Archive for September 22nd, 2015

Organized chaos? What’s your method for outlining and keeping your story on track?

Virtually every author,  fiction or nonfiction, needs a method for outlining and staying organized. Day 10 of the 5-Week Author Blog Challenge asks our bloggers to describe their outlining and organizational processes. All 35 posts for this Challenge will be focused on writing, publishing, and book marketing. I hope you’ll stick around through all 35 posts. And if you want to take part, come on in – the water is great! You can register here.


Day 10 writing prompt:

Describe your process for outlining your book. What do you do to stay organized? Do you use a software like Scrivener? Index cards? Sticky notes? Giant posterboards taped to the wall?

Sometimes, the desire to write the book shows up before we even know what the book will be about. That was somewhat the case for me with Stan Finds Himself on the Other Side of the World. It was also the case for my friend, Joe Torres.

Joe’s been attending the Phoenix Publishing & Book Promotion Meetup (PP&BP) for a few months, and every time he comes, he’s made some significant progress on his book. A couple sessions ago, he described his outlining process: grabbing several huge sticky-back sheets of poster paper, slapping them on the wall, and recording the ideas for his first novel as fast as they come to him.

Joe's outlines

Joe’s outlines

My process was a little tamer. Mind you, there is NO right way or wrong way to do this. It’s just important that you have an outline of some sort and know who your characters are, where they came from, what they did yesterday, what they will do tomorrow.

My story is about a man who travels around the world, visiting 23 countries over the course of a year-and-a-half. It’s an audacious undertaking, as I personally have visited five of those 23 countries. Which means the book required research. Back in 2004 when I began writing, the Internet was still young and there were no such sites as TripAdvisor.com or LonelyPlanet.com. But there were Lonely Planet travel guidebooks, and I used them heavily in the planning for Stan’s trip.

As I mentioned yesterday, the novel began as a submission for the 3-Day Novel Contest. The rules prohibited writing ahead, but allowed participating authors to construct a full outline before the contest got underway. So I spent the three days prior to the contest ensconced in travel books up to my eyeballs, deciding where Stan would go, and how he would get there. Knowing I’d never been most of the places he would go, I made a deliberate decision to keep many of his visits off the main tourist thoroughfare. For example, he doesn’t go to London, Paris, Rome. Of course there will always be a reader who’s been there to catch me up on an error or inaccurate description, regardless of where Stan travels – but why give them extra ammunition? I have had several globetrotting friends as beta readers, asking them to check the descriptions for accuracy. The reports thus far are that my depictions are quite good, particularly for my not having visited most of these places in person.

Microsoft Word - schedule - lo 2013

Since the novel is told partially in flashback, I also had to create a timeline so that I could keep track of Stan’s past. When did his dad leave? When did he graduate from college? Get his MBA? Start dating Gretchen? Meet Paula? As new details find their way into the story, I add to the timeline. It’s just a Word document, stored in the “Stan” file of my computer.

I’ve tried Scrivener, and it seems like a great tool for someone who needs a lot of help to get and stay organized. I was already so far into my novel by the time I came across it, though, that moving all the information into the Scrivener system seemed like more work than reward. Fellow author C.K. Thomas wrote a blog post for the PP&BP blog about the importance of writing character profiles, something I would not have initially thought to do, but now consider a worthy time investment.

The tool you use to organize your outline, keep your characters straight, and move your plot in the right direction is unimportant. What’s important is that you do those things. Readers notice inconsistencies, like moving a scene from the beginning of the story to somewhere toward the end, but forgetting to remove subsequent mentions that now pre-date the original mention of the episode. They notice when a character started out as a Boston native, but somehow and inexplicably morphed into a guy who’s originally from L.A.

A screenwriting system I learned from Jeff Schimmel could easily be applied to novel writing. It involves a couple of decks of index cards. One set is for the characters. Each character gets a color, and every detail about the character is recorded on a different card. Physical description,3d cover significant relationships, education, hobbies, etc. Another set of cards is for the scenes. In Stan Finds Himself on the Other Side of the World, it would make sense to use a different card (or set of cards) for each country Stan visits. Dialogue goes on another set of cards. What eventually emerges is a storyboard – a graphic organization system that allows you to pre-visualize the story.

Please be sure to check out my next post, which overlaps quite a bit with this one: about my research process for #StanTravels.

And for the record, I’d love your feedback on my Author Blog Challenge posts! And, of course, would really love to have you support all of the bloggers in the Challenge. Find their links here.

Here’s to staying organized in your writing!



We welcome and encourage your thoughtful, courteous comments below.

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