My new outline board

>> Wednesday, April 29, 2009

If you ever have the misfortune to ask, I'll tell you--ad nauseam--about how I like to outline my books. I wasn't always an outliner, but then I started researching what would become Samurai Shortstop, and I realized I was going to have to organize my story and my notes if I ever hoped to pull it off. The outline worked, Samurai sold, and I've become an outline evangelist ever since.

Until recently, I've done all my outlining on the computer, in a Microsoft Word document, with one page per chapter, followed by any research notes, if any, I need to write that chapter. But while I like having the pages to print out and put in a binder when I'm ready to actually write the book, I dislike how this arrangement works for figuring things out in the early stages. When I'm first building a story, I like to move things around, to change the timing and placement of events, and get a feel for the overall pacing of things. It's certainly easy to cut and paste on the computer, but it's hard to see the big picture one page at a time.

So now I've got a big board in my new office where I can see the whole story laid out in front of me all at once. Don't you love the fabric? It was an IKEA find.

I don't go into a great deal of detail on the cards at this stage. Each of the note cards roughly corresponds to a single chapter, and just tells me the big stuff that happens in each to drive the story forward. Using the big board for my early planning stages, I can add to, subtract from, or rearrange the story while seeing the whole big picture right in front of me. Once this process is finished, I take the cards off the board, type them up as a chapter outline in Word, and there add all the detail I need to make the story sing. But the big board helps out in those key early stages where I'm trying to make sure the action, characters, and reveals are all well-paced.

I also separate the cards by act, as I've done here, letting me see if one act or another is too long, too short, or breaks at the right or wrong time in the story. Here's act two, of three:

The cards floating off to the side of the main columns are dream sequences--I know, dream sequences! I promise, I'm trying to make them not be cheesy--and using the big board I can rearrange them to put them wherever they work best alongside the major plotline of the book.

Act three out there is looking a bit skimpy, but I think it will fill out in the writing. It often happens that I plan too much for my chapters, and end up breaking them into separate chapters.

The plotting on this book is finished, and I'm on to the writing phase--but I had to show off my beautiful new outlining board!


Anonymous,  April 29, 2009 at 3:20 PM  

I love this. I've got a white board I'm trying to use more myself--possibly with sticky notes. Thanks for the post. :)

scott neumyer April 29, 2009 at 4:38 PM  

Have you ever tried Scrivener for Mac? it's actually quite similar to a physical board but right on your computer. pretty neat stuff. though I like the visual of your board too!

Alan April 29, 2009 at 4:40 PM  

Alas, we are not a Mac family. Too many years--and dollars--invested in Windows software. I've heard great things about Scrivener, but as far as I can tell they don't make a Windows version of it.

Sara Z. April 29, 2009 at 5:08 PM  

Will you and Wendi redecorate my house?

Alison Ashley Formento April 29, 2009 at 5:17 PM  

Exactly the visual I needed to see as I'm outlining a new WIP. Thanks for the post and photos.

Paul Harrill April 29, 2009 at 7:36 PM  

Very cool setup. My new office has a similar setup -- magnetic painted wall and rare earth magnets essentially for this very purpose.

Also, I'll add that analog (as opposed to outlining in a writing app) works better for me too. I use note cards for screenwriting, not novel writing. Final Draft and Movie Magic Screenwriter have virtual "notecards", but I find them less useful because you can only fit so many cards on a screen and have them be legible. Paper still rules.

Kirby3131 April 29, 2009 at 9:32 PM  

I love the board - I love the size of it, too. A lot of work can get done using that. I immediately thought it was IKEA fabric. It's a great find!

Mugsy the Girl April 29, 2009 at 11:34 PM  

Love the outline. Going to point it out to my kids. (My students not my real kids.) They think outlining is for wusses!

Aren't you glad you're influencing the youths of today? You're awesome.

Brian May 1, 2009 at 1:27 AM  

Awesome. Man, your house is so book-appropriate. Also, I like the placement of the Flash button! And I have the same edition of the Iliad and Odyssey as you.

But what's this about not being a mac family? How long have you spent working with Warp and I? :-p

Alan May 1, 2009 at 12:07 PM  

I know. And the time to change over was when we bought our most recent computer. If we had any idea how much of our previous software wasn't going to work with Vista, I might have been more seriously tempted to change sides.

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