Doing a Plotting Outline if You Must


Doing a Plotting Outline if You Must

Having spent the last post dissing plotting outlines, I’ll spend this one suggesting how to do one despite my personal objections, since I recognize that different writers have different approaches.

Doing a plotting outline with left and right sides of brain engaged

I got this idea from a book which I no longer have—otherwise I would credit the author. Anyhow, I used this approach for my non-fiction books (Managing Knowledge Workers and Creating an Innovation Culture) and it worked very well. I have adapted it for fiction use because I think it ups the element of creativity in what is otherwise a somewhat linear process.

There are probably numerous apps which can help you do this but honestly, I have found that the tactile experience of using index cards is best. You’re gonna need a lot—maybe a thousand or so. But it’ll set you back less than ten bucks and having a large number encourages a big flow of ideas.

Using index cards to create a plotting outline

Okay, with the stack of cards before you, start writing down everything you want to include in the novel.

  • One idea per card
  • Write as fast as you can
  • Repeats are okay (I’ll explain why later)
  • Any thought, big or small, is acceptable from ‘number the pages’ to ‘theme: loving to hate.
  • Do this until you are out of ideas. You might want to carry a few cards around for a day or so in case more ideas come to you.

Organize your cards into a plot outline

Once you have your pile of ideas:

  • Group the cards. The grouping will depend on the nature of the novel. You could cluster by chronology with each pile representing rough chapters. Grouping by character (Minnie goes to the market and meets Jeff; Minnie has a nervous breakdown, etc.) is also possible as is by theme. Whatever works best for your novel idea.
  • Repeat cards. You will probably have duplicate or similar cards. Seeing ‘establish Minnie as unpleasant’ several times will give you a rough indication of how important that topic is to you and presumably the novel. It might even be a theme.
  • Assemble your outline. Create the outline using the card grouping as your guide.
  • There will be gaps. There will probably be gaps in the outline. My preference is to leave these for now to allow you to decide later what is needed but if it drives you mad not to have a complete outline, by all means, fill in the holes.
  • Allow yourself to throw away/ amend/create new cards as the story progresses. The cards are not stone tablets; don’t let yourself get locked into the outline.

So, while I prefer the haphazard approach to writing a novel, if your psyche calls out for a plot outline, this is a way to do it that is less left brain and lets the right brain have a look in.

Why You Shouldn’t do a Story Outline


Why You Shouldn’t do a Story Outline

I have described my preferred way to write—the haphazard approach. I’m not alone in preferring to let the story go where it will. The Atlantic makes The case for writing a story before knowing how it ends. Actually, I feel more strongly than that. I think a story outline is a questionable idea, even for memoirs (actually, I want to say ‘bad’ but I am trying to give the impression of being even-handed. Ha!).

Having an outline can give a sense of security because you don’t have to face the empty page without some support. But this benefit, alluring though it is, also has some downsides which I think are substantial.

An outline reduces the possibility of taking interesting byways

An outline is a roadmap to get you where you think you want to go. It might seem counter-intuitive to avoid doing one.

 But an outline may also encourage ignoring interesting opportunities. You’re writing a scene about your heroine wandering through the forest to get to grandmother’s house. It occurs to you that she might stumble upon a secret conclave of fairies. Wouldn’t that be fun to explore? But the outline points you inexorably to getting through the wood to meet the wolf dressed in grandma’s clothes. It, more importantly, doesn’t allow you to consider that the better story might actually be when Red (Riding Hood) meets this band of sprites and her adventures take off from there. So, it’s not just byways you miss but possibly the real soul of your narrative.

An outline is efficient but not effective

A plot outline is a very business-like way to approach writing. In business, the objective is often to get to the end goal with the least use of time and resources. But news—we’re not in the business of business. We want to create something entirely new. And that doesn’t necessarily lend itself to a plan, however carefully crafted. It’s using the wrong tool and hoping for the right outcome.

It may rob energy from the writing

 Surprising, no? But that is why writers (myself included) often don’t like to talk too much about a work in progress. Because somehow talking about it makes it harder to write. It can rob the energy you need for writing much as an outline can.

