When I wrote my first novel, I didn’t outline. I just went along from one scene to the next, deciding what happened on the spur of the moment. The result was something that will remain forever trunked. It’s not that it’s a bad story, just the opposite. One day I’ll rewrite it. But in the manuscript’s current state, there’s a lot of nothing going on and a lot of character inconsistencies. There’s also a lot of extra characters I don’t need. Back then, I added them because I’d hit spots in the novel where it just sort of wandered and I naïvely thought adding more characters would make everything much more exciting. Wrong!

The second novel I planned out a little better. I still didn’t do a full outline, but I did jot down a few lines of notes for each quarter of the book. Still, I wound up with extra characters and some character and plot inconsistencies. I’ve since done a major overhaul of my second novel and I’m quite happy with it. Still, all those revisions and rewrites took longer than writing the initial first draft. I didn’t see that until recently.

My third novel was an idea that hit me like a freight train and I went back to just writing it by the seat of my pants. I knew so many parts of the book I didn’t feel the need to outline.

I think I should have. It’s still my favorite manuscript, and I hope it’ll find a home.

For my fourth novel, I decided to outline. A full blown one. Seeing as I had never extensively outlined a novel before, I had no idea what I was getting into. First, I decided on Randy Ingermanson’s Snowflake method. I felt a bit overwhelmed. Don’t get me wrong, if you can go through the whole thing as he does, I’d imagine you’d have a very solid first draft. But, it required too much pre-writing for my patience. For those who know me, patience is not one of my virtues. Still, for those with a lot of patience, I recommend starting here.

Then, I looked through author Kelley Armstrong’s method of outlining. I belong to her site’s OWG (Online Writing Group). If you’re a writer and haven’t joined, I can’t recommend the OWG enough. Through the OWG I’ve made lots of writing friends, found invaluable crit partners, and truly learned how to be a better writer. I could digress here and tell everyone what a wonderful person Kelley is, both online and in person, and how much I enjoy her books, but I’ll stay on track.

Since I’m a researcher at heart, I guess I couldn’t resist digging further. I wanted novel number four to be written better than the other three, and while I know that my writing skills improve with each manuscript, I didn’t want to make the mistakes I’d made with my first and second novels. I don’t want to spend three times longer rewriting than writing. I know I’ll need to revise and revise again (and again and again), but it’s ripping out huge sections of a manuscript and writing a third or more from scratch that just seems a waste of writing time. And painful. Oh boy, is it ever painful. So, I found another site that I found valuable information: author Jim Butcher’s blog. Jim has some incredible tips here, so I suggest popping on over to read them. Especially the part about the Great Swampy Middle. A millions thanks to Jim for posting that part.

Okay. So at this point, I’ve got three ways to go about mapping my shiny new idea. I decided to take the best pieces and pull them together, along with yet another method: Syd Field’s Paradigm.

If it sounds painful, it was. But here’s what I went with. First, I wrote what Jim calls a two line pitch. Then, I went a step farther and did what Kelly and Randy call a one sentence hook, or what screen writers call a log line. Both ended up being something that’ll be useful in my query.

Next, I used Syd Field’s paradigm combined with Kelly’s method of outlining. I made seven index cards. (I use a Mac application called Scrivener instead of real index cards). I created one each: Act 1, Plot point 1 – inciting incident, Act 2 – 1st half, Midpoint, Act 2 -2nd half, Plot point II, Act 3 – Resolution. The only things I wrote on these cards were the combined tips from everyone – aka, things I need to keep in mind while plotting. Then, I went with a shortened version of Kelly’s character outlining crossed with some helpful tips from Jim. I wrote a paragraph on each character, gave them goals, conflicts, and stakes. I jotted down one or two tags to associate with each character, knowing I’d add more as I wrote. This is where I think I hit gold. It’s easier to see where your story is going when you have a strong character outline. I don’t need it so detailed that I know what they had for breakfast, but I needed to get a real feel for their personality and motives.

Then, I made seven more index cards that corresponded to the ones above. This time, I wrote a one or two sentences on what happens in the novel for each card, keeping in mind everything I jotted down on the place holder cards. This really helped flesh out my book. Next, I wrote a single paragraph to sum up my story. If this looks like I’m writing a query, I am.

At this point, I had lots of ideas for scenes, for which I created an index card for each, keeping them at one or two sentences tops. I placed them behind the index cards I thought they’d best fit.

