Do You Outline or Go Organic?

The process I used to write changed as I found my way. When I wrote the first book, Awakening, it was very much an organic process. I was flying by the seat of my pants. I started with one scene and developed that one scene into a paragraph then into a page and finally into an entire chapter. Eventually the story filled out as characters and scenes presented themselves, but it was messy. I was constantly going back through what I’d written to check the timing of events and reassure myself that character X did indeed have brown hair and hairy arms and that he came onto the scene before character Y.

Eventually I grew tired of that reference game and developed two “helper” documents. One summarized the character’s physical attributes and personality quirks. The other was a timeline to help me keep track of dates when events occurred. This ensured I had realistic lengths of time between events such as injury and subsequent recovery. For example, if character X gets a black eye, you can’t have the bruising gone two days later when they show up at work.

Both documents have proven indispensable. In particular, after the first major re-write of Book I (and there were many), I decided to begin the story in a completely different place so the timeline document helped me eliminate unnecessary detail and fit in the needed back story. With a subsequent re-write I had to unravel story arcs and re-work them into different times which proved very difficult. At that point, an outline of some sort would have proven useful.

With my second book, Revelation, I drafted a vague outline before I started writing, but I didn’t realize that’s what it was. I was simply organizing story snippets I’d cut from Book I and wanted to include in Book II. I added in new plot points and characters and by the time I’d finished, I recognized it as an outline. It wasn’t comprehensive, but it did help.

Flower-garden-with-bleeding-heart-and-tulips Outlines aren’t for everyone – the same can be said for organic writing. They’re just tools, like gardening gloves – some people prefer to feel the soil on the hands, others prefer a layer of protection. Likewise, sometimes outlines will be useful – other times they’ll get in the way. I think every writer finds their own comfort zone over time.

With my third book, Redemption, an outline became imperative. The Gift is a trilogy so story arcs needed to be tied up and back story needed to be worked in and spread out. I’m organized, but there are limits; I couldn’t keep that many details in my head. I needed to flesh them out first. Even with the outline, I had challenges segueing smoothly from one scene to another and spent days waiting for that stellar idea rather than writing.

Who knows what process I’ll use with the next book? I’ll let the ideas guide me and bring in the other writing tools as and when they’re needed. What process works for you?


About JP McLean

Author of The Gift Legacy, a contemporary thriller with a twist of fantasy that will leave you believing the impossible and wary of the night sky…
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6 Responses to Do You Outline or Go Organic?

  1. Mike Grant says:

    I did the seat-of-my-pants on the first go-round but decided to try an outline this time. It’s ended up being a little of both. I still have my original outline and I pretty much know where events and characters are going to end up but anything to that point has become wide open. It’s kind of like going on a driving holiday…I know I’m going to wind up in, say San Francisco but I’m not following the Coast Highway. I’m going to check out all the little back and side roads on the way.


  2. I’ve been working through creating scene cards before I hit my heavy revisions that are looming ahead. Since I created the initial drafts organically, I’ve found that important tidbits are tucked into otherwise weak scenes. So, I have four cards per scene. 1) Action Card: The setting and the physical action, 2) Character Card: What is revealed about characters, how they act and why, any new descriptive elements 3) Magic Card: what happens magically or is revealed about the supernatural world 4) Plot Card: what happens that is plot critical for either the book or series plot.

    I’m about halfway through the cards now and I’m realizing some scenes have way too much, some have too little, and the cards will help me figure out which ones need the most work without losing track of the important pieces…. I hope.


    • JP McLean says:

      That’s a great way to organize your writing. I like the idea of having physical cards – something to mark-up, lay out in front of you and shuffle as the need arises. Thanks for the comment.


  3. Pingback: I got carded | writemybrainsout

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