How The Hell Do You Do That?

Since I’ve finished work on draft one of my new novel, Enslaved, I decided to tackle a question I’ve gotten a lot since divulging my little writing secret–the outline.

How the hell do you outline and not go insane?

I will admit, when I first realized the universe for Enslaved was too big for me to wing it on the plot, terror seized my heart and I wanted to curl up in bed with my stuffed cows until some mystical being from above dipped a finger into my brainpan and fixed the problem. Unfortunately, the problem was I simply didn’t have enough active brain cells to contain the vastness of Enslaved.

Okay, so how do I fix it without divine intervention? Outlining came to mind and I decided, “Sure, why not. If it fails, I can use the paper to light a fire when my writing career costs us the house.” (Not really…)

Here’s the disclaimer (and I’m 100% sure some writer who is smarter than I am will look at this and scream, “YOU’RE DOING IT WRONG!” I don’t care. It fucking worked.): Not every writer works in the same way. What may be right for me will fail for other writers. Use the advice you find online to make your own style that flows with your work ethic, time, and level of creativity. 

This is what I did. I wrote the first two chapters of Enslaved without a net, without the outline, to get a feel for the main characters and where they wanted to go. From there, I took a step back and figured out the main arc of the story (Where will these characters end up by the last page of the book?). Then I began to scribble down notes–more coherent than the Post-Its stuck to my workboard containing the original catalyst thought for the story.

My notes are organized by scene and point-of-view. Why? Because as my editor pointed out while working on a short I wanted to publish, unchecked, I want to head-hop. Head-hopping is when the narrative voice of the story switches from one character to another willy-nilly. It confuses the reader. Try not to do it.

Okay, my outlining process might be hard to comprehend. I’ll do an example of a short scene for you guys.

Scene Change (this indicates a new scene, new location)

-Jane sits on the front porch of her house. Bags of groceries are piled up around her. (I’ve established whose POV we are in and where we are.)

-Sighing, she tries to call Dick again. He doesn’t answer. Of course. “The one day I forget my keys and he’s decided to also forget his phone.” (I add random dialog the characters vomit up as I’m outlining. Most of the time, they’re golden tidbits of wonderful. Other times, they’re emotional place-holders I rewrite to fit the scene better once it is fleshed out in the manuscript.)

-Bored stiff, Jane takes to reading the labels of the food she’s bought, aghast at the amount of calories in some of them–no wonder the nutritional charts are always in small print.

POV Change (Same scene, same location, but now I’m changing the narrator.)

-Dick turns the corner and pulls into the driveway of his corner house.

-He parks, wondering why a homeless woman is camping out on his front porch. She looks up and he frowns at his wife.

-Dick gets out of the car and walks up to her. “Forget your keys again, babe?” “Lose your phone in the car again, sweetheart?” (For the outline, unless there’s a billion people talking, I just shove conversational dialog into one place. These are notes, not the actual book. You don’t need to format beyond separating the scenes, POVs, and actions.)


You guys get the gist of it. I’d plot four or five scenes ahead, then write them out. Enslaved didn’t pace any faster than that, but I still wrote it in about six months. I’d plot some, write, then go back to plotting. The only time this didn’t work was for the last chapter. I couldn’t find the end to my pretty little bow and had to let it marinate while I wrote everything up to that point. Only then could I outline it and finish the book.

Hopefully this helps someone. Outlines aren’t scary if you find a way to make them uniquely yours.


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