My Outlining Process

It’s been some time since I wrote a post. That’s because I’ve been spending every moment of spare time I have writing. I’ve been more productive over the last two months than I was all summer. In large part, because of a new outlining process I’ve been using.

I’ve tried outlines before. I tried the Snowflake Method and I’ve tried the 1, 2, 3’s and A, B, C’s. I’ve tried tables and bullet points and just about anything else I could think of. I ended up outlining the life out of my stories. Then, when I started to trudge through the actual writing of all those summaries, my characters wouldn’t stick to the plan. Ultimately, I gave up on those stories in jaded frustration.

After that, I determined myself to be a “discovery writer,” one who attacks the page with very little planning or foresight. That seemed to work well for my short stories. I found myself holding a very loose framework in my mind of where I wanted the story to go and the characters agreed to the guidance well-enough. Then I tried it on my current WIP, a novel-length rewrite of “All Light and Darkness.”

It. Did. Not. Work.

That framework gave me too little guidance. I’d write and write only to have my ideas piddle out in directionless confusion. The framework was too loose, but if I tightened it up at all, it was too much to hold in my mind.

That’s when I remembered a strategy a friend recommended: sticky notes! I got myself a big stash of them–all different sizes and styles–and as I stuck them in my brainstorming notebooks, a sort of outlining process developed naturally.

Take a look.


My loose framework gave me major goals to accomplish–events that needed to take place in order for the story to go the direction I wanted. Those events went on big square sticky notes one right after the other in the order I wanted them to occur. I ended up going top to bottom  and in columns across the pages to allow for the next step: adding smaller notes of things that might possibly occur to accomplish the larger goals. As I brainstormed these smaller events, certain ones stood out as winners; others faded into the background and were finally marginalized or removed entirely. I color-coded these smaller events, flashbacks in orange and present events in blue, which helped me pace the novel.

At this point, each smaller note generally represents one chapter, but that’s not always the case. Sometimes I find the event listed requires a sequence of events that spans multiple chapters. When that happens, I usually insert more sticky notes to reflect the other chapters. So, this outline also provides me with a sort of index of my chapters so I can track my pacing.

Once I was happy with the smaller events, I tagged them to keep track of my progress. Pink tags meant I hadn’t worked on any material for that event–no scenes, nothing–and the purple tags meant I’d worked on the event, but it wasn’t complete yet (either I hadn’t finished writing part of it or there was something that needed to be changed).

There are several reasons I like this tagging method. For one, it has allowed me to jump around on the chapters I work on. I’m mostly writing chronologically, but occasionally I feel a bit stumped or burned out on the present chapter, and I jump to one of the other chapters to work on. That way I don’t feel like I’m trudging through muck but still making progress. I just open up my notebook and see what noted event/scene appeals to me.

Another reason I really like tagging is because it helps me move past editing. I’m one of those writers who gets caught up in editing. It’s the discovery writer in me, I suppose. Suddenly a new idea sneaks out of my fingers, a new world elements or character trait or plot twist, and it means I need to go back and alter a few things. Instead of going back immediately and spending precious hours rewriting what I already wrote, I simply tag the chapters that need changes with purple. It allows my mind to move on with writing new material without addressing the issues RIGHT NOW like I’m inclined to do because, in a way, I have addressed it. Then, on days I might not have a lot of time to write, or maybe I’m feeling under-the-weather or burned out, I can go back and knock out a few of those purple tags.

That’s one of the best benefits of these tags–I get to remove them! =D It’s ridiculously rewarding to pull one of those things off.

Now, you  might have noticed the “Part 2” note. I’ve only outlined the first half (or maybe two-thirds) of my novel. Part 3 (and maybe 4?) look like this.


With the sticky notes, there’s no pressure to do everything now. I know where I want this story to go. I have other sticky notes detailing scenes that will take place somewhere in this section, but I have no need to outline them right now. I’m not focusing on the rest of the story, just the first part. It makes the novel-writing process that much less daunting. I mean, if you didn’t notice, “Part 4” is just hanging out in the margins. Even though I have a progress bar for this project, the truth is, I have no clue how long it is. I don’t even know if it’s one book or two or one-and-a-half. I don’t know and I don’t particularly care because my goal is to get through Part 1. And, if something happens to change as I move forward to Parts 2, 3, 4? I can simply remove notes and insert new ones and add my fancy little purple or pink tags where I need them. There’s no scribbling things out, no squished notes in the margins, no wasted time rewriting word documents, and no swearing at software.

Know what that also means? No word counts. Word counts stress me out. I’ll set a word count goal to push me to sit down at the computer, but at the end of the day, I try to ignore them. A story is a sequence of events, not a certain number of words. This method allows me to focus on that and to get excited about the scenes I get to work on. If those scenes are less than the word count I wanted? Who cares, I still get to remove a tag, and then I’ll start on the next one. It keeps me focused on the thing that I love to do: I don’t love writing thousands and thousands of words; I love writing stories.

This method utilizes both my outliner side and my discovery side. It allows me to plan my plot, insert those twists and reveals, set the pacing and stage the suspense, but it also allows me to change things around easily, keep track of changes that need to be made, insert new chapters, events, even characters, and determine to figure out how they fit later. Then, one tag at a time, I march toward the completion of my novel. It works for me; maybe it works for you, too.

With that, I’ll leave you so I can work on removing one of those pink tags. =D

One thought on “My Outlining Process

  1. I think I’m a discovery writer as well. My characters never do what I ask them to. They have their own ideas. I’ve never been fond of the abc type outlines you mentioned. They never seem to work well for me. The post-it notes are a good idea. They allow you to have an idea of the major goals you want to accomplish, but are a little more natural than outlines. It’s been a while since I’ve written (busy with kids and grad school) and I need to get back to it. If you ever want to swap stories or need an extra pair of eyes to look over a scene, I could use an excuse to get back into it. Just let me know. I’ve been working on a novel called “Night Ledan” for some time now. I’ve gotten a lot written, but it still has a long way to go.


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