Modified Outlines

For a long time, I was a “pantster,” ie someone who writes by the seat of their pants, or without an outline. Then my editor, who had gone through way too many rounds of revision of my last book with me, demanded that I do an outline for the next book. I buckled down and did it. And now I outline a lot of the time, but it’s often a modified outline.

Some of my resistance to outlining comes from the sense that I will be pushing a shape or a template onto my character or book when I want them to unfold more organically (though this can also mean that they unfold more unconsciousy–not always a good thing). So if I already know a character well (from a series, for instance), I can usually outline without that fear.

In other situations, where I’m figuring out a standalone book for the first time, I need to figure out who the character is, what their voice is, how they interact with other people and the world, before I start outlining. This means I often write 30-50 pages without an outline, totally winging it (and I admit, this part often gets cut in the final revision).

After that, I work with a 3 chapter outline, that is, 3 chapters ahead of the one where I am now. If I’ve written one of those chapters, then before I end for the day, I have to figure out the next chapter out. To be realistic, I often throw out all three chapters in a day because I realize they’re wrong. Just as often, I realize those three chapters are actually six chapters, or are five chapters out, and I have to build in the chapters leading to those chapters.

Another modified outlining method that I find works well to help me deal both with my daily anxiety about “I don’t know what to write because I don’t know what happens next” and going off in the wrong direction is figuring out what the climactic moment is and then a few key moments that lead up to that. These are all subject to change (and often do change).

I strongly do not believe in plot formulas or formulas to show character development. However, I’m all for hacks that help you keep writing and exploring the character and the world and getting to the end of a first draft with a very good idea of what the second draft is going to look like.

Published by Mette Ivie

I'm a national bestselling author, All-American triathlete, Princeton PhD and mother of five amazing kids. And I'm here to teach you how to talk back to the brain that is telling you to quit before you fail. I'm here to up your game as a writer and as a human. I teach skills on writing, but more than that, I teach you how to take risks and write more deeply, more humanly, and to become a better human yourself.

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