Thoughts on outlining

I’m on track to finish my fifth novel in a couple days, and surprisingly, the writing has been going very smoothly.

Usually by this point, my eyes are bleeding and I feel as if I have a hundred caltrops in my pants.  Finishing a rough draft is still the hardest part for me, since by the end everything seems to suck and I just want to trash the whole project.

I still feel a little bit of that with Into the Nebulous Deep, but not nearly as much as with my previous stuff.  Part of that is probably because I feel confident that I can fix whatever I screw up, but the other part probably has to do with the way I’ve learned to outline.  In one short sentence, here’s what I’ve learned:

An outline is simply the story you tell yourself to help you tell the story.

I don’t think there’s any mortal writer on this planet who can keep a whole novel in their head at one time.  Scenes, yes; chapters, maybe; novels, absolutely not.

However, since everyone’s creative mind works a little differently, everyone has to find the process that works for them.  Brandon Sanderson, for example, writes story bibles that are almost 100k words long.  If I were to try to do that, I’d get bored halfway through and spend the rest of the day dorking around on youtube.  Other people prefer to fly by the seat of their pants, and while there’s something to say about trusting your subconscious, I need a little structure to keep from getting totally lost.

It took me a while to figure out the process that best works for me, but based on how ITND has been going, I think I’ve hit my stride.  Breaking it down into plot, setting, and character, here’s how I basically do it:


For me, the basic plot of the story comes in a flash of creative insight once all the ideas in my head have reached a critical mass.  It’s like watching a fissure shoot across a smashed window pane, or lightning arcing from the ground to the sky.

If I don’t have time to start the project right away, I’ll let the plot mull around in my head for a couple days, then open up notepad and free write the basic structure of the story in an unedited stream of consciousness.  When I do start the project, I’ll look back to the free write to refresh my memory, but otherwise work out of what’s in my head (which may have changed).

While the project is ongoing, I’ll divide the whole novel into parts, chapters, and scenes.  For the chapter I’m currently working on, I’ll have the various scenes listed in bold with their corresponding point of view character (eg: “1.1: James“), followed by a brief one or two line description of the action and plot significance.  If I introduce a new character in that scene, I’ll write their name in ALL CAPS (I believe that’s a screenwriting convention I picked up from my old college roommate).

For chapters I haven’t written yet, I just write a few lines of description for what I envision happening in them.  When I first start out, I usually have a clear idea where I want the story to end, but I don’t bother outlining all the stuff in the middle since that usually changes based on stuff that comes before.  I only keep my outline a few chapters ahead of where I currently am, and may change things completely if something new comes up.

This process works very well for me.  I use it for every draft, and refer to it often.


I’ve found that I need to do a lot more outlining to figure out my characters than I do with my plot.  However, it’s like Tracy Hickman said with the marbles: don’t hold onto your outline too tight, or all the marbles will slip out between your fingers.

The things I absolutely need to know about my characters are:

  • back story
  • motivations
  • first impressions
  • flaws & handicaps
  • strengths & advantages
  • why the reader should care about / sympathize with them

For some odd reason, I find it most helpful to write this out longhand, usually while taking a walk.  For additional help, sometimes I’ll take a personality test on behalf of my character and get a handle on them through their personality type; for that, I prefer the Meyers-Briggs typology.

But once I feel I have a solid handle on a character, I’ll throw everything out if it feels instinctively right for a character to do something completely different.  Thing is, I need the outline (especially the motivations and back story) to get to the point where I know the character well enough to let them take over.

And for some reason, all my main characters feel too…generic.  I’m not sure why, but that’s something I’ve got to work on.


Setting, for me, is all about discovery writing.  I’ve tried using wikidpad to worldbuild my universe before I start, but that’s never worked.  Instead, I daydream a lot and trust my subconscious to give me what I need when I need it.

That’s not to say I don’t do research–just that most of my research is on the fly.  If I only stay on wikipedia and the footnotes and references, no problem; if I get sidetracked on facebook, however…

Often, when I’m doing setting descriptions, I’ll run a quick google image search to pull up pictures to give me a better visual idea of what I’m describing.  I especially use this for clothing; that’s why, if you check my search history (please don’t), you’ll find all these weird, girly terms like “ottoman dress,” “jumpsuit,” “leather jerkin,” and “full frontal snogging” (whoops, where did THAT come from??).

The big problem is when I figure something at the beginning of the book and then forget about it halfway through.  For that reason, I should probably invest in a good copy editor when I start to publish.  I should also take the time to draw out a starmap, since it’s getting REALLY hard for me to remember where the Belarian system is in relation to Tajjur and Karduna Prime…hmm…

I should probably figure out a better system to keep track of my settings, but as far as outlining them goes, the less the better.  I love waving my hand and creating stuff–it’s one of the main reasons why I’m a science fiction writer.

So anyways, that’s more or less the outlining system I currently use.  I might end up outgrowing certain aspects of it, or finding a better system, but this is what works best for me now.

Of course, I still have a lot to learn.

Author: Joe Vasicek

Joe Vasicek is the author of more than twenty science fiction books, including the Star Wanderers and Sons of the Starfarers series. As a young man, he studied Arabic and traveled across the Middle East and the Caucasus. He claims Utah as his home.

One thought on “Thoughts on outlining”

  1. I have used a slightly different outlining system for every book I’ve done, because I use one system, write the book, and then think, “Man, I wish I’d outlined like THIS” and I apply that to the next time out outline. For a time, I felt inadequate that I didn’t have a consistent system that I could call my own, but then I realized that the inconsistency WAS my system.

    On that note, I’m stealing your stream-of-consciousness plotting idea. I don’t know when, but I’m stealing it.

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