I’m in beautiful San Miguel de Allende this week at the San Miguel Writers’ Conference. We kicked off last night with a keynote by Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild. Read more here. This morning I presented one of the first workshops, whose focus was—surprise—outlining.

Outlining is not only for left-brain thinkers, and it doesn’t have to be something right-brain thinkers have to dread. I’m currently reading Guy Kawasaki’s APE: Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur—How to Publish a Book, a great book, by the way. But about outlining he writes:

I don’t begin writing until the outline is complete (though it usually changes while I write the book). This takes be as long as two months, but once I have an outline, the rest is filling in the details and editing . . .

Many authors find an outline too constricting, but an outline sets me free. If you can’t write an outline, perhaps your thoughts are insufficiently organized.

There’s part of a tough attitude like this that I respond to, and I think it can help writers to get out of their funk to face a harsh truth every so often. However, I think a lot of fiction writers and memoirists (especially) struggle with the outline, and it’s not because their thoughts are insufficiently organized.

beetle with pencilOutlining actually is hard work, but there are a few key things you can do to make it easier on yourself:

1. Mimic other writers’ structures. There is no reason to reinvent the wheel. If there’s another author who’s done something you respond to, copy it! Your story is your own, so we’re only talking about structure here. And there is nothing invalid about lifting someone else’s structure.

2. Work out a formula that works. Cheryl Strayed said last night that she had a big ah-ha when she realized that every chapter (once she got on the trail) had to begin on the Pacific Crest Trail. It helped her contain each of her chapters, and in turn it helps readers feel grounded in her timeline.

3. Remember that the outline is flexible. All you REALLY need to know is where you’re starting and where you’re ending. Everything between Point A and Point B can and will change to some degree. As this happens, make sure to update your outline to accommodate for the changes that are happening as you write.

4. Don’t buy into the idea that your outline has to be complete before you start writing. It does not. You need to give yourself the freedom and flexibility, but simultaneously the discipline and structure that the outline provides. Your outline is something to befriend, even if you aren’t there yet. Once you start writing and outlining in conjunction, the real groove of your writing will begin.

Until next month!

Brooke

2 Comments

  1. I was beginning to think I was a hardcore panser. I had tried using outlines for short stories and failed miserably. The outlines always ended up being some zombie mutant version of what I wanted to do with the story. The process actually prevented me from immersing myself in the story.

    I recently started writing a historical novel. I had something of a backbone of events from which to begin but I needed to decide where my story would end, when I would bring in the historical elements, etc. Using Scrivener, I started writing scene summaries – between 2 and 6 sentences without dictating the order in which they would appear. This turned out to be the freedom I needed within the planning process. I’m not writing the entire story, but have discreet building blocks and I can move them around as I see fit. You can do this with an outline but those heavy weighted roman numerals (or whatever you use) just seem so overbearing and rigid. …to me.

    • Couldn’t agree with you more about making the outline what you need it to be. I don’t like roman numerals either. Thanks for sharing this experience. This is pretty similar to the kind of outlining I recommend to writers. Whatever works for your creative mind, right?

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