Say you do an outline. You figure out how the wolf lures grandma into opening the door. He pretends to be Red and the grandmother falls for it (need to establish elsewhere that GM is not a brain trust). You get excited recording how the ruse will work and look forward to the writing the scene.

But when you do, you may find that you can’t infuse your original energy onto the page. A not uncommon event, in my experience.  So save the energy and creativity for the writing, not for the planning-to-write.

It’s not as much fun

It just isn’t. Isn’t the excitement having an idea burst upon you and writing it down as fast as you can, almost as if it is being channeled through you? The ‘Hey, I can do this with the character!’ rather than ‘Okay, what’s next on the plan.’

So, honestly, I think that dispensing with an outline is the way to go. However, I also recognize, especially for new writers, that it is a security blanket which might make the difference between starting writing or not at all. So, the next post is how to do a plot outline if you must.

What is a Story? Do You Really Know?


What is a Story? Do You Really Know?

As a reader, you know instinctively. Because we understand so well as readers, writers sometimes don’t realize that understanding story from a writing point of view, is critical to avoid too long narratives, or worse, end by the reader thinking, “Well, that didn’t go anywhere.” And this post also refers to memoirs—they need to be stories, too.

An example

Let’s say you write this (note: I’m purposely using a lot of ‘tell’ to telescope the action):

Evelyne is a brilliant student who is sophisticated and well-travelled. Colin is also a brilliant student but he has never been farther than the next town.

Is this a story? I think most of us would reply, “Well, not yet.”


Is this a story?

What about if you added:

Evelyne moved to Thailand when she was five when her father was posted as a diplomat. The family then moved to Vietnam. Although she did most of her schooling in England, she often returned to the family as it moved to various postings in South East Asia.

Colin has worked on the family farm ever since he can remember. He’s very knowledgeable about animal husbandry, crop rotation, and feed crops. He has worked with many older farm hands and acquired a level of wisdom far beyond his years.

 I think some might waver here, especially if, as would probably be the case, there are quite a few pages and the events themselves are interesting. They might think, well, maybe it is.

Nope. Neither character is taking action in the present context. As presented, these are descriptors of the characters. Might still be useful but it’s not a story yet.

How about now?

Evelyne and Colin are in the same compulsory First Year English class and are fiercely competitive.

This is where it gets harder. The two characters are acting but is it a story? I think we are creeping up to it because there is a conflict. But not yet.

Say you fleshed out the bones of the idea and showed them competing in a no-holds-barred way to win top honors?

Sorry, no cigar.

Never-ending competition between the two would not be a story nor, ultimately, very interesting.

The requirements for a story

For this to be truly a story, there has to have a crisis, or discovery, or a transformation. How could we add that to our story?

  • A crisis might be that Colin’s father is badly injured in a farm accident and Colin has to drop out of school
  • A discovery might be that, for all her cool sophistication, Evelyne comes from an abusive family
  • A transformation might occur when either Colin or Evelyne learns how to cope with failure when one loses to the other.

So, what is a story?

Typically, there is a setting, some characters, a crisis/discovery/transformation, and a resolution. You can’t really drop any one of the components and still fulfill the reader’s expectation of a story, no matter how brilliant or touching the writing is.

This is where fiction diverges from life. As I have discussed before, fiction has conventions, often invisible to the reader, which nevertheless must be satisfied. Whereas in real life, Evelyne and Colin really might have engaged in nonstop competition, it’s not a story unless they move beyond that point. Similarly, in real life, we don’t always know the resolution of an issue or whether there even is one, but leaving readers hanging in that way will disgruntle your most loyal bookworm.

Categorizing Reader Opinion


Categorizing Reader Opinion

In the last post, I suggested you decide on your own how to treat reader opinion of a piece of your writing or memoir. That leaves the question open, of course, on how to decide which to keep. Here’s my not-very-rocket-science way of doing it.

The obvious

This one is, well, obvious. Spelling mistakes, seasons of the year out of whack, missing one place where you changed the character’s name from Wendy to Sue. These are no brainers but are nevertheless valuable as you need to fix them at some point.

