Foreword: This week has been crazy. Between attending the LitUp Festival today, trying to coordinate the cover for TOOK ME YESTERDAY (the sequel of TAKE ME TOMORROW) on Wattpad, and some other crazy exciting news, I almost (ALMOST) let this blog post get away from me. (Thank the writing gods for iCalendar reminders.) That being said, I didn’t have time to plan a topic, so I reached out to you all via my social media to see what you were curious about, and writer Hannah mentioned outlining. (Shout out to Hannah!) So, I thought I’d show you how I outline my books as best as I can. (Which, surprise, surprise, has turned into a HUGE post about how I chaotically write novels.) Enjoy…
Now it begins.
Typically, I start outlining the moment a character/scene/world comes to me. All books approach me a little differently, but I always start off lying to myself by acting like I can stay organized as all these chaotic ideas flood in. Inevitably, I end up opening a new Scrivener project and creating a document called “Chapter One” – like all my ideas will come to me in cute, organized chapters ready to be written. This results in the first few paragraphs being my opening scene…and the rest being a scrambled mess. After, though, is where the real outlining begins.
I suggest starting off a book idea with a couple of documents:
- Book Bible: Maybe you don’t need a book bible at this point, but I always start it right away. Even though everything inevitably changes, this gives me one place to organize focused ideas so that they don’t get intermingled with my scenes. I typically have three main ones in separate documents:
- Character Sheet is where I collect basics: personality, looks, and character motivation. Character motivation is the most important. Obviously. But you also might not know it at this point, and that’s okay. Try to guess anyway. Get a real feel for your character and/or what you want this book to be about. Without knowing motivation, it might be hard to know why/how your character makes decisions, which, in turn, will make it harder to outline how your scenes move.
- Past Timeline is where I start to collect my lead-up to the beginning of the novel. How did your characters get here? Why are they here? When did certain events shape them into who they are today? Why, out of all times, is this novel starting now?
- The World Building sheet is where I start to collect world building ideas. Think of things that happen in the background but won’t be a focus of a scene. Most important thing to ask here: What makes your world unique from all the rest in your genre? Try to emphasize that from the beginning.
It might seem like a lot to start off with a Book Bible, but I have found it helps me keep my outline simple when I move into scenes and dialogue. If I have all my world building notes intermingled with dialogue, scenes can get lost and/or confusing. Granted, once I finally choose a path, I will start to mix these, but in the beginning, I try to keep everything very minimalist. That way, I can see more of the big picture in an easier format.
- Unorganized: This document is where I begin writing dialogue or scene ideas. Go ahead and word vomit. Put all your ideas, scenes, etc. here when you have no idea where it is going to go. That way, it’s all on one page, and you can start moving it around when you’re ready. In this stage, I don’t even try to be coherent. I want those ideas down so I don’t forget them. I can reorganize later. Hence, “unorganized.” Embrace the chaos.
- Organized, a.k.a. Plan A: Once I finish my “unorganized” sheet, this is where I’ll start to try organizing my thoughts. Ex. Maybe I know I want the book to start with a bank robbery and end with a bigger heist, so I know where those two go. I will also know some basics. Ex. The love interests can’t fall in love until they meet, right? So I can put “X and Y” meet somewhere near the beginning, and then I go from there. This will eventually evolve into Plan B, Plan C, Plan Infinity.
If you’re still with me, yay! I know that was a little confusing. But I like to start where I begin in order to show where I end up. I’m the sort of outliner that’s always building on outlines upon outlines upon outlines upon outlines. So let’s move onto when I’m in the writing stages.
When I begin writing my books, I write a sort-of screenplay version first. This means bare bones, no descriptions, no prose, just dialogue and a few notes about what is physically happening. Below is an example from my current WIP. This tiny paragraph will literally become an entire chapter. It might not make sense to you, but it does to me, and that’s what matters. Take notes the way you need to take them.
After I have a screenplay version down for a couple of chapters, I stop to write in the prose. I may have an idea of where I want to go, but I don’t like to get too ahead of myself, because I know how characters can be. They don’t always follow the plan. In my current WIP, for instance, I have a plan for the rest of the book, but I’ve only written a screenplay for the next three chapters. (I’m also in the climax, so things are getting hairy!) Now that I’m writing, though, my outline will change dramatically. I’ve also learned that I’m not the type of writer who should edit as I go. I may edit prose to get back into what I wrote before, but I have stopped trying to edit whole scenes if I realize it needs to change while I’m writing. Ex. In my current WIP, my beta readers pointed out that one of my side characters needed (and, yes, I forgot this in a first draft) purpose in their own life rather than just exist to serve my MC. Instead of rewriting every scene they appear in, I kept writing, let myself explore the side character’s plot more, and realized what they needed earlier on in order to make their final actions exciting and, well, purposeful. If I had gone back and tried to force it, I would’ve wasted my time. Instead, I just put a little note (okay, a huge note, along with my beta readers’ notes) back in their opening chapter. Here’s a live shot of my beta readers putting me in my place. (God, I love them.)
