Deb Molly Is All About the Outline

I started my writing career as a poet. I’m sure there are poets who spend a lot of time planning and shaping their work, but for me, each poem began as a tug at my subconscious, a blur at the edge of my vision, a half-remembered phrase under an early autumn moon. Over time – an hour, maybe, or a few days – the tug would turn itself into a first line and I’d sit down and write the first draft, which could take anywhere from twenty minutes to a few hours, but not much more. Two or three drafts later, I would type it up, paste it into my journal, and move on with my life.

The process was fast. I found if I spent too much time muddling over an image, I’d lose the spark of inspiration that had ignited my imagination in the first place, and the poem would become stale. It was better not to think too hard about any one poem, but keep moving forward, hoping the next one would come out exactly as I meant.

After ten years of writing poems, I turned my hand to fiction, only to discover that my method didn’t translate. As it turns out, you can’t just wait for the inspiration to hit you and get the whole draft down in an hour. Also, apparently you can’t just dive in and hope the whole thing will work out in the end. (Well, I’ve heard some people can do just that, but for me? I got 300 pages into my first novel when I realized I’d need at least another 300 to finish the thing… it was ugly.)

Years of writing poetry had given me facility with language, the ability to translate moments into sentences, and strength of detail and description. But plot? Not so much.

And then I discovered outlining.

I outlined my first novel twice: once before I started writing it, and again after I’d sold it, when I was waist-deep in revisions and no longer had any perspective on what the stupid thing was even about. The first outline was fairly simple; just a chapter-by-chapter summary of what would happen in the book, which made actually writing the thing pretty easy. I just had to consult my outline! What happens in chapter 10? Oh, they go to the abandoned amusement park and meet Old Man Withers? Easy!

My second outline was slightly more complicated, and also much prettier. I wrote every single scene in the entire book down on its own index card, including a color-coded list of characters in each scene. Then I taped all the cards (close to 100) on my kitchen cabinets, which are nice and white and right across from my favorite writing spot at the kitchen table. (My wife, by the way, did not find this method nearly as awesome as I did. I can’t imagine why. Who wouldn’t want to stare at a scene breakdown everytime you go for a bowl of cereal?)

The color-coding method worked well. It allowed me to see the entire book at once, something I hadn’t been able to do in years. I could track the movement of each of my characters through the book, and see that the first time all the characters were in the same room together was right around the climax. I could also see the repetitive parts, where the same characters had back-to-back scenes.

When I finally took down my kitchen outline, a few weeks after I’d sent my manuscript in to my editor, my kitchen looked very sad and empty. (My editor suggested I outline my next book in the bathroom, to constrain the complexity of plotting and to give guests much needed reading material. What else are bath crayons for?)

If you’re thinking about tackling a huge project, whether it be a novel, memoir, novella, or even a long story, but you’re intimidated by the length and complexity of the story in your head, get out the index cards and markers and give outlining a try! Your kitchen cabinets will thank you.



19 Replies to “Deb Molly Is All About the Outline”

  1. Wow, Molly–this is awesome. I keep saying I am going to try the index card route for my next novel–but I always struggle to get through them. I have such admiration for this technique and everyone I know who uses this technique swears by it.

    I remain optimistic that one day I’ll give it a go myself!

    1. Try using markers – that way your brain won’t notice you’re working!

      For a first draft pre-write index outline, I like to write down every possible scene/moment I can imagine that MIGHT happen in the book on its own index card, and then try to put them in some kind of basic logical/chronological order. Instant outline! Easy!

  2. LOL! Love the bathroom idea.

    Index cards intimidate me. I think it stems from an irrational fear of research papers back in high school.

    I used to write my papers backwards–I’d start with my final draft (after mulling it over in my head for a while, of course), scribble the mandatory “rough draft,” making sure to add scratch-outs and misspellings, copy the draft in pieces onto index cards, and outline the finished product. I must say, my teachers were always impressed with how well I stuck to my outline. 😉

    Not sure what this says about me. I suspect just that I tend to be contrary.

    1. I did the same thing in high school, but I was already all about the card in college — all my citations were on individual cards, and (again) color coded. I just like pretty pens & markers, okay? In fact, I remember for one paper, I holed up in the coffeeshop I managed, claimed a whole booth to myself, and covered it in index cards, and then didn’t leave for like a whole week. It wasn’t pretty, but I graduated!

  3. Very cool! I like the idea of color coding. I have not tried that yet. I do, however, outline everything—including my daily to do list. Ok, that is over the top, I admit. But it is how I roll.

  4. Yes! Finally somebody with the same brand of crazy as I have. My writer buddies all think I’m nuts with my index-card madness. I never thought of the kitchen cabinets. I have a giant, magnetic white board I stick them on. I told my husband that with each book sale, I’m getting a bigger white board, until I have one big enough for an entire wall. Until then, I may try the cabinets. Now I’m all excited to try it.

        1. Me too! I’m totally a kinesthetic learner. I prefer to move the cards around with my hands, not my mouse.

          Plus, when your novel is staring you in the face everytime you go for some Cheerios, it’s harder to justify procrastination. 🙂

  5. Agreed. I have my white board (covered in cards outlining the first third of the new book) propped against a wall in my living room right now. HUGE guilt. “Really? You’re watching television? Don’t you have some work to do?” (Did I mention the cards talk to me?)

  6. I always read about this idea and then I get out the index cards and after about four or five of them, I ditch them and go back to writing. But I’m way impressed by someone who can actually pull it off! Very cool!

  7. This is the kind of thing that, like Linda and Erika, I would totally try to do and never get through. I’d be too anxious to get writing! It’s like all my other good organizational intentions– filing receipts (I stuff them in a wallet instead) or keeping spreadsheets of, well, anything — starts of way serious and peters out after one or two tries.

    For me, this post was especially interesting as I am currently reading Princesses, so it’s extra fun to hear bits about the process while I’m reading!!

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