O is for Organic Outline




No, that’s not one of my outlines pictured above. It’s actually one of J.K. Rowling’s from the Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Me...I start off using an Excel spreadsheet for my outline and then print it off and hand-write notes on it as I decide to make changes.  If I make enough changes I'll incorporate them into the spreadsheet, print it off again, then continue to scribble notes on it as I continue.

One of the knocks I’ve heard against outlining (versus making it up as you go along…or Pantsing), is that it can squelch creativity and become too restrictive. Frankly, I don’t see it…especially if you use something called an organic outline. That’s not an official term, and it’s not mine either. I read the phrase on another blog somewhere, or a comment, and I adopted it because it perfectly describes my own process.

The most important characteristic of an organic outline is that it is not static. It is a living, breathing, thing that adapts and grows right along with your imagination. It allows you to see how plot changes thought up on the spur of the moment while you write will fit into the structure of the overall story, and even how the various ripple effects caused by the changes may impact events later on. As I write my book I am updating my outline (when needed) at the same time so I can assure that I stay on both course and on pace.

Each major section in my outline represents a scene. In that section I list every character involved, what their motivations are, the setting(s) and how that plays into the scene, what the major plot element that occurs in that scene is, and most importantly...why the scene exists. Every single scene in a book must drive the story forward in some way, and if I cannot explain how or why a particular scene does that, then it shouldn't exist.

I have this ritual when I'm writing or outlining. I listen to music on my headphones, always have coffee, and I wear a baseball cap turned around backwards. The turned around baseball cap tells my family - I'M WRITING / DO NOT DISTURB.

Did you know I was holding a contest during the A-Z Challenge? You can read all about it HERE. Do you outline? Do you have your own writing ritual?

48 comments

  1. Any outline will be as creative and inspiring as you make it. i don't think the format changes that.

    mood
    Moody Writing
    #atozchallenge

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  2. I read this with absorbing interest. Great post.

    Yvonne.

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  3. I outlined my first book much like Rowling's. Each character in every chapter had a note. I haven't gone to that detail since.

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  4. Great tips on outlining. I just know the major plot points and outline in a word document as I go. Then I can delete chapters or switch them around as needed.

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  5. This sounds like a great way to plan your writing. I don't write books, but my high school son writes lots of papers. I may have to suggest this type of outline to him.

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  6. Never heard of organic outlining. I use Scrivener to keep my outline. Outlining is so important.

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  7. Interesting peek into Rowling's head. I've never seen a spreadsheet outline like that before!
    I tend not to outline. I have a general story arc in my head before I start and often a few quick notes jotted down so I don't forget them. Otherwise I just dive in. All authors are different, though.

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  8. I have a much different way of outlining (and more extensive), but I wouldn't change what I'm doing. I works for me.

    My CP doesn't outline. She has an idea for the story and writes. She recently landed a book contract and had to give her editor a brief outline/synopsis for her next book. It was tough for her because she isn't an organic outlining, but she did pull it off in the end.

    The main thing is do what works for you, but remember once you move into the world of traditional publishing, you may have to adjust your way of thinking if you don't normally outline.

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  9. I've seen that outline before. It'd be cool to see more notes and outlines on how she planned the HP series! I've heard the term organic outlining, and it's what I do too. I love plotting and planning before I write the novel or story, but the writing process always brings out new ideas I hadn't considered before, so I adjust my outline accordingly. I imagine that's probably what most plotters do!

    Happy A to Z-ing! from Laura Marcella @ Wavy Lines

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  10. Yeah, I outline kinda. I have a very fluid/open/sketchy type of outline. Just the major highlights of where I see the story going. I'm constantly changing and moving things around in my mind, so the original outline can go by the wayside pretty quickly, but at least I know and have the major points I want to hit. Did that make any sense at all?

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  11. I've never found outlining to be restrictive. It gives me the path - what happens along the way can still be surprise. My outline doesn't look like that, but for my YA series, I did have a timeline that listed all of the main characters so I'd know what each one was doing at a given point in time.

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  12. I wish I could do proper outlines. I've tried in the past, I'm just not an outline kinda gal. But I like the baseball cap trick. It's gotten to the point that I just have to get out of the house if I want to get anything done.

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  13. I'm different all the time. Sometimes I write down questions to figure out what I'm doing. Sometimes I call my 'editor' aka MOM and talk to her about the annoying characters. Sometimes I just write.

    As long as we write.

    Heather

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  14. I don't outline as heavily as you, but I do try to get a general idea of each scene before I sit down to write it. Also, I need something like that backward baseball cap to let people know not to bother me!

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  15. I'm more of a pantser than a plotter, but I DO scribble thoughts/ideas/themes into a notebook as I go--espcially when an idea relates to a scene I haven't written yet but one that's directly affected by what I'm currently writing. So, yeah, I guess in a way I DO outline. I'm just in denial that I do. ;)

    (Also, I love that you have a ritual. Me? I just need coffee and silence.)

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  16. I sort of outline - I have a running timeline with a rough sketch of what will happen next, beginning to end, then as I write, I update the timeline to show each completed scene (including POV) so I have a quick reference to go back to.

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  17. One of us outlines til the cows come home, the other... not as much as she would like to.
    Cover Girls

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  18. I think it's a great idea. I love lists and outlines as much as I love changing and updating them. I think I'll try it out, because I've begun to get a bit lost while writing my novel.

    #atozchallenge, Kristen's blog: kristenhead.blogspot.com

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  19. I love your do not disturb warning to your family is a baseball cap on backwards. I work online, not writing, and may just adopt such a useful idea to keep them from thinking it's ok to chat when I'm doing my best to concentrate on something tricky.

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  20. Love it. I'm an organic outliner too.With nothing, my writing is just all over the place!

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  21. I love the hat idea. I do a combination of mind mapping and standard outline for my books. But my outlines are not cast in stone either. They evolve as the story progresses too.

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  22. I can't seem to decide on whether I'm a pantser or a plotser or something in between... it all works up to a point for me, but too much of any system messes with Mr Muse, or at least it has so far. So yes, I guess organic outlining or maybe organized pantsing is the way forward for me...

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  23. The idea that having an outline kills creativity is ridiculous. The creativity is just happening in a different place, because you have to have the creativity to create the story in the first place.

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  24. Huh, I don't find anything about outlines organic, but that's just the way I work. Which is kinda weird because I can't get through the day without at least one list.

    Love the baseball cap idea though. I might try it. Someday I'll have a writing room with doors!

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  25. I'm a plotter. I do outline but it's not cast in stone. Your hat idea is so cool. I think everybody should have some sort of sign that "warns" others they are busy and don't want to be disturbed! A hat, a special T-shirt...

    Writer In Transit

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  26. I like it...outlining doesn't have to be confined to the standard 'pyramid' pattern...and you highlight that here.

    Great post!

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  27. Pantser, who could probably use a bit of organization...if I'm completely honest. Lovely to peek into J.K Rowling's mind...though that would NOT have helped me write. I'm a note jotter. They're usually decisions I have to make about characters and what they knew when. Writing espionage/betrayal space opera...but I tend to write scenes I know I'll need, and then put them together. Right now though, I have SO many questions, maybe some sort of organic something would help me see more clearly. However, my main character is an alcoholic, and she doesn't see too clearly a lot of the time...
    Wow, what a picture! I do love observation...people watching...and especially at family gatherings. Watching how different family units communicate in different ways and when they're all gathered the clashes are very...interesting. Most of them involve my mother-in-law who must have it perfect, and that means HER way. Sigh.

    Tina @ Life is Good
    Co-host, April 2013 A-Z Challenge Blog
    @TinaLifeisGood, #atozchallenge

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  28. I can see how this would work for some writers, and I do this in the beginning, but for me some of my greatest scenes are added during revision.

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  29. I learned the trick of outlining on note cards from an old Hollywood screenwriter. It really helps with organic plot writing, since I can eliminate note cards or modify them easily. Often times I end up throwing out half of my cards before I have the rough draft completed.

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  30. I have never tried the outline but I plot a lot. I am starting to wonder how can I do that without writing it down.

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  31. Hi, DL. Sorry I haven't been by to visit your blog in awhile. Sounds like you have a routine that works for you. I've tried plotting and I've tried pantsing. There are pros and cons to both.

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  32. I couldn't function without an outline. Or music!

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  33. Do you know, I've never even considered a spreadsheet for outlining but it sounds like a great idea. I'm definitely going to give it a try as a new approach to my writing.
    Thanks for the tip.

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  34. I love the organic outline. It shows just how messy our thoughts are and makes me appreciate the final product even more.

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  35. Okay, that's the first I've heard of an organic outline. In everything else, I'm organized almost to the point of OCD, but in writing I'm a pantser. Go figure. I do keep a separate document of notes, of course.

    Would like to be a plotter. It would make my life easier. T.A.Barron told me (at a writing conference)that he starts out with an outline, but then the characters take over and go in a different direction than he'd anticipated. Sounds like an organic outline would solve that problem.

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  36. I don't have a backwards hat, I have enormous stereo headphones. Not only do they say "I'm writing!" but they also make me unaware of anything else in the house!
    Your method of outlining sounds somewhat close to mine except I don't always determine the setting or even all the characters involved in the scene. Minimum amount of story only. This way I know each scene MUST exist in some way or another. My outline is in Excel, not etched in stone so I consider it to be organic.

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  37. I absolutely have to outline, otherwise I come to a complete standstill. But it's pretty simple where I name the characters, the victims, the suspect, and a summary. Then I just start listing scenes or plot points until I'm through the novel. Of course I come up with other ideas and switch things around. The outline is a guide that works for me.

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  38. I love your "Do Not Disturb" sign!

    I've been pretty anti-outline for the most part, because I have an internal, fluid (but sparse) outline. In other words, I'm a pantser. I like the idea of an organic outline, so I might try this. This way, my characters can still hijack but I can control the "ripple effects" of damage. Cool!

    Lyre @ Lyre's Musings

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  39. Yes, OUTLINING....a great tool. OP Outlining (OrganicPantsic) fit us all. I Outline with Sticky Notes...they outline my PC screen.

    Great post for Letter 'O'

    My Letter 'O'...Obsession Over Odds and Ends
    Sue CollectInTexasGal
    AtoZ LoneStar Quilting Bee

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  40. I take the same approach to outlining as you. I need an outline to keep me focused and organized but allow myself the room to change things if the creative process improves on my initial ideas or nudges the story in a different direction. This works well for me, because I can keep the plot straight in my head while still enjoying the surprises that crop up along the way.

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  41. Outlining? My muse turns her nose up at those! I wish I could outline more as I think it would save me time, but I'm a pantser through and through.

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  42. I've done some prewriting, but usually I end up not following what I outline. I guess I'm just a pantser.

    http://joycelansky.blogspot.com

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  43. So much to learn, so many blogs.



    Cynthia (The Sock Zone)
    a to z challenge
    blueflute.wordpress.com

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  44. I used to be a solid outliner, but with experience, I've loosened up, but never heard of the term organic outlining until this post. However, does that make the static outline non-organic, but less expensive because of all the preservatives and e-numbers keeping it static?

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  45. It's good to have somewhat of an outline, but I don't like anything too specific and rigid. As I'm writing, I naturally fill in the blanks with new storyline and character developments as they come up, to link everything and everyone together. The idea of exactly planning out everything in advance isn't my idea of a good time.

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  46. Thanks for sharing this interesting and educative information. I think many writers will find your contribution very helpful, I have equally learnt something from it.
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  47. Hi Don - having never written a novel or book - I've no idea .. but I can see I'd need to be structured, yet have that organic flow to change things up for the better ..

    Love JK's outline - I know she was extremely organised in her approach ... it paid off!

    Cheers Hilary

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  48. I'm not going to lie that picture above scares me. I love to outline using Scrivener but never considered it actually outlining until I read Karen Weisner.

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