine danek April 18, 2011 at 11:49 am #

    I did a loose outline for my current WiP. My mind jumps, but I tried to find the heart. That reminds me I should write the logline,that really would help. I may send it to you when I’m finished. The logline.
    I also can’t write the story unless I know the end. I know this can change, but it gives a direction.
    How long does it take you from outline to the final first draft?
    Just curious.

    • Laura April 18, 2011 at 12:36 pm #

      Christine – For my current wip which is YA about 78K words, I started prewriting/plotting last summer. So that took a couple months b/c it took me a while to get a big enough concept. It started of MG paranormal mystery and changed to a contemp. YA. My next idea I got within minutes and came fast. So that depends. But once i have the solid idea and main plot points, it takes me about a month of prewriting, character work and outlining. It then takes me about 3 months to finish a first draft, sometimes less. With this ms, I spent 2 months doing any structural work, rewriting scenes, deleting others. And next I’ll spend at least a month working on the actual sentences. And of course letting it sit to get persepctive. I also like to know the ending b/c that will affect my beginning!

      Amie – Free thinking works best for me with paper and pen too!

      Stina – I love having a project outlined and ready to go before I finish polishing, so I don’t hit the doldrums!

  5. Amie Kaufman April 18, 2011 at 12:03 pm #

    I definitely start with free thinking, and I do much better by hand than on my laptop–just scribbling down lots of mad ideas before I put them away to let them gel. I’ve recently started working on loglines and pitches before I start writing. It’s a lot of fun!

  6. Stina Lindenblatt April 18, 2011 at 12:19 pm #

    Yeah, I’m still bumbed about that co-protagonist switching to antagonist part. But it’s better than my ‘OMG he’s dead. How could she do that to me’ reaction I had. 😉

    I’m an outliner, too. I have one book I outlined last year, but before I had a chance to write it, another BIGGER idea hit me that begged me to write it first. But the nice thing is, once I’m finished with that, I already have an project outlined and waiting for me (after I analyze it with STC).

  7. Marisa April 18, 2011 at 12:42 pm #

    I love outlining. I usually take a few weeks to write one – give myself a notebook and research for a good few weeks, coming up with scenes and snips of dialogue, jotting down ideas and notes and after I have half a notebook filled, I usually write the outline down. Things change as I grow my novel, but usually the outline’s skeleton doesn’t change from start to finish!

  8. Sheri Larsen April 18, 2011 at 12:49 pm #

    Formulating the blurb and then expanding upon it is a great way to begin. I then line paper with numbers. I start 1 to 10. Then I decide on a possible/probably beginning and then ending. I work my way back and forth from there. Of course, the outline will need lots of development, but it’s a start.

    • Laura April 18, 2011 at 1:33 pm #

      I do like Don. Maass tips on listing about 20 ways for a scene to go. And picking the unpredictable one. I’d rather do that during the outlining stage than after a scene is already written.

  9. Margo April 18, 2011 at 1:44 pm #

    First book: no outline. Years and years of work and three massive re-writes (the last re-write was outlined)

    Second book: one page outline. One massive re-write (re-write was outlined)

    Third book: nine page outline based on 3 act story stucure. So far so good 🙂

    I’ve been won over to outlining.

    I am amazed how much flexibility you still have, even with a detailed outline.

  10. Jennifer Shirk April 18, 2011 at 1:46 pm #

    I love outlining too! Mine changes a lot but the major idea of the story stay the same.
    I also write down things about the characters:their Goal, motivation, and conflict and a little bit about their background.

  11. Angela Felsted April 18, 2011 at 1:49 pm #

    I like the napping step. I could use a good nap right now.

  12. Lydia K April 18, 2011 at 2:03 pm #

    I love outlines too. I can’t write a story without one anymore!

  13. Paul Greci April 18, 2011 at 2:49 pm #

    On my last WIP my process was similar to yours. I started with a structure but then it changed as I got into the story. Still, the initial structure and log line helped me to stay focused.

  14. Laura Marcella April 18, 2011 at 2:54 pm #

    We have very similar approaches to outlining! I love planning the story and characters before writing it. I allow myself to move away from the outline as needed, though. The actual butt-in-chair and writing the story creates inspiration for new (and better!) ideas. 🙂

  15. Lisa Green April 18, 2011 at 3:17 pm #

    Can’t WAIT to see tomorrow’s post. *marks it down on calendar* 😀

  16. Shelley Batt April 18, 2011 at 3:49 pm #

    I guess we basically outline the same way. History is an awesome place to find stories.

