The Joys and Relative Perils of Outlining

“There’s paper on the floor and I’m not laying directly on it. Don’t say I never did anything for you.”

I’ve been doing some research into efficient outlining practices and have come across some really swell resources. Laura Weymouth suggested that I do a follow up to my celebratory post from a few days ago when I started the official first draft outline for Alchemist of the Arch, and then the more I started looking at my resources, the more I decided I shouldn’t be greedy. And I even found some new ones when I went back for links.

Instant karma? Perhaps…

So here are the choicest of my resources, new and old, for your novel-writing needs (if needs you do have).

Workflowy: My favorite so far. This is a good tool for outlining as well as prioritizing tasks–you can tag things to find them later with filter tags, collapse details to view the big picture, and add notes. You can also mark things as completed instead of erasing them. Sweet satisfaction.

Author 2.0: A guide from The Creative Penn. Joanna Penn has generously made her 57-page eBook available for free on her site at The Creative Pen. It’s not a straight-up how-to with all the answers–if it was, I wouldn’t trust it–but rather a guide to good perspective. Reading through it will offer good pointers of what to look for and how to approach the writing and selling process. A follow-up article on her site: Outlining Your Novel: How and Why?

Tools for Outlining Your Novel: A good list of tools and techniques.

Snowflake Method: Something I’d never seen before today, which might mean I’ve been living under a rock.

Writer Duet: For collaborations.

Creative Writing Now: A nice guide to outlining techniques and formats.

LitReactor: Classes and general research and reading for everything from outlining to writing to publishing.

Poets & Writers: General resources.

Education Portal: A page with links to prompts and general articles.

Defeating the Sprawl and From Tolstoy to Tinkerbell: Articles on “God’s Eye View” Outlining, adapted from Jeffrey Scott’s idea for novel use.


For myself, I’m finding that putting each major event onto an index card and arranging and re-arranging them in sequence very much simplifies organizing the first arc of the story.

First pick a major event–not necessarily the first event–and make that your starting point. For AotA, which I just organized into 24 cards two nights ago, I used the death of a secondary character, which is the “that tears it” moment for the main character. As such, it’s one of the few events that really defines the tone of what comes after, and I worked from there until the end of the first arc. Then I took the remainder of the cards and put them in order ahead of that trigger moment in a way that satisfactorily leads up to that death. You can’t really see in the picture, but I’ve lightly colored each card that signifies the start of a new phase from stasis to resolution according to the eight-point arc format, which I swear by. It adds a nice easy-to-spot visual when examining the pacing.

In doing this I found that some of the events don’t lead as smoothly as I’d like into the next, so I plan to expand this model later into a rough picture of the vantage point for each event: one of the main issues I have when I write is that I’m not always sure how to convey intent/motivation from the multiple conflicting parties of hero and villain and bystanders with smaller (but still relevant) stakes in the plot. Portraying back-story and world-related information is a big part of this, but makes it tricky. I do try to avoid gracelessly info-dumping during otherwise pointless conversation or exposition. That’s the stuff a reader’s eyes tends to slide past without interest.

From there I’ll start my God’s Eye View (to steal the term from an above article) and decide how to place the events in a timeline depending on the point of view. For this, I usually draw lines longways on a blank sheet, with names and concurrent events lining up on the Y axis. I may also try using a spreadsheet for easier editing/event swapping.

One thing I have to keep in mind is that first drafts are meant to be rough drafts. Some of the kinks you can hammer out on the fly, because when you actually start writing that tends to happen naturally, and some you just have to leave in and go back to fix in the next draft once it has cooled off a bit. Then rinse and repeat til it’s as done as it’s going to get.

Onward! I’ll keep posting more resources as I discover them. 🙂


3 thoughts on “The Joys and Relative Perils of Outlining

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