The Many Lives of An Outline

SPOILER ALERT: the pictures of the post includes spoilers through the end of Of Enemies and Endings. If you haven’t read it yet, please ignore the pictures with writing on them!

I outline a LOT–in all sorts of different ways, at all sorts of different stages.

Outlines for Me Only

Most of them are purely for my own benefit, like my idea notebooks, chapter/scene outlines, and prewriting/scratch (note)books.


These are my fave. They’re so freeing–anything goes; any idea makes the cut, no matter how vague or sloppy or tiny it may be. Now that I am working on brand new projects and building brand new worlds, I have a stack of fresh notebooks around me, and I’m falling in love with them all over again.

For the sake of examples though, let’s take a look at the idea books for The Ever Afters:

Idea Books

Idea Books! The second is smaller, because I learned the hard way: it’s helpful if the notebook is small enough to carry it around in your purse.

The red came first, and when it was filled, I moved onto the multi-colored one.

The only rule of an Idea Book is that anything goes. (I like to keep different notebooks for different books or series, but even that distinction can be ignored, depending on personal preference.)

At first, I filled it with big picture ideas.

Then I started with world-building ideas.

Idea Book Example

Sometimes, I even included a scene-by-scene outline.

Note: Anytime you see the name “Piper,” just mentally replace it with “Rory.” (Rory’s name was Piper for the first five drafts of OGAI.)

OGAI - Early Chapter Outline

Scene outline for the first few chapters of OGAI

As you can see, I used some of the ideas I put in the idea book, but I changed a lot later.

I made a habit of carrying around the idea book in my purse. Sometimes, an idea for a scene or a plot point or a character secret would hit me out of the blue, and I would need to scribble it down. Other days, I was more purposeful. I sat down with these notebooks and a book of fairy tales, and I read, looking specifically for ideas. When inspiration struck, I wrote it down.


Disclaimer: no outline needs to be a physical copy. Outlines can be Word files or Google docs or a folder of emails you sent to yourself. Actually, as time went on and my purse grew heavy with other things, I started emailing a lot of idea notes and scene outlines to myself. Sometimes, I printed out a physical copy (see above), but most of the time I didn’t bother.


Sometimes, when a book is particularly messy or confusing, I’ll dedicate a whole notebook to sorting it out. In it, I’ll scratch down ideas around a particular thing, like a scene or a chapter or a character arc.

Prewriting Notebooks!

Prewriting Notebooks!

Getting the ideas down on paper helps me process what I need to do next.

I’ll show more from these later, but here’s a preview that shows me working out the first chapter of OEAE. It includes questions and diagrams.

OEAE - Chapter 1

OEAE – Chapter 1 Notes


I usually make these after I’ve begun drafting the manuscript, and even then, they’re not very detailed. In fact, unless you’ve read the books, they probably only make sense to me.

Outline (Ch 14 and 24)11102015_2

Written on index cards while writing OEAE – I posted these above my writing desk while I was working.

I don’t always take the time to jot down a quick outline for each chapter or each scene. Actually, it’s sometimes more fun not to. It’s exciting to see what you make up along the way.

Despite all the thought that goes into planning, I don’t know everything when I begin a book. The idea books give me fleshed-out moments, clear and vivid and full of feeling. The prewriting/scratch notebooks help me clarify pieces of the puzzle when I’m stuck.

Even after all that work, it’s like I have stopping point destinations on a long trip–I’ve got to map out the routes in between each one. A lot of my favorite parts in the series come from those in-between sections.

That said, I do tend to scribble down more scene-by-scene/chapter-by-chapter outlines when I get to the last third of the book.

Here I've outlined all the chapters I needed to get to the end of OEAE.

Here, I’ve outlined all the chapters I needed to get to the end of OEAE, and I checked them off as I went alone.

Outlines I Share With Others

Now, certain outlines or outline-like materials are made for other people to see. By other people, I mean my agent, my editor, and industry professionals like them.

Typically, they have two major functions: some spread the word about the books; some are designed to make the book better.


Journeypen Logo - v1(I don’t have any handy pictures of them, because they’re just word documents—kind of boring.)

Synopsis is kind of an official summary of the book—before or after it is written. They are difficult to write, because it has to make sense to other people and because you have to make hard decisions about what to include and what not to include. Typically, synopses are circulated to your agent and your editor, so that they can kind of describe the whole book to people who might never read the book.

Every synopsis varies in length. I’ve written some that are one page long (double-spaced), and I’ve written one that was seven pages long (single-spaced).

Some writers just hate writing them. I agonize over getting them right, but I don’t actually mind them. This is why:

They’re also like paragraph-style outlines. You must have a beginning, a middle, and an end. You are forced to make sense of your plot, even if you haven’t made sense of all the details yet; it forces you to create a structure for your story. Also, you can talk over ideas that aren’t necessary and don’t make it in the story.


This is definitely one that is designed to make the book better.

Sometimes my editor suggests an editorial note that is a HUGE change. It shuffles lots of scenes around, and if I don’t have an outline, it will be a) really hard to explain how I plan to go about that change; and b) really easy to get lost and confused. These revision outlines in the long run are designed to save everyone time. iIt keeps us from making the wrong revision—a revision that won’t work for the story.

So, for example, in the early drafts of OWAW, the questers visit the UnSeelie court almost as soon as they get to Atlantis. My editor, Courtney, pointed out that this made the beginning of the book take up a lot of time and slow down the plot. So she suggested that we cut that scene entirely.

She was right, of course. However, that meant that I had to make some serious changes, because in that scene, the questers were supposed to learn a few things about Atlantis and the Fey that they didn’t learn during the orientation. Courtney knew deleting this scene would create the need for a major revision, and she was fairly apologetic about it. But I was like, No, you’re right; it’ll make the book better. Let me whip up a revision outline so that you, Jo, and I can take a close look at it and see if that plan is gonna work. 

Then I spent a whole week going on long walks and coming up with good ideas and putting them into an outline.

It was long.

Revision Outline

Revision Outline for OWAW

Details - the OWAW Revision Outline

Details – the OWAW Revision Outline

So, I broke it down chapter by chapter, and I used it to fix up my revision.

Chapter by Chapter - Revision Outlines for OWAW

Chapter by Chapter – Revision Outlines for OWAW

That was probably a MUCH longer explanation of outlining than you were expecting, but it should get everyone a better idea of how I outline. Hopefully, it was a little helpful!

Please feel free to ask any follow-up questions in the comments! (Or just say hi, because I like it when people say hi!)


This post is dedicated to Tasha, because I believe she was the one who asked me about outlining in the first place…way back in February. (Sorry for the delay, Tasha!)


  1. May October 27, 2015
    • Shelby October 30, 2015
  2. Tasha October 28, 2015
    • Shelby October 30, 2015