Reflections In Hindsight

Grace in the Rearview Mirror…it's closer than it appears

  • Ephesians 4:29

    Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. (NIV)

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Choosing the Best Outlining Method for You, by author K.M. Weiland

Posted by April W Gardner on March 14, 2012

Two of author K.M. Weiland’s books made my Top Ten Reads of 2011, so when I saw she’d released “Outlining Your Novel: Map Your Way to Success,” I snatched it up without a thought. I haven’t been disappointed. K.M. writes in a clear, engaging voice that doesn’t push for any particular methodology. She simply guides the writer to finding what works for her. And it’s perfect timing since I’m plotting book three of my Creek Country Saga. There’s always room for improvement when it comes to outlining a novel!

Today, K.M. is graciously sharing a portion of Chapter Two. In addition, she’s donating an e-copy of the book. If you’re a writer, trust me, you want to own this book. For a chance to win, leave a comment on this blog post answering the following question. The drawing will close Tuesday, March 20.

Question: Which of the below would you be most apt to try?

Choosing the Best Outlining Method for You

by K.M. Weiland

 How do you decide which outlining method is best for you? Trial and error are your best bet. You’ll never know for certain if you’ll click with a particular method until you give it a try. However, you can make some educated guesses based on what you know about your personality, what has and hasn’t worked for you in the past, and your own gut feelings about any particular method. For example:

  • If you’re short on time for whatever reason (although I caution against rushing a story unless a deadline gives you no choice), you’re obviously going to need to employ a more abbreviated outlining method.
  • If you’re worried over-outlining may impair your creativity later on, you might want to try something as simple as jotting down scene ideas and keeping them in a file for quick reference whenever you’re stuck in your first draft.
  • If you’re a visual learner, you might profit from a more visual representation of your outline. Instead of storing your outline notes in your computer, you might want to employ colored note cards pinned to a bulletin board—or one of the alternate options listed in the following section.
  • Or, if you’re ready to tackle the full-blown challenges and embrace the full-blown benefits of the total-package outlining experience, you just might want to dive headfirst into the extensive sketching and planning method explained throughout the rest of this book.

Keep in mind that your writing process will continually evolve, sometimes without your even realizing it. Different stories will require slightly (or sometimes radically) different tactics. So don’t box yourself into a rigid system. Never be afraid to experiment. Ultimately, finding the right outlining method isn’t so much about choosing as it is about creating. As you read this book, grab hold of anything that strikes your fancy, give it a try, combine it with the methods you’ve already put into practice, and keep searching for tips you can pick up from other authors. If you’re continually striving to learn about the outlining environment that allows you to work most efficiently, you’ll be able to refine your writing in ways that reach far beyond the craft itself.

Different Types of Outlines

Outlines come in many shapes and sizes. Some stories may demand deviations from the standard “list” outline, in which authors compile a linear list of scenes. Linearity is often the best way to make sense of convoluted problems (and the novel is often a very convoluted problem), but sometimes it’s worthwhile to use less common forms of outlining as a way of looking at a problem from a new perspective. Following are several unique types of outlines to keep in mind in addition to the more standard process explained in later chapters.

Mind Map

Mind maps are particularly valuable in looking at problems spatially instead of linearly. By writing the central theme or event at the center of your paper and surrounding it with clusters of related subjects—and those subjects with related subjects of their own—you can create an exhaustive list of possibilities for your story. Don’t censor yourself. Write down any related topic that presents itself, and who knows what you may come up with. This method is particularly useful in breaking through blocks, since it taps both your subconscious and your visual mind.

Pictorial Outline

If you’re a visual learner, you may find it useful to create folders of pictures related to your story. “Cast” your characters, scout likely settings, and collect pertinent props. By associating pictures with particular scenes, you not only give yourself extra details with which to flesh out the scene, you can also help yourself spot plot holes or inconsistencies. I began keeping a folder of story-related pictures while writing Dreamlander, and this practice has rapidly become one of the most useful (not to mention most fun) tools in my repertoire. When stuck on scenes, I will often surf the Internet for related pictures. More often than not, when I find a picture, I find my missing puzzle piece.


