Different Approaches to Outlining

outlining mappingOutlining. For a lot of writers, that’s a bad word. It makes them cringe or run screaming for the door. Well, I’m here to tell you that outlining can be your friend. It wants you to scritch it behind the ears and to croon sweetly in baby talk. In fact, you could think of it as a way to get to know your infant story. Awwww. Isn’t it cute? Just look at that sweet little plot point. :)

Outlining will also show you when it’s time to change that sucker and flush that scene because it stinks to high heavens. Oh yes it will.

You don’t believe in outlining, huh? Because Mrs. Davis in fifth grade made you do so many outlines that your head hurt for a solid week trying to get all those levels right with the proper sentences to describe each part of your report and it hurt you so badly on such a deep level that it has scarred you for life. For life! No, you don’t have to show me. But I’m here to tell you that outlining not only doesn’t have to hurt, but it can be fun. Why? Because you don’t have to do that kind of outline.

Here are some more intuitive variations that can help you plot out your story.

Mind maps

Mind maps are intuitive and fun. You start with your central theme or event in the center and surround it with clusters of related subjects or scenes. It allows you to work spatially rather than linearly. Once you start playing with mind mapping, it can actually be a lot of fun. You’ll find that your ideas will start to flow, and then the ideas related to your central theme will sprout ideas of their own, and like the old shampoo commercial, it will continue, and so on, and so on, and so on. Mind mapping is great for overcoming writer’s block because it utilizes both the visual and subconscious. You can create your own mind maps with paper and pencil or you can use free software you can get here.

Pictures

What do they have a lot of on the internet? Pictures! Use them to outline your story. Gather images for your characters, settings, and important props and keep them in folders so you can refer to them when you get stuck. Sometimes looking at a photo will fill in gaps you were struggling with and get those writerly juices flowing again. Believe it or not, they may also help you find issues in your story so you can fix them before they bog you down in a later draft.

Maps

Draw a map of your story’s world. Maybe it’s a fictional town in the mountains or a fantasy world. Maybe you need a real map of New York City so you can plot your character’s route to work every day. Whatever you need, a map can help you put it together more realistically, even if your map is very cartoony. It’s okay. As long as it helps you with your story, it works. Some authors even end up putting a finished version of the map in the book, so don’t knock it.

Use one of these ideas, use them all. It doesn’t matter. What does matter is you start putting your ideas in some sort of order. Do you have to organize them formally on paper? No. Not unless you want to. But if it helps to keep character sheets so you remember that Jane has blue eyes and sandy brown hair instead of green eyes and dark brown hair, please do so to create a record you can refer to if you’re tempted to redraw her halfway through the book. No detail is too much for you to know. It may not make it into the book, but it’s important that you know it. That book is your world.

Using a Plan

outliningI just got a new book yesterday: Outlining Your Novel by K. M. Weiland. I’m really excited about this book and I’ll tell you why. John and I are starting our next book, and as much as I’d like to jump right in, I can’t. I have to plan it out. If I don’t, I know I’ll be barreling along and suddenly I won’t know what comes next. When that happens, I could be stymied there for months. I don’t want that to happen. I’m really excited about this story and I want it to be told. Heck, I’ve had a map of 1888 London staring down at me from above my desk for well over a year now, goading me.

Could I have planned our book without this new book to help me? Sure. But I’m always looking for new ways to streamline the process. I’d already taken Patti Larsen’s outlining course, and she got my brain juices flowing in many ways. I used her system to get the main story arc planned. But I stumbled across this little gem when I was adding K. M.’s Structuring Your Novel to my wish list. I had read about it on my friend Roz Morris’ blog, and anything Roz uses is good enough for me (Hi, Roz!). Besides, as an editor, I’m always adding resources to my reference shelf. If I can find books that help me explain issues to my clients, I recommend them.

Anyway, I’m all revved up now. Got my notebook for my outlining (not the standard outlines we did in grade school). Got my book to inspire me. Got my husband (he’s the idea guy that keeps the stories going). Got my research to keep the historical aspects accurate. Now I just need to have the time. I’ll pull it out of somewhere. I have been gloriously busy with clients, which is how I like it. Lots of clients means the bills are paid, which means I’m happy. Heck, the kids may even get winter shoes. I may even get winter shoes. :) But I digress.

My point is, I get to plan. I want to plan out every scene. I want to know if I’m missing a crucial point before I begin writing. Are all my plot points in the right place? Are my subplots making sense? Do they weave in seamlessly? This story will have psychological elements, so it’s crucial that everything works perfectly. I’d rather do the work now than try to dig through the finished draft looking for my mistakes.

Of course, I know not everyone agrees with me. Some writers prefer to discover their story as they write. I feel I’m discovering the story, but it’s during the planning stage. Of course, I still get the thrill of discovery as I write, too. The plan doesn’t flesh everything out, it just provides me with a road map. The characters may still take a side trip now and then, but I feel like I have a guide to get them back on track. If you don’t want to plan ahead of time, more power to you. Every writer has their process. I just thought I’d explain mine today.

Another writer I admire, Chuck Wendig, shared his tips for editing and revising, which utilizes outlining later in the process, so it can be a good skill to master no matter when you use it. Check out his post and apply as needed.