How We Outline and Prep Our Writing Projects

NaNoWriMo is right around the corner and this year we plan on actually taking part and not just saying we’re going to as we’ve done for the last few years. This year will be our year! *fingers crossed*

So, we’re starting to prep now for NaNoWrimo by outlining our current works in progress. Both of us have different approaches to how we outline. Samantha is a physical pen and paper outliner and Amber is a dedicated Scrivener user. What we would like you to keep in mind, however, is that this doesn’t mean we never dabble into one another’s preferred realm (as if Amber is allergic to pens and Samantha doesn’t know how to turn on a computer). All it means is that this is how we make our initial dive into the writing process. 

how we outline and prep our writing projects

Anyway, if you are an aspiring writer or established writer who is just always open to new ideas (we applaud you), we decided to share a bit of our own writing process with you in the hopes you find a gem or two. 

Below you will find our two different approaches to writing — one primarily using digital tools and the other pen and paper.

We hope you find this useful. Happy writing!

Samantha’s Process

Let’s Get Physical

Alright, time to kick it old school! Ya, that’s right, I still use an old fashioned pen and paper when it comes to my writing projects. Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t write the whole thing out by hand (hello carpal tunnel), but I do like to use it as a foundation. More specifically, and feel free to call me a whacko, it slows down my brain. When I am typing like a madman, I get way ahead of myself. But, with pen or pencil and paper, I am forced to take it word by word and sentence by sentence. Personally, I find my work to be more worthwhile than the garbage I typically spew on the page via keyboard. 

So, what’s my process? Notebooks. Lots and lots of notebooks. 

I know, it doesn’t seem very efficient, and you’re right. I used to fill notebooks to the max and then quickly misplace them. Or, as I like to think of it, put them in such a safe place I can’t even find them. That is until I found the notebook to end all notebooks. The beast that made me rethink my entire process. 

Long story short, I have a notebook buying problem. A couple of years ago, I found a spiral bound, one inch thick notebook made up of dividers, pockets, lined paper, grid paper, blank paper, and perforated pages for easily removed cue cards. Sure, it doesn’t sound glamorous, but I heard angels sing. It completely changed how I organized myself. 

Note: I realize such a book isn’t always easily found. In future, I plan on getting a binder or similar to create the same effect. 

How I Organize My Notebook
Cue Cards:

Honestly, if there is one thing I can never seem to get straight during my writing process it is my characters physical attributes and personality characteristics. Anyone who has more than one character can probably understand this pain or maybe I need to get my memory checked. Anyways, each cue card is dedicated to a character. The front would include things like full name and birth date, for starters. If applicable, I include family members, magical ability, hobbies, pets, and so on. On the back is where I list physical qualities (hair length and colour, height, skin tone, eye colour, clothing style, unique physical traits like a scar, how they walk, and so on). In doing so, it creates this useful index that I can always refer back to. Cue cards have quickly become my most valuable tool for character creation and building. 

Lined Paper:

No, this isn’t a section I would typically use for writing out my story. Instead, I use it for extensive note taking and plotting. Yes, I’ll admit, I tend to beat a dead horse, so to speak. I struggle starting a writing project if I don’t know everything there is to know about the world I am creating, fantasy or not. That being said, I’ll jot all my ideas down in this section and I’ll even create a timeline of events to help keep me on track. 

Blank Paper:

I don’t know about you other writers out there, but I am a visual person. More often than not, I will doodle until my fingers bleed in an attempt to try to funnel those creative juices into something worth writing about. Sometimes words aren’t enough, you know. Sometimes you have to pull out the colour pencils, crayons, watercolours, you name it to get the point across. Seeing it drawn out makes the story more real. If you aren’t artistically inclined, you can always cut or print out images from material that inspires you. Think of it as your mood board. 

Grid Paper:

For writers who are world builders, this section is for you! I love creating maps using grid paper. Of course, you could use blank paper, too. I’m not going to judge. Or, if you are a bit of a weirdo like me, I’ll also make floor plans. Ya, you read that right. It all goes back to being visual. I’ll scour the internet for a variety of home floor plans and amalgamate them into *just* what my story needs. Then, as I move my characters around, I have a better idea of where they are. 

Bonus: I was recently watching Margaret Atwoord’s Masterclass, “Margaret Atwood Teaches Creative Writing,” and came across her method to developing characters. Basically, you make a chart with the months of the year going down the left hand side and the years going across the top. Then, you join the two by pinpointing your character’s birthday and world events. Now, you will know how old your character is in relation to important world events. Pretty cool, right? 

Please excuse my table. I tried my best to show you. Easier if drawn out, I am sure.

197019801990200020102020
Jan
Feb
Mar
Apr
MayCharacters Bday
Jun
Jul
AugWatergate (‘75)
Sep9/11
Oct
NovBrexit
Dec
Pockets:

To be fair, I get excited when my clothes have pockets and it’s no different with notebooks. As much as I wish it were true, I do not have my handy-dandy notebook with me all the time. That means I have scraps of paper with notes all over the place. With pockets, you can at least shove them somewhere instead of having to rewrite them on the page. 