Fantasy authors have long been known for their penchant for drawing elaborate maps of their story worlds. Often, these maps are strictly utilitarian, in that they allow us to keep track of the various geographical features of our worlds. However, a little amateur cartography can be an integral part of world-building, even for stories grounded firmly in reality. Because a good setting is necessarily inherent to the structure of the story itself, a map can become a valuable asset in fleshing out your story. Bestselling speculative author and multiple Hugo- and Nebula-Award winner Orson Scott Card explained that drawing maps helped him refine his fantasy Hart’s Hope in its embryonic stages. In a sketch of a walled city, he accidentally drew a gate with no entrance. Instead of erasing it, he seized upon it as an interesting idea and started asking himself questions about why anyone would build such a gate. He explained, “All you have to do is think of a reason why the mistake isn’t a mistake at all, and you might have something fresh and wonderful.”[i]

Fortunately, artistic talent isn’t a requirement for an author’s maps. Straight lines to indicate borders, wavy lines for oceans, and spiky triangles for mountains work just fine. When it’s necessary, for whatever reason, to share my maps with my beta readers, I often recreate my intelligible-only-to-me chicken scratchings in Photoshop for a slightly more comprehensible presentation.

Perfect Review

As authors, we’re never going to be completely objective about our stories. We’re too emotionally involved, too attached to our characters, too excited about our plot twists, too tickled by our snarky dialogue—so much so that we can lose sight of the big picture. Often, when we begin writing a story, our ideas are hazy, and the final shape of the story is only a dim outline in the mist. The story we put on the page will never be a perfect representation of the story in our imagination, so it’s little wonder we aren’t always aware of where our stories fall short. But here’s a little trick to narrow the gap between your idealization of your story and its printed reality: Write yourself the “perfect” review before your story ever hits paper.

If you could have a professional reviewer read your idealized concept of your finished book and totally get it—completely understand everything you’re trying to say with your characters, plot, dialogue, and themes—what would he write about your story? Close your eyes for a moment, emotionally distance yourself from your story, and pretend you’re that reviewer.

Keep the following suggestions in mind, in order to plumb the review for as much depth as possible:

Be specific. Don’t just let the reviewer say he loved the story. Make him tell you why he loved it. What parts are the best? What makes this piece really shine?

Be thorough. Cover every aspect of story you can think of: plot (including arc, pacing, and originality), characters (including personalities, arc, and development), dialogue, themes, and climax.

Be extravagant. Praise your story to the skies. Layer on the adjectives of adulation. After all, you’re writing from the perspective of a reader who understands and loves your story just as much as you do. So have fun!

When you’re finished, you’ll have an explicit goal toward which you can strive in molding your story.

[i] Orson Scott Card, How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy (Cincinnati, OH: Writer’s Digest Books, 1990) p. 29.

April W Gardner is the author of the Creek Country Saga and

the children’s historical adventure series, The Channel Islands Resistance.

7 Responses to “Choosing the Best Outlining Method for You, by author K.M. Weiland”

  1. What helpful ideas! I love how K. M. directs other authors to find their own style of outlining. Since I was in elementary school, I have HATED traditional outlines! I still do—but I have adapted my own style that works for me of jotting down the chapter numbers with the general events taking place in that chapter. It helps me keep the flow of the story, as well as reminds me to include the important plot points. Thanks for a great post, April!

    • Finding the unique method that works for each of us is the most important thing we can do for ourselves as authors. We’re all unique, and none of us can follow a cookie-cutter approach with success. Good thing experimentation is so much fun!

  2. Thanks for sharing the excerpt, April!

    • My pleasure! What’s helped me the most from this book is brainstorming “what ifs” and asking myself “what will the reader expect?” then doing the opposite. Great stuff!!

  3. I use a little of this and a little of that when I outline, some photos, some note cards, and a beat sheet of linear scenes. So far it works, but I’m always up for learning more about outlining.

    • Hi Pegg! You’ve won the digital copy of KM Weiland’s book, “Outlining Your Novel: Map Your Way to Success.” Congrats and thanks for stopping by to comment!! I’ll be emailing you shortly.

  4. We’re all different, aren’t we. I appreciate your visit today, KM, and all of you who commented. For my work, I try not to think about what famous people my characters resemble, or I’m afraid I might start making them act too much like someone already out there. That’s when I know I need to get a very good, clear, established character first even before I start writing. Thanks for your advice!

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