Poor Man’s MFA: Outlines will save you

This is not the kind of outline you need to write a novel.
This is not the kind of outline you need to write a novel.

“Outlines harsh my creative groove.”


That was me pre-2011. I wrote anything and everything without thinking too in-depth about it first. The muse just hit me and I would create. Poems, short stories, novels, articles, hell, even research papers.  The latter you’re supposed to think about it and outline. I fudged it. Ever.Single.Time. (I hope my college professors do not see this.)


But in 2011, as I decided I really wanted a novel I drafted back in 2009 to see the light of day. I’ve been rewriting, revising, and editing it on and off for two years. It’s very close to being to the point where I’ll share with my pool of generous beta readers.* Then, hopefully an agent is going to love this and publish it or maybe I’ll author publish. I haven’t decided yet. We’re not here to debate that. We are, however, here to talk about how my revision process wouldn’t have meant throwing out nearly 30,000 words and having to replace it with 40,000 new ones if I had outlined first. With this painful lesson, I know to never undertake a novel-length project again without outlining.


Outlining would have given me a roadmap to where I was going, where I had been, and what was coming next. It would have helped me with any plot twists I suddenly thought up, and it would have prevented some of the plot holes that made me throw out 30k words.


As you can imagine, I have, therefore, become an outlining convert. You outline your success by taking the time from actual writing, to do some planning first.


But, before you shake your head at me and declare that outlining is stifling and blocks your creativity, I want to tell you to grow up. It doesn’t mean I think you’re immature, but I want you to throw away the academic outlining you learned in grade school and junior high and then tried to (like me) unsuccessfully use in high school and college. That is not the kind of outlining I mean. Nope. Outlining for a book is much easier. Oh, and there are many options on how to do it, too. I like to use a little bit of everything.


First, I normally have a vague idea about the story. Maybe a character is talking to me. Maybe I just have a premise. So, I mind map. You probably mind mapped in your primary education years, too; but, because there’s no right or wrong answer, many teachers may have not used it more than once, and you’ve likely forgotten. But, it’s a creative person’s best friend. I’ve had some creative teachers call it “making a spider,” too. When you look at the pictures, you’ll know why. When you do mind mapping, you just sit down with a blank sheet of paper and writing utensils. You can just use a pencil or an ink pen, but you can also make it colorful, and do sketches as you go. Maybe that character starts talking to you about how he looks and how he’s not sure if he should shave his beard or not. But, you must map out, loosely, anything and everything in your brain about your story. Maybe you need to ask yourself a few questions. “Why does this happen?” “Who does it happen to?” “What’s the reaction?” Remember, there’s no wrong answer, just get it out.


This is likely why some of my creative teachers in the past called this a spider.
This is likely why some of my creative teachers in the past called this a spider.

Here are some questions to ask yourself while you’re mind mapping:


1. What distinguishes your protagonist from other people? (Do they have a trait that gets him/her into trouble?)

2. What they on the verge of doing? What decision? Why does it happen?

3. What are the internal and external conflicts going on for your protagonist and antagonist?

4. What is the protagonist’s goal and what is stopping him/her?

5. When the protagonist tries to overcome the above hurdle, what situation does that create? How do they handle it?

6. Be sure you have at least three obstacles in the way for your protagonist, be sure that one of those obstacles comes from an internal conflict. How will you push your main character out of their comfort zone?

7. How does the protagonist grow because of dealing with these conflicts? (This should reach you to your point of no return, easily.)

8. What do you want to happen at the end of the book?

9. What will have to happen to the protagonist/antagonist (as well as supporting characters) which bring us to the ending?


Here's a blank mind-map to get those a little nervous about doing this a head start.
Here’s a blank mind-map to get those a little nervous about doing this a head start.

By the time you’re done with that, you’ll have enough to fill out the basic stats about your story, which looks like this:


Title: Casz Can Outline

Characters:  Really Stubborn Middle Aged Writer

Basic Plot Summary:  How a painful writing experience taught her to outline.


Now, your basic document won’t be just one sheet, necessarily. Your summary won’t be your elevator pitch. It may take pages and pages (especially if you fill out a character worksheet for your protagonists and antagonists and every supporting character). But one mindmapping session may give you at least a loose outline on all those starting points for your novel. Also, if the more detailed your plot (think mystery, thriller) you’re going to need more details in your mindmapping and outline.


Once you have that, you can perhaps take a sheet and begin labeling it with Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3, and so on. Give yourself enough room between chapters, and at least put down three sentences in each chapter. What happens, why does it happen, who does it happen to, all need to be covered.


In each chapter, you need to list the things that have to happen to get you to the next point. Remember, we’re making that road map so we don’t get lost and we don’t have to undo and make 30,000-word mistakes.

One to three sentences per chapter about what has to happen will help keep you on the road to success while writing your novel.
One to three sentences per chapter about what has to happen will help keep you on the road to success while writing your novel.


Don’t throw any of these exercises or worksheets away. You will save these in your meta documents (meaning, you have a physical file or you create an electronic file where you transcribe all this stuff). Those who have Scrivener can easily create meta documents. Those of us who kick it old-school with simple word documents, will need to have separate documents. I, personally, have both physical notes as well as electronic copies. I believe in backing up, what can I say. The reason you don’t throw it away because it serves as a jumping off point when you do your final synopsis, as well as that roadmap to keep you on track. It doesn’t mean your story can’t weave in and out of off-road conditions, but you do need to come back to the main highway of your storyline at some point. These documents, this outlining process will help you with that.


After I post this, I have to begin to outline my next book-length project, which is actually going to be a creative non-fiction piece. I think. Who knows, I may end up with a fiction piece because outlining stories is so easy now.


What’s your next project? Are you doing NaNoWriMo? Have you outlined yet? This is my first attempt. I’m going to try again shortly…

A Nano Sketch Mind Mapped.
A Nano Sketch Mind Mapped.



*From the time I authored this post to when I actually posted it, I was able to finish my final revisions on this mss. It’s now off to Beta readers. 😉






2 responses to “Poor Man’s MFA: Outlines will save you”

  1. I did a mind map this year and feel better prepared for my NaNoWriMo plunge. But mine is still kind of intuitive and will leave plenty of room for interpretation and character development. It has a good deal of sketching, various colors, symbolic words, etc. It’s good to get the big hurdles and conflicts ferreted out. I couldn’t bring myself to decide on an ending. I have to see where my character grows. But I guess that itself is an outline of an ending…she will grow and feel resolution.

  2. Here’s a cool app designed to help people create mind maps:
    It does a great job of providing structure without hindering creativity, it’s simple to use so it doesn’t get in your way, and it’s free.

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