Starting from Scratch: Outlining

After weeks (or months) of planning and thinking and researching, my head is full of exciting but largely formless thoughts about what the book could include and where it could go. This is the point where I sit down and start outlining, a process that begins with a brainstorm.

The thoughts, like I said, are unformed, so the first step is to give them form. For me, that means writing them down–I think with my fingers, not my brain, so nothing is really “real” or even all that intelligible until I write it down. I start with three or so blank documents–Characters, Events, and Cool Stuff, for example–and then I start plucking ideas out of my head and turning them into something usable. Using Strawberry Fields as an example, I knew I needed a schizophrenic main character, so I wrote that down in the “Characters” document and then started describing him–how old is he, what kind of hallucinations does he experience, what does he want, and so on. While I’m thinking about it, I flip over to the “Cool Stuff” document and write more about his hallucinations, fleshing them out a bit. This suggests an interesting twist that could work well when his delusion conflicts with the real world, so I write about it in the “Events” document. This process goes on and on, which me codifying all of these pre-planned thoughts into a bunch of cool, cohesive elements that start combining to make a cool story.

The thing is, these elements aren’t really a story yet–they’re the building blocks of a story that hasn’t been built yet. Phase two of the outlining process is to open a fourth document and start putting them in order. In the case of Strawberry Fields, this required a lot of careful balancing to make sure that the paranoid delusions and the paranoid realities meshed in surprising yet inevitable ways; I want to pull the rug out from under the main character (and the reader) a number of times, but I want each new twist to advance the plot at the same time it’s resetting it. Halfway through this outlining process I realized that I was building a conspiracy thriller, and that realization helped suggest a lot of structural elements that would help make the story work more effectively (it also suggested a few genre norms that I could bend or break to help the story stay surprising). I took a short break to research conspiracy plots, altered my story a bit, and eventually completed a full chapter by chapter outline.

I started official writing on Strawberry Fields, using this completed outline, last week. The next installment in this little blog series will talk about how I use an outline to write, how I deviate from it, and how the story continues to grow as I write it.

19 Responses to “Starting from Scratch: Outlining”

  1. Laura says:

    I love what your doing here even though your not giving away any details just getting a look behind the scences is making me excited about this book. It’s good to know that there are more book on there way and if your first book is anything to go on they will be awesome. I can’t wait I just hope this isn’t a sign of me becoming a stalker lol.

  2. Arlene says:

    I should be taking copious notes.

  3. Steve D says:

    on how to outline or on being a schizophrenic? i can give pointers on the latter – it’s great fun at crappy family reunions and weddings where all the food looks inedible.

  4. Arlene says:

    That’s a shame about the food.

    I just assumed, since Dan has a natural flare for writing, that he has a few gems that might make the process a little easier for the rest of us out here.

  5. Callisto says:

    Looks can be deceiving. :)

    Your methods, Dan, are quite like my outline process – not that I write much, but when I get the hankering I usually let my ideas stew for a long time before I put anything down. Then when I feel like I’ve got a little substance to work with, I start writing down the ideas as they come to me until I’ve got a couple of Word pages of completely random notes. The tricky part is getting all that in order. >_<

  6. Steve D says:

    Dan is actually a great person to get advice from. If you can use anything he mentions, you will prolly become a better writer. My personal experience has been that Dan is a very easy person to ask questions of. He is more than willing to share the nuggets of wisdom that he has learned throughout his experience of getting published. Also, he’s a good person to brainstorm with. The main idea for the novel I am finishing up came from a quick brainstorm session with him.

    So yeah, this is all really good stuff that can be really helpful!

    And I was kidding about the schizophrenic stuff…maybe. But not the bad food at weddings. I have a poor track-record in that department.

  7. admin says:

    Steve is trying to flatter me after dogging me last night. It’s not working, Steve.

  8. Steve D says:

    waaaaaaaaaaaaaaait a minute. lets back up a few days to my bday shall we? who was it that had a “cold”? huh? huh?

    seriously, since when do Cylon’s get colds? there’s no biological Cylon weapon in Utah…yet…

  9. Arlene says:

    What, Dan? You have a life? I like to imagine you holed up in a basement somewhere writing 24/7. :)

  10. admin says:

    I’d like to imagine that too. Life really gets in the way sometimes.

  11. Steve D says:

    I’d really rather not be in a basement of Dan’s imagining (see what I did there Dan?).

  12. admin says:

    Don’t worry Steve. My ideal basement doesn’t include you.

  13. Steve D says:

    good. i dont fancy being attached to torture devices unless it is part of a fictitious death scene in your novels.

  14. Arlene says:

    Oh look, Dan. You have a volunteer.

  15. Steve D says:

    as long as it’s only in book form. i consider it an honor to be killed off in people’s novels. this reminds me, i need to insert Dan into my novel to kill him off. any requests, Dan?

  16. Raethe says:


    You guys don’t even need to write books; I could sit here and read you guys insulting each other all day. It’s terrifically entertaining.

    Dan’s ideal basement includes pajamas, apparently.

  17. Steve D says:

    we are like Hulu, slowly turning your brains into goo as part of our plan for worldwide domination.

  18. Arlene says:

    It’s working…I think.

  19. Raethe says:

    My brains were goo long before I met you guys.

    It probably doesn’t matter to you in the long run but at least I can deny you the satisfaction. HAH!

Leave a Reply