  17. Patti April 18, 2011 at 3:59 pm #

    First of all what is beach pizza?

    Second – I do similar things. I jot down notes, sketch out possible scenes including inciting incident., but I think I need to do more so thanks for the tips.

  18. Jenny Lundquist April 18, 2011 at 4:14 pm #

    Once I have an idea that I’m sure I want to spend a lot of time on, I buy a new journal just for that idea #loveanyexcusetobuyanewjournal

    Once I feel like I’ve gotten a semi-coherent idea of the plot, I start jotting scenes on index cards. I’ve found that actually works better for me than Scrivener. I buy colored index cards so I can track story threads better that way (yellow for school scenes, blue for home scenes, etc.)
    Great post, as always!

  19. Carolina Valdez Miller April 18, 2011 at 4:21 pm #

    I’m somewhat of a pantser, but really outlines are the way to go. Or at least something like it where you find some structure in your story. At least for me. Pantsing is total pants–leaves me editing for ages. I don’t know that I’ve ever intentionally napped to gain ideas, though. Now THAT is an awesome idea. 😉

  20. Matthew Rush April 18, 2011 at 4:22 pm #

    What’s a beach pizza? Sounds tasty.

  21. Talli Roland April 18, 2011 at 4:29 pm #

    Wow, I’m impressed with your outlining prowess! 🙂 I outline the major turning points, then fill in the blanks as I go!

  22. Sherrie Petersen April 18, 2011 at 4:37 pm #

    I’m good at purposefully napping! Outlining, not so much 😛

  23. Donna Weaver April 18, 2011 at 4:38 pm #

    I’m a very organized person, but I do struggle with outlining. It feels like I’m writing the story twice. But that was before I spent a year editing WIP #1. =D

    • Laura April 18, 2011 at 5:26 pm #

      For the inexperienced, beach pizza is square pizza, which I’m pretty sure comes out of a frozen cooler and thrown into the oven; but for some reason, after spending hours in the ocean and the sand, this pizza is the best. I also have many nostalgic memories to go with it.

  24. Tana Adams April 18, 2011 at 5:18 pm #

    I heart outlines too! How else would I possibly know what should come next? I even like vague outlines. I just need an arrow in a certain direction.

  25. Susan Kaye Quinn April 18, 2011 at 5:32 pm #

    I’m starting to draft today, but only after a whole bunch of research and plotting, the likes of which I have never done before! It’s an entirely new experience, going in knowing so much about my book already. But I can already see that my pantser heart is showing through, even in the first chapter.

  26. LynNerd April 18, 2011 at 5:49 pm #

    I’m super unorganized, and so are my outlines, if you can call them that. When writing with my co-authors, everything is outlined, each chapter carefully plotted out and outlined. They’re much more organized. And it’s so much easier to write each chapter. Hats off to organized writers!

  27. Eileen Astels Watson April 18, 2011 at 8:17 pm #

    I’m a pantster, but I do outline some too, it’s just I usually do that after my pantster method messes me up. 🙁

  28. Karen Strong April 18, 2011 at 9:04 pm #

    I LOVES me some outlining. I usually keep a notebook when I first get an idea and then I use index cards because I’m forever moving things around. Then when I have a good working outline, I put it in yWriter and then it’s ON!!!

  29. Maria Toth April 18, 2011 at 10:14 pm #

    Great & very helpful post! I’m not an outliner, but after reading this, I plan to outline my next novel. Just shared your post with both of my critique groups! Thanks!!! 🙂

  30. Ann Best April 18, 2011 at 11:06 pm #

    I do a lot of “outlining” in my head and then begin writing scenes. This works well for me since I write memoirs. Don’t know how it would do for fiction, which I started to write when I was younger but got sidetracked with life. Now I’m in memoir mode/age. Your excellent post got me thinking about how best to achieve my the goal: a coherent first draft! Thanks.
    Ann Carbine Best, Long Journey Home

  31. J E Fritz April 19, 2011 at 2:00 am #

    This is every reason one should outline before writing. I feel like scolding myself for not doing it!

  32. Ghenet Myrthil April 19, 2011 at 3:28 pm #

    I love outlining too. I don’t know how the panstsers do it! My process is similar to yours. I like to know the heart of my story ahead of time too, as well as the logline and the major plot points. Since I’m writing my first book, having an outline helps me feel less overwhelmed!

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