Mitosis (Or, How to Outline When You Suck at Outlining)


Update from the Author 1/28/21:

If you’ve come across this article, you’ve probably noticed it’s from 2013 (in case the gratuitous science cat memes didn’t tip you off to that first). You may also be wondering if, eight years later, I still use this process, because there’s no better test of a process than it’s efficacy over time.

Well… I do. Not only that, but this process has turned me into a plotter. That’s right, about six years ago, I handed in my “pantser” card, because viewing my work through these logical steps got me where I wanted to go quicker and better. Around 30% of my stories still unfold in a discovery process as I write, but the core structure and most of the main plot points are there for me when I start.

This is especially key for a writer like me who can’t stick to just one or two MCs. All my books have ensembles. 10-20 or more POV characters, and just as many storylines to keep straight.

When I wrote this in 2013, I had two books published.

Now, in 2021, I am working on my fortieth.

I’ve used this process, in different iterations, on every single one.

I’ve refined this process some over the years. It was never meant to be perfect, only a concept that could help take your idea from “hey, cool,” to something workable, and more importantly, finish-able. If you were one of those who adapted this concept, I’d love to know if, years later, you still find it successful as well.

These days I also think of this process as blossoming. The more I discover in the act of dividing (mitosis), the more I learn… the more I see new ideas take shape and become part of the whole picture. Having a great brainstorm partner helps add even more color to this process.

I’ll let you read on, and decide if this can help you as well.

P.S. It’s tempting to go back and edit some of my strange little idiosyncratic comments and poorly embedded cat gifs on the original post (just as its tempting to go back and re-edit your older books), but I won’t. Although my writing and blogging is smoother now, these glimpses into who we were are still part of us.


Original Post:

I have always had a love-hate relationship with outlining. On one hand, my writing is more focused and precise when I use one. Editing is certainly easier. On the other hand, it can be disruptive to my creative process. When I start writing something, I often only have a vague idea and a character or three to start. I rarely ever know all the meat and bones of the story going into it. The process of writing for me is also a process of exploration, and I love letting the story unfold naturally. It’s how my brain works. I know its how the brains of many “pantser” writers work as well.

So, for me at least, the hardest part of outlining is going from a vague idea with a few general plot points, to a detailed chapter-by-chapter sequence of specific events. For me, it feels very “cart before the horse,” and it squelches that lovely story unfolding process thingy (technical term right there) that I described. But I knew my writing would benefit from outlines, and so, stubborn as I am, I was determined to find an approach to outlining that worked for someone with a brain like mine. Continue reading