Once you begin writing, I suggest keeping new documents and folders to stay organized, especially the deeper you get into your work. (And this is why I love Scrivener. It helps me stay organized at all stages in the process.) Currently, here’s what my WIP looks like. (And I’ll discuss what each of these are.)
CURRENT WRITING NOTES: This folder gets created as I get closer to the end of my book. It’s when I know I need to start making hard decisions, and I’m approaching the revision stage of my work. This is what all my other folders will eventually be placed into as I work through edits.
Completed outline:This is an outline of all the chapters I’ve already written. I always keep this as I create, as it helps me look back if I need to.
Past timeline: Same document as explained above. How did your characters get to the beginning of your book? It will grow as you write.
Written: I should call this “Written, but unused.” This is typically sections of the book I cut out while editing while writing. (I know, I know, I said I didn’t do that above, but alas, I lied to myself.) Also, this might happen in the screenplay version moving into the prose version. But it’s parts I love too much to let go and might reevaluate as I move into revisions.
Ideas: Similar to above, except never used ideas that I will reevaluate moving into revisions.
To-Do Editing: This is where I put my notes for things I know I will edit. Ex. That section about Scram above.
World Building Final: This is where I solidify my world building.
Beta Read: This folder includes all the chapters that have been beta read, along with their notes.
Drafted: This folder includes all the chapters that are written but haven’t been beta read yet.
To-Write: Obviously, what I still need to write.
Current Decision: This is an outline of what I think is going to happen.
Issues: Problems I still have that I need to fix.
Pending Ideas: Ideas that I want to happen, but haven’t found a place yet.
Nixie/Mire climax notes: Obviously, a part of my climax I’m working on, but have yet to place.
Main Plot Holes: Bigger issues to think about as I come to the end of the book. At this point in my process, I’m being brutal on myself. It’s time to be.
Chapter 25: B: Notes: This is the chapter outline for 25.
Chapters 26: M: Notes: This is the chapter outline for 26.
Women of Fates: Also a huge scene I’m working out that I know happens after 25/26, but before the ending.
Ending M/B: The ending is actually already written, but I keep it here in case things change. M and B stand in for my main two characters, Bram and Mireille.
PUBLISH/EXTRAS: My favorite folder. The fun folder.
Songs: A list of songs I’ve used to write. Even better? Try to say what scene it was for. That way, when you go back to edit, you can get back into that headspace.
Query: Yes, I’m already working on my query letter/proposal.
Don’t forget your Pinterest board either!
As you can see, my method is a bit chaotic, but it makes sense to me, and that’s what matters. You need to find what works for you. But maybe there’s something in here you see that you’ve never tried before but might try now.
How do you outline? If you have any questions about specific folders/documents, let me know. I’m happy to elaborate!
16 thoughts on “How I Outline (And Write) My Novels”
Reblogged this on Legends of Windemere.
Thank you for sharing!
Whoa, great detail!
Maybe too much detail? Lol
This is so helpful!! 😊😊😊
So glad to hear that!
That is great detail indeed! I usually have one giant messy document, where all my ideas/notes are the bottom and I start writing at the top. When I have problems with anything I highlight & write a note to myself (to avoid big edits while rereading to get in the right headspace). When I want to do major changes, I usually copy everything and delete scenes and just rename the document with a number, but I sometimes have separate documents for character backgrounds or world building… #messy? 😅
I love hearing about all the different methods we all have! Creativity is messy, but that’s just my little opinion. Lol
O_O I am just truly amazed. A friend of mind does something similar to this. Maybe this is a sign I should try a new style. I feel like I stay in the word vomit phase too much. >.< Thank you so much for sharing your process! Very very cool and valuable!
Whatever works for you, is my motto. 🙂 I stay in the word vomit phase for a while! (And I tend to spontaneously word vomit throughout the screenwriting process as well.) If you try it, though, I hope it helps!
I found that when I tried to outline, I ended up breaking away from it after about 1/4 of the project. So now I don’t outline, but I do keep notes on important facts and events. So when I go to future volumes, if any, I don’t have people being cold to each other when they were said to be close friends. Or if I need that for the plot, then I know I have to explain what changed.
A great method! Thank you for sharing. 🙂
This is such a lovely and informative post, Shannon! I loved reading through it! I’m honestly not much of a writer, but I have found that whenever I outline, it greatly resembles a screen-play. It helps me organize my thoughts best that way! The problem is, I never seem to be able to fill in enough prose! Haha!
I’m glad you enjoyed the post! Thank you for telling me about your journey. Screenplays are so much fun to write. 🙂