On Outlining and Not


I can’t decide if I’m late or early on this post. The main problem is that I’m on the road with the family and time has become . . . fluid.

I want to talk to Diana Pharaoh Francisyou about plotting. When I first started writing, I would create an outline. It wasn’t a really in-depth outline. It usually covered the beginning, the major plot points, and the ending. One thing to remember about plot is that it’s a causal sequence of events. Causal is important, because in my plotting, I’d know why a character did something and how that ended up creating the next plot point, and so on. So when plotting, I’d start with the characters and the world, and I’d stir up some trouble, and think how they dealt with that, and what that caused, and so on. I usually would have some sort of main event or problem that I knew I wanted them to deal with. Because of that, I’d have to backfill on the motivations, and the events leading up to that point, and then after, proceed as usual. Sometimes I’d know the ending, so the backfill was about how to get there. Trace of Magic - 600x900x300

Sounds pretty easy, right?

It used to be. But now my head refuses to let that happen. I have the worst time creating plot before I write. I often don’t know the ending. This kills me. I’m always uncertain that the story will be interesting enough or having enough going on. I’m never sure where I’m writing to. And even if I do have a plot point or peg that I’m writing toward, I often can’t figure out the backfill. I’m an incredibly linear writer, so getting that done is crucial so I know where I’m going to go.

I’m not saying I get writer’s block, but I am saying that I’m writing on faith a lot: faith in myself that I’m enough of a storyteller to create a good tale, and faith in myself that everything will all come together in the end. There is one thing that helps to some extent, and that is concentrating on writing the next scene, the next moment, and let that just come out. I’m writing the sequel right now to Trace of Magic (did you see the cover??? Do you like it?) and I’m having to use this method. When I do, my lizard brain kicks into action and ideas happen and I figure out a few steps ahead and then a few more. I create a depth of scene and character in those moments and let them flesh themselves out. This seems to work, but it is incredibly frustrating.

I’ve tried a bunch of techniques for sorting through this better. I’ve used Tarot Cards, a kind of quick plot design method created by Mark Teppo, timelines, a murder board, and so on. I just am having trouble creating that causal sequence and figuring out how the characters would work through events. I can’t seem to force it, no matter how hard I try. Apparently this is my process now. Hopefully it will change for the better later. For now, I’ll embrace it and run with it the best that I’m able.


You can preorder Trace of Magic now on Kindle. More formats will follow, including Nook, but it’s not posted up there yet. The book releases on August 29th.

Got questions?? Ask away!


The Biography of Me: I didn’t start out to be a writer. I was a storyteller from as far back as I can remember, and a daydreamer of epic stories, but it never occurred to me to write anything down. I read voraciously, but I wasn’t one of those people who said–hey! I could do this! Or even, this is so awful I could do better. I marveled at writers and thought of writing as something other people did. I did try my hand at some really horrible poetry in my senior year of high school. It was dramatic and bleak and world-tiltingly awful. When I got to college, I did poorly in my freshman comp class. I wrote in purple prose and use twenty words for what I could say in two. I loved language, but I didn’t really have much control over it. Then I took a creative writing class. It was awful. Total slaughter. I had caught the bug, though, and from there on out, I wrote. Eventually I wrote a really bad romance and finished it. I finished it! I could do that! And then I went to graduate school and another graduate school, got married, had dogs, had kids, went to work professing, and kept writing. Finally I had my first book accepted and I’ve been writing ever since.

As far as the prosaic stuff goes, I like to crochet, bake bread, spoil corgis, eat chocolate, sing to the radio, pretend to play tennis, geocache, crochet, and garden. Though I really hate weeding. I also like to make my hair purple with some frequency. You can find me on twitter as @dianapfrancis and my website at www.dianapfrancis.com or on facebook.


9 comments to On Outlining and Not

  • “Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations.”
    — Ray Bradbury

    Me, I don’t do plots. I run frantically after my characters scribbling notes about whatever they just did.

  • Reziac: lately that’s what I’ve been doing and I just wish my brain would be a tiny bit more forthcoming.

  • Interesting: We each have to find our own unique way to write our stories. So, question: Why do we expect the process to be the same each time? Formulas are for math class.

  • xmanpub: I have no idea. And what’s rotten is that the process is now settling into pantsing, which is not what makes me happy. But it is working, I think. But you are absolutely right. We have to trust the process we have and embrace it.

  • quillet

    I’ve heard