What I Learned: Outlining Revisited

I wanted to write some posts about what I learned writing Sorcerer Rising, and what I’ve learned writing my second. I started assembling ideas and realized I learned a lot and could turn these into a series of posts.

Way back when, I wrote a post on outlining. In it, I discussed why outlining was important to my writing. The emphasis there is my writing. Everyone is different, and every writing tool is not suitable to every writer. There are a ton of authors who say outlining is a strangling of creativity. Stephen King is the big one I always use (he hates outlining), but a lot of the bloggers I follow, Patrick Rothfuss, George R. R. Martin, and several other authors agree. I have a tremendous respect for these authors, and it obviously works for them, but I want to discuss the benefits of outlining and how they have affected me.

For me, outlining is important because without it, I would not write. Simple as that. It is frightening enough to sit down and see the blank screen. Without an inkling of where I’m going, I have no idea what to do. The best way I have found to outline is on a cork board with flashcards, each card dedicate to a particular scene or idea. It serves as a mind map for organizing plot, characters, motives, everything you need for the story.

For my first novel, I wrote an outline on a Word document, and changed it over the years. That phrase, over the years, is probably going to be my next post on this, but for now I’ll move on. The Word Document was clumsy, difficulty to keep up with, and visually, didn’t work. The board allows you to see everything at a glance without having to navigate a page. My first story suffered from a lack of outlining and I did major reorganizations multiple times to get the pacing where I wanted it.

The first run through on my second novel was complete a few months back. Now, I am making my second run, after which I will edit and call that my first complete draft, which will then be presented to the masochists who do me the honor of reading my material.

When I started, I wrote everything I wanted to do in the story on flashcards, then tacked them up on a cork board. I’ve since reorganized that outline at least ten times as changes were made on the fly. One character’s entire magic system changed. Another had a whole story arc develop, becoming just as essential and life threatening as the main plot. Two characters came out of no where. Still another character just sort of started tagging along with the group. The ending changed, twice. I had two villain groups (who became three) and while I knew who did what, I didn’t know how it connected to the others or all of their motives. There are at least ten chapters that were never in the outline, mentioned or otherwise.

Overall, probably a third of the storyline was not accounted for, or if it was, simple flashcards on my storyboard that read “Something needs to happen here, preferably with gods/fire/centaurs/sex”. I assure you, there are no godly, flaming centaurs having sex anywhere in my book…


Anyway, I have had lots and lots of room to be creative. Don’t think of an outline as a cage, think of it as an incubator, even better, a pressure cooker. If you are a scatterbrain like me, you need that type of organization, especially as the plot becomes more complex. My story is first person, but I couldn’t imagine trying to keep up with everything if there were multiple characters. The outline gives you time to brainstorm on what you want the story to be. Once that’s done, you can open up full throttle and write while the outline keeps you on track, or at the very least gives you that next way point to head to. If you reach a point where your writing has changed the direction, it is as simple as throwing away the card and inserting a new one to change the outline.

It’s just a tool, if it doesn’t help, don’t use it. But don’t assume that it will limit you. George R. R. Martin says there are architects and gardeners. The architects plan things out and build a story, gardeners plant ideas and let them grow. I like to think of my way as a hanging garden. I build a framework, make a plan, and then let everything go wild all over that plan.


About enathansisk

My name is Nathan Sisk, and I am a writer and aspiring author.
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