Doing the Outline Thing

Ah outlining. Some love it, some hate it. I started life as a pantser, winging my way through fanfiction. Eventually, though, I realized that just wasn’t cutting it. I kept writing myself into corners I couldn’t figure my way out of and I’d have to go back and redo a bunch of stuff. At some point I’d get frustrated with this and give up on the project. Hence the trail of abandoned fanfics across my social media. (Sorry, old fans of mine….) I realized something had to give. If I wanted to finish projects I needed to go about them a different way. That’s not to say pantsing is bad! It works great for a lot of writers. I’m just not one of them.

Through some trial and error I found an outline method that works really well for me, and I wanted to share it here in case other people might find it useful. Over the years I’ve tried digital outlines, written outlines, bullet-point outlines, script style outlines, etc. but nothing quite clicked. I am a very tactile, visual person and I wanted to be able to have the whole outline in front of me at once. This ruled out digital methods. I also like being able to move things around as I work, which ruled out regular pieces of paper and notebooks. Plus, I wanted something mobile since I travel a lot which ruled out a corkboard. What was left? Notecards! Wonderful, wonderful little notecards.

The idea here is, essentially, a corkboard without the corkboard. I write out mini outlines of each individual scene/chapter on notecards and then lay them all out on the table so I can see the whole thing come together. The notecards have a header with a placeholder title for the scene/chapter (car chase, ___&____ talk, arriving at the pub, etc.), a color coded dot for what character perspective it is in, and a bullet point outline of what happens. They look about like this:

Some scenes/chapters require more than one card, at which point I tape a second card to the first with the hinge along the top. The cards also contain bits of dialogue that come to me. If I have random ideas that don’t yet fit in a scene they get put on a colored card and set to the side until I find a place for them, at which point they get taped to whatever scene/chapter I’ve decided they belong in. As I work I lay the cards out on a table in order, leaving gaps where I know I need things to happen but I haven’t yet figured out the things. This gives me something that looks like this:

I work at it, shuffling and filling in as needed, until I have a nice, solid feeling outline. Once I do I stack all the cards up, rubber-band them together, and carry them around in my writing case. Now that I have the outline established I’ll either write directly from it with the notecards propped next to my computer, or I’ll transfer it to the digital notecards in Scrivener.

Now, let’s talk about the “writing case” bit I mentioned. As I said, I travel a lot. I do my best writing not at home, so I need a good mobile solution for my work processes. For outlining, that means a little box full of notecards and markers and pens and tape and other bits and bobs. Here’s a picture of it, with a couple stickers:

It comes with me whenever I’m going to be out writing and is a very trusty little box. I actually have four versions of this box in various sizes. One for markers, one for colored pencils, one for watercolors, and this one. I love them. Bought them all at Michaels, though they don’t always have all four sizes available. My outlines live in the bottom of this one until I don’t need them anymore, at which point they get stored in a drawer at home.

“But Katy!” you say. “What happens when my characters don’t follow the outline?!”

Easy. I pull the cards back out again and just go back to the drawing board from whatever point things changed. Exact same process.

Hope some of you might find this helpful! Feel free to ask any questions if you got ‘em.

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