Now, I need to use Randy’s and Kelly’s method of expanding that paragraph into a page. And, again if you’re thinking this looks strangely like a one page synopsis, you’re right. I’ll print everything out and put it in a notebook beside my computer for handy reference while I’m writing.

Once that’s done, I’m down to business – hammering out the first draft. I’m not quite sure if I’m in or not for Nano – I’ve got a few things in the non-writing life in the balance at the moment. I’ll know more in a week or so. But, I think I’ll have a game plan that should help me crank out the fastest, most accurate (narrative-wise) novel yet. I’m also sure that I’ll ditch some scenes and add new ones, even move things around a little. I’ll change the hook and the synopsis to reflect as I go through each third of the manuscript. When I’m done, I’ll have a decent draft of my manuscript, query, and synopsis. Not bad!

Then, it’s just a matter of revisions, revisions, revisions. Those, I actually enjoy. Maybe this outlining thing will be a lot easier with each new novel.


10 thoughts on “Outlining

  1. Thanks for this Michelle, I’m still up in the air between planning, overplanning and pantsing. Each has massive drawbacks and I’m still trying to perfect my Jog Pants method (enough of a structure to go but free enough to be unrestrictive.)

    • That’s what I did with the last book. And, like I said, I still love that manuscript. My suggestion would be to use Syd Field’s method, and a scaled-down version of Kelly’s character outline. But do come up with Jim Butcher’s 2 line pitch as well.

      Good luck!

  2. Fantastic post Michelle. I “semi-plotted” my first manuscript and completely pantsed my NaNo last year (ms #2). I’m getting ready to begin ms #3 and I’ve got Kelley’s notes, a stack of index cards and fresh copy of Syd’s paradigm. I have a few characters and ideas, but I haven’t sat down to map everything out yet. I’ll pop over and check out Jim’s site before I get into too much.


  3. I, like you have basically done something similar. I tried pantsing. I like it. I like not being tied down to anything and just ‘flying by the seat of my pants’. But, I broke down, and read Kelley’s method, bought the Storycraft method (at $80. and barely used it-there’s so much planning that I felt I wasn’t writing anything), and I’ve done the plot cards, and cards for characters,etc., on top of going through the Paradigm method. Also, I try to read anything that I think will help me ‘pull it all together’. Two books on writing a novel, and several on different aspects of novel writing have been helpful.
    I think it’s what you said about combining a couple of them that worked for you that has just given me fresh perspective. I don’t like one specific method for me. Possibly combining will help me hit paydirt as well. I’ve just got to figure out the right combo like you did. Hope it happens soon. I’d hate to spend all that time trashing parts and re-writing to death where in the end, I’ll end up shelving the whole thing. I hope I can find my ‘key’ soon.
    Thanks for the great post Michelle. I really enjoyed it and it was so familiar. 🙂

    • Thanks, Patricia! I think each writer is different, so there’s no real one method that works for everyone. Not sure this method will be my holy grail, but it has made me see things in this new story I wouldn’t have otherwise.

  4. I’m not a great planner…I used Kelley’s method for my second novel and my agent says that I have a lot of unnecessary plot and subplot…it’s a mess…so I guess that didn’t work out too well for me.

    Now I just plot out the rough idea of plot points, reversals and climax…as well as the ending then I get writing and add more details as they come to me. I don’t really know if this method will work out bu it’s working now.

    • Something like that worked for my last manuscript, and I still love, love, love that story more than anything else I’ve come come up with.

  5. Keep on truckin Michelle, best of luck with it.

    Must get on with my own, I’ve been reading like a demon just to make sure I understand the market a bit more and to pick up a few more lessons which will hopefully translate. LOL

  6. I have been a features writer for years, so it is possible that I build my storyline in my head automatically and not realize it. That said, my first novel (120k YA urban fantasy – 1st in series of 4) was driven by a single scene. In fact, the entire series, jumped from that one scene.

    I knew where I wanted the book to start and to end. I also knew my characters really well – what drove them, their backgrounds, their connections. From there, I built the story, connecting carefully the scenes. I made sure every chapter had a kicking scene. EVERY chapter. I wanted no scene to bore the reader (because I, myself, am notorious for skipping scenes in books that drag).

    Book 2 I am approaching a similar way – pivotal scene, opening scene, ending scene. I then have a check-list of what must be learned in Book #2 and what new questions will be raised. After that, I just toss in my characters and let them run with it. Basically I let them improve 🙂 I then write the entire thing and then go-back and re-read it, tweaking scenes as necessary.

    Actually, I guess, in a way I do plan it out . . . 🙂

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