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Working with a map


Were you a fan of outlines in school? I know I wasn’t. Unfortunately, they’re a necessity in a writer’s life. If you don’t outline the book beforehand, you still have to do it later on some level in order to create a book blurb, pitch, synopsis, and query letter. If you’re a plotter or a plotser, you’re doing some level of outlining before you write.

Somewhere between my past method of zero planning, and Suzanne Brockmann’s 80-page summaries, I’ve come up with the basic plot structure for my next book. And this time, so far, it seems to be working.

When I’m stuck, I go back and check the outline, figure out what I'm aiming for, and get back on track. Sometimes, I change my route, but still head in the same general direction toward my next plot point.

Sticking to my old cross-country travel analogy, I used to get in the car and drive, knowing I’d end up on the opposite coast, picking the route as I went, with maybe a vague idea of the cities I wanted to visit on the way. Now, I’m planning out the overnight stops and the final destination, while still leaving room for side trips and detours. Maybe someday I’ll be like Ms. Brockmann who uses GPS to plan her routes.

For the first time, I’m finding freedom in the structure. It unblocks those blank-page moments, but I’m free to change the outline as new ideas come to me. Yes, it was a lot more work up front. I couldn’t sit down and start writing the story like I used to without some planning.

In order to keep from feeling cheated out of the fun of writing “into the mist”, I still let myself create scenes as they came to me. I worked on openings, scene ideas for several different story lines, and character sketches/interviews. I created and scrapped multiple versions of the story structure and subsequent outline. This is sure to be an evolving product and process.

Best of all, with my outline entered faithfully into Scrivener, I was able to figure out how a subplot with a secondary character might fit into the story and create a key conflict. I’ve struggled with that in the past, and I believe it’s one of the reasons I could never get to 80K. To get a bigger book, I need more integrated subplots to create a richer story with potential for future books. Those who can fit in the subplots without an outline are either far more talented writers than me, or don’t mind copious amounts of revision.

Is this my new process going forward? Time will tell, but I’m excited by the possibilities.

Tell your friends!


  1. Reply

    Great post! You’ll have to keep us updated on if it works. I usually make short outlines, then pants the rest of the way, but at times I do find myself losing focus and motivation on the story. I’ll have to try your way myself.

    And Suzanne Brockmann does 80-page summaries? That’s amazing!

    • Reply

      Thanks, Clarissa. I’ll definitely let you know how it goes. I’ve started too many books over after 50-100 pages (or stopped writing them altogether) to not give outlining and story structure another try.

      Good luck with your own work! And, yeah, SB amazes me on so many levels, but her extensive outlines explain a lot about how she can create such a complex series. I’d be a lot more miffed if she could do it all by the seat of her pants. 😉

  2. Curtis


    Now why don’t you go ahead and write about a 1-3 sentence definition, explanation, description ( your choice of course) of the outline points. 🙂

    By the by. I read a post recently by an individual who wrote his 8000 word short story with the story structure outline in mind. The editor suggested he was going to need to tighten it up because he wrote it like a screen play.

    I’m thinking we need to be crafty enough not to show them our skeleton. I’m also going to guess that comes from internalizing story structure.

    I wonder how bizarre it would be to write each section of the outline, say 500 or so words of each. Then see how and if the imagination works to connect the dots.

    How wild would it be to write the resolution section first? I again am going to guess. I’m going to guess there is a real reason our story grinds down at about 100 pages in.

    At that point even our subconscious has no clue where it is going to finally go with the story. It can’t hand our consciousness the necessary parts because it doesn’t know what part/parts need to be tossed upstairs for management to turn into words. At 100 words we don’t know what we are fixing or trying to resolve. By then the general all purpose goal of ” he gets the girl” has ceased to motivate the imagination. At that point we figure out we haven’t been telling a story. We have been taking notes on what might be a story.

    We are writing consciously and we never slid into that second level which sources the rest of the story. Like I say, I’m just guessing.

    I like to guess.

    • Reply

      I love your philosophical approach, Curtis. It’s interesting that you mention writing the resolution first. I know a few people–one of whom haunts this blog occasionally–who knows her ending before she starts writing.

      I often have some vague idea of the threat they will face, and the happy ending, but that’s about it. Even with my handy-dandy outline for this book, the climax is still a one liner identifying the villain.

      “At that point we figure out we haven’t been telling a story. We have been taking notes on what might be a story.” Interesting point you raise here. I hit the wall at about 100 on all of my previous books, so I’m really hoping that some guideposts are going to help prevent that.

      I *guess* I’d rather have an editor be able to see my story structure, than be able to discern none. 😉 At least it shows I’ve done my homework.

      As always, thanks for chiming in!

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