Overall, my main goal in organizing my writing project this way is to remain consistent. Before I started doing any of this, I would just write willy-nilly. Then, during the editing process, I would see all of the mistakes I’ve made. No shame, of course. We all do it. 

Raise your hand if you’ve found such a mistake in a book. *raises hand* Legit called the character by the wrong name. Another book, different eye colour. Oops. See, no big deal!

Amber’s Process

As clarified earlier, I am not in fact allergic to pens, or pencils for that matter, I just have always preferred outlining on a computer. I like to say my brain thinks in excel sheets and tabs (honestly, I make excel sheets for everything in life) – I need things organized and outlined in a very meticulous manner. So, I’ve never been able to get the sense of organization I need from pen and paper (although I do silently covet Samantha’s notebook and may or may not have bought myself a similar one recently to try it out). While I predominantly do use the computer, I do like pen and paper for initial brainstorming, so I’m adapting some of Samantha’s method.

Honestly, I’m so dedicated to my computer way of organizing that I have a Moleskine notebook with a pen that copies everything I write into a written document (neat, huh?). So, while I do have dozens of notebooks full of ideas, maps, research, and writing tidbits, when it comes down to the nitty gritty prepping, organizing, and outlining I’ve always used a computer program.

For years I used a program called Microsoft OneNote which basically functioned like a notebook on the computer. I’ve been using Scrivener for about three years now and it has completely changed how I write. If you are a computer planner and don’t have Scrivener go get it now! Go! Stop reading. I’ll wait here for you to go get it.

*patiently waits*

So, now that you’ve purchased the best writing program ever (okay, there’s probably other good ones too, but I’ve only used this one and I love it), let me dive into how I organize my writing using Scrivener.

Settings

I write fantasy, and as a fantasy writer I like to create and develop worlds with unique cities, creatures, magic systems, and so on. This can be very difficult to keep everything straight, which is why I like the computer method. Scrivener allows me to create folders and within those folders I can create more folders or pages. Think of it like any document filing system, but for your book.

I like to use the folders to break down all of my locations. For example, COUNTRY > CITY > SPECIFIC LOCATION. I’ll create pages for each individual setting from the country to the smallest tavern or forest. From there I’m a very visual person, so I have to have pictures for everything. I’ll do extensive research (*bows down to Pinterest*) and find pictures for inspiration. From there I write descriptions for each of my settings and make note of any important facts or people associated with it. What is really helpful once I start writing (I also do my writing in Scrivener) is that I can have these pages up as I write and use them as reference or quickly add/change information I come up with while writing. I’m obsessed with details when writing, so this is a great way to organize it all.

Characters

I set up my characters similar to how I do my settings. In my book I have different races, so each race gets its own folder, in depth description and associated images. From there each character gets their own page. I also have to have photos for my character. Fantasy character art is my favourite go to and my Pinterest boards are full of character inspiration (*bows again to Pinterest – do I need to make a sacrifice at this point?). Years ago I found this character outline that I use. It breaks down the character into Physical, General (Job, Education, Needs, Personality, etc.), and Relationships. Each of those sections has a list of points that I fill in about the character. I’ve adjusted the outline over the years, but for the most part it’s served me pretty well and is a great way to flesh out a character.

Bonus: One of the main reasons I like outlining and planning on the computer is being able to quickly and easily access, edit, and add things. I am the worst for changing my mind about everything to do with my book. I’ve changed the plot of my current WIP at least six times now. So, since I’m the most indecisive writer ever, using Scrivener allows me to easily store old ideas, update current information, and really play around with all elements at once without having to fill yet another notebook and flip between them all.

Plot and Outline

I go back and forth between being a pantser and a planner when it comes to outlining. As stated above, I change my mind a thousand times. So, outlining is hard for me because I always change it, yet I like to have some sort of structure. Scrivener has this Bulletin Board-like feature that allows you to basically view a snapshot of each page that you’ve created as a cue card (e.g. a cue card with the summary and title of each chapter you’re writing). This feature lets me easily see each point of my outline. I can then rearrange and adjust the timeline quickly and easily. When moving the cue cards around it also adjusts your writing project so you don’t have to rearrange it to match. I also just discovered this feature where I can add a status (e.g. need to write, first draft, revised, etc.) to my chapters and it adds that status across my cue card. So, I can easily see what I’ve written and where each item is at in the writing process. My brain absolutely loves seeing things be completed, so this is a bit of a drive to get the status on all of those to say ‘Finished’.

So, while I do like pen and paper for initial brainstorming, sketching maps and people, and doing research, when it comes to really planning my story and outlining, I love having it all on my computer and so easily accessible. Just got to make sure I back it up every time!


What are some programs or methods that you use to outline and prep? What kind of outliner are you? Let us know in the comments below!

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