This category you change immediately.

The doubtful opinion

Sometimes you’re not sure whether the feedback is applicable. Here are some examples:

The opinion

Why you’re doubtful

The historical period you’re writing about doesn’t seem real or credible

If you know the period well, you might be unsure that this is a piece of feedback worth taking. Follow-on question might be: Were there particular points which didn’t seem credible to you?

The premise of two cats talking is not particularly funny

Well, you think it’s funny. The definition of funny is wide so you should try it out on others. Follow-on question: Can you point out where you didn’t think the humor worked?

The main character’s constant malapropism is annoying

You think it gives the character an eccentric appeal—at least that’s what you were going for. Follow-on question: Is it the quirk itself that is annoying or its frequency of use?

The subordinate characters take the spotlight off the main protagonist.

This surprises you as you know whom you intended to be the key character. Follow-on question: Where (i.e. what scenes) did you feel that the subordinate characters dominated the main one?

In all these cases, feedback from other readers would be helpful to allow you decide whether or not you agree with the initial feedback.

The rejected

Okay, so you’ve gotten a range of feedback and the consensus seems to be that the cats really aren’t funny.

Generally speaking, it probably makes sense to look at your piece to see if it is salvageable or whether it is destined for the trash heap.

The only exception is if, all the feedback notwithstanding, you still believe in the potential of the piece. You might take some of the minor suggestions but fundamentally, you feel it works.

While I think this category should be used sparingly (i.e. not like Fred), it should be used. You need to think hard on it before you reject the reader reaction (especially consensus) but if you feel strongly about a point, do it. After all, whose writing is it anyway?

Using Feedback Well


Using Feedback Well

In the previous post, both the defensive writer and the one who accepts all feedback are not doing themselves any favors.

Dealing well with feedback is a three stage process.


First of all, when you are receiving feedback, just listen. Take notes if useful but the key thing is to listen. Sheila has this stage down pat. For the Freds in the world, listening is not simply keeping quiet or running counter arguments in your head until the others stop talking. This is not listening—that’s just not putting your hands over your ears.

Try to take in what’s being said. And say nothing. I repeat this for Fred. Say nothing.


The time to speak is when the feedback is finished. But (Fred) not to jump into the defenses you’ve been storing up. Nor (Sheila) the time to thank everyone and vow to make all the changes suggested.

You want to make sure you understand the feedback, whether or not you agree with it. Possible questions:

  • You said you couldn’t understand Alfonso’s motivation. So the paragraph on page 5 wasn’t enough? What else would be needed?
  • One of you thought the flashback was too long. Does everybody feel that way?
  • Patty thought that Melissa needed to be more wild and crazy while Donald wanted Melissa more introspective. Could you tell me how each of you came to your conclusion?

This is a period of clarification, not defense of the best laid plans of mice and men.

Decide on your own

After the feedback session, and in a quiet time with a glass of wine, go over each comment. Here are some things to keep in mind:

  • Review each comment seriously, making sure you understand the point. If there’s a split opinion, read over why each person felt the way they did and choose the one which makes the most sense to you or ignore both suggestions if you don’t feel they fit.
  • What to do with consensus opinions. If there was general agreement on a point, this is important information. But it still doesn’t mean you automatically make that change. Consider whether this change is taking the piece in the direction you want to go. Will it help or take you off course? If the latter, then even a unanimous view may not be enough to make you change it.
  • This is your work not a composite effort and only you can decide what changes are improvements. If the suggestion helps the piece, great. If it doesn’t, then it’s okay not to take it.

Balancing belief in self with listening to feedback

You are after a Sheila-Fred amalgam. Be Sheila in the feedback session itself, with the addition of ensuring you understand the reasoning behind the comments. But when you are later considering what to change, be a little more Fred (although don’t take it too far). You should take the piece in the direction you feel is right. Hold onto that when you consider what changes you will make.

 The next post will help you make the decisions on which piece of feedback you’ll accept and which you will not.