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Planning & Outlining a Novel

I got some questions on social media about how I outline, so I thought I'd make a large post about my process.

A forever disclaimer: Everyone's writing process is different. I'm sharing what I do in case it helps others, not because I think this is the "right" way.

A smaller disclaimer: I went through a long trial and error process. This post focuses on the things that worked, not on what catastrophically failed. But please know: I catastrophically failed. And then I tried again and again until I figured out what to do. I didn't learn my process in one sitting, so don't stress if you don't either.

Planning the first draft

Before I start writing, I don't list every single thing that needs to happen in the story. Instead, I focus on story beats.

A beat is a moment in the story. If you want to get specific, I plan my beats around Blake Snyder's Save the Cat, which is an awesome plotting resource. I also use Gwen Hayes's Romancing the Beat as a resource for romantic plots or subplots.

The bottom line: I plan big story moments to hit, which I organize in a spreadsheet.

Here's what the spreadsheet for Under No Illusions looks like:

  • The first two columns are the Save the Cat beat I'm trying to hit. The last column is the Romancing the Beat beat. (Please pause to laugh about beat beat.)

  • The description is a brief idea of what I want to happen.

  • The notes are any other things I want to remember while I'm writing; they usually get tacked on later.

My outlines are never perfect. It's okay if I don't know everything exactly, or if some of the descriptions are vague, like "they argue" or "she leaves." Often, my descriptions have more than one option. Even more often they're littered with profanity and memes because hey! This isn't serious! The whole point is to get an understanding of the story structure so I don't get lost while drafting.

First Drafting

Other than aesthetic boards, playlists, and ranting in my writing discord server, planning my beats is the only thing I'll do before diving into the first draft.

A fact about me: I'm a chaotic first drafter. I'll axe characters, switch narrative POVs, write summaries in brackets...I'll do whatever it takes to get from start to finish. My first drafts are more like glorified brainstorming documents, otherwise, my nasty perfectionist side rears its ugly head.

Before I first-draft a scene, I'll write a quick bullet-point list of what I want to happen based on the story beat I need to hit. I don't hold myself to the outline; it's just a way to stop myself from getting stuck.


After I finish a draft, the first thing I do is figure out what I actually wrote. This sounds like a job for a spreadsheet!

This is the spreadsheet I used to re-outline Shark's Eye:

  • For the summary, I skimmed each chapter and summarized what I'd written on my spreadsheet.

  • Shark's Eye had a few reveals I wanted to keep track of, so I added a column for foreshadowing and motifs so I could see where I'd dropped hints.

  • The notes section was anything I wanted to change for the next draft.

  • Word count is self explanatory. I didn't worry too much about this in my early drafting stages, but it was a way to spot red flags.

Shark's Eye needed a ton of restructuring after the first draft. (I had to write a POV narrator out of the story. Yikes.) I made a new tab on my spreadsheet and rearranged the scenes the way I wanted them to appear in the next draft. I also wrote descriptions of new scenes I needed to write and new versions of scenes I wanted to change.

Second Drafting

...was a little bit of first drafting. I started by rearranging my draft so the scenes were in the right order. Then, I wrote any brand new scenes before I made chapter-by-chapter revisions. Once I was done, it was time for...

Re-Outlining 2: Electric Boogaloo

Yep. I did the same thing I'd done before, only this time, my spreadsheet was a little more detailed.

The first part of the spreadsheet was the same: chapter and description of what I'd already written.

I added some more columns based on details I wanted to track:

  • Location is self-explanatory.

  • Character intro is also self-explanatory. I heavily re-outlined this story, which is why I added both of these columns to keep track of when I introduced certain things.

  • Magic could've been called "plot." This is where I listed what plot exposition was given in each chapter to avoid leaving things out or being redundant.

  • I added a column for each main character to track descriptions and development.

  • Notes & word count were the same as before. (Fun fact: The present version of this chapter is about 4k words. Amazing what changes in editing.)

And then I wrote a third draft

After this point, I got started getting feedback, and I found it easier to make notes directly on my document rather than on the spreadsheet.


Even if this isn't the way you plan, I hope my explanation helped to spark some ideas. Happy writing!

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