(function(m,a,i,l,e,r){ m['MailerLiteObject']=e;function f(){ var c={ a:arguments,q:[]};var r=this.push(c);return "number"!=typeof r?r:f.bind(c.q);} f.q=f.q||[];m[e]=m[e]||f.bind(f.q);m[e].q=m[e].q||f.q;r=a.createElement(i); var _=a.getElementsByTagName(i)[0];r.async=1;r.src=l+'?v'+(~~(new Date().getTime()/1000000)); _.parentNode.insertBefore(r,_);})(window, document, 'script', 'https://static.mailerlite.com/js/universal.js', 'ml'); var ml_account = ml('accounts', '3765356', 'b1u1r1d4c8', 'load');
top of page
  • Writer's pictureBarbra A. Rodriguez

A Juicier Book Outlining Alternative

While authors like Sylvia Plath, William Faulkner, Jennifer Egan, and Joseph Heller of Catch-22 fame prefer to outline their stories in advance, the approach runs the risk of making you focus too early on a story's plot, sucking the life out of you work before it has a chance to gain momentum. This can be particularly true if you tend to think of stories from the action-based focus that many popular movies are written in (at least, in the U.S.).

For instance, Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach was panned by a few critics for feeling too mechanical; a New York Times critic called out the work for lacking the "emotional wisdom, narrative scope or lovely specificity" of his earlier books.

Spiral peel of an orange extending off of its top (credit, jessica-lewis-creative, pexels)
A book's structural development should support juicy ideas

The crux of the challenge with a "plotters" initial approach is that, as Lisa Cron notes in Wired for Story, "the real story is how what happens affects the protagonist, and what she does with it." And in fact, there are famous "pantsers" in the world who do just fine, thank you, like Margaret Atwood, Stephen King, and Pierce Brown.

So what is a writer to do, knowing that at least a rough framework for your book is key to avoid going down too many writing rabbit holes, and to add cohesiveness so readers stay engaged. As an author of two nonchronological memoirs, Mary Laura Philpot, put it in an interview with book coach extraordinaire Jennie Nash, "The order you put things in tells [determines] what story you create."

Select Content Organizing Approach, and Principles

For a more organic approach than outlining, there are methods you can test out to bring clarity to your content. Basically, they amount to putting chunks of writing onto an index card or other placeholders, and rearranging the pieces based on how you start to see them relating to each other. For instance, a novelist might use a table to look for different patterns in index cards that have content on different themes he's grouped some stories by (with each story getting its own blue card), and other index cards (in another color) on content about the protagonist's relationship with family members at different stages of life.

White clothes clip on green string and fuzzy background (credit, jason-leung, unsplash)
Index cards on a string can help reveal content connections

The same approach could be done with "thought bubbles" drawn on a sheet of butcher block paper, sticky notes applied to graph paper on a wall, or index cards clipped to a string hanging down from a ceiling. The long wall or string approach might work better for graphing something linear, though you could use different strings, etc., for tracking different book elements. A paper-on-the-floor approach, though, worked best for Deborah D.E.E.P. Mouton. The multi-talented Poet Laureate of Houston mentioned this during a March talk about her new memoir, Black Chameleon, that she spent a year rearranging stories for (kept stashed away in a three-ring binder between sessions).

The organizing principle is up to you for using this nonlinear organizing approach sometimes called a mind map. Perhaps you'll want to see how much content you have that involves a particular character by putting their name in the center of the map space and seeing how many other cards become spokes around that central hub, or compare two main theme ideas you're waffling between by organizing their cards into adjacent piles. Meanwhile, you might find while rearranging story elements for other purposes that you figure out something critical to know early on, like what part of your or a character's inner workings serves as potential Kryptonite and should be brought up regularly in the work (for instance, stubborn independence can thwart or move someone toward accomplishing goals, depending on circumstances).

The approach you use, meanwhile, doesn't have to have the kinesthetic aspect that writers like Mouton prefer. That is, if saving time and a clean visual approach appeal to you, mind mapping apps exist that allow for the flexibility of changing details up quickly, such as Xmind (a free, after-the-fact mind map of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein in Xmind is here, or a more complex example of Guy Kawasaki's Enchantment in MindManager is here).

Connected blog ideas in boxes, circles, other containers that were hand-drawn (credit, Barbra A Rodriguez)
To avoid sharing a pretty, but plot-driven, example, my mind map of this post

As Mouton's year-long venture suggests, though, whatever organic approach you land on won't necessarily take less time than outlining. Sitting with your content is central to this process, as there's simply no getting around the need to spend time on what you're developing, which allows connections to organically present themselves to you. In fact, many would say that's the biggest reward of writing: making time to find the meaning in what you've put down, to make human nature more understandable for your reader, and ultimately, for yourself.

What Comes Next?

Some writers will turn to a formal outline for their book at this point, which is a great tool to work with for multiple reasons (you can see some inspiring examples, including the one Norman Mailer penciled onto his office wall, in this post).

For those who still prefer to avoid outlining, you may want to reshape your content based on the mind map and contact a book coach/developmental editor like me to provide feedback on how well essential story needs are met, such as the narrative drive. A professional's guidance can save lots of time, and may include a book map related to content holes. Or you could make developing one of those a next, soft outline step.

A book map is a table whose columns represent different periods of time, scenes or chapters, characters, themes or other story elements. As I'll cover in a later post, book maps resemble mind maps in being able to serve multiple purposes. When you invest in them, such mapping tools can reward you by unearthing the key ingredients and essential juice of your writings.

By Barbra A. Rodriguez

To receive my brief Scoops4Scribes newsletter on the writing life, style matters, and writing hacks, click here.

To learn more about "plotters" and "pantsers," go here.

Check out this post for different mind mapping structure options and app suggestions.

Learn more about how to use mind maps for book development:

Learn how deep a writer should go when mind mapping a book: https://grammarfactory.com/writing/mind-mapping-detail/

How Rebecca Sacks "string-mapped" multiple characters in her first novel.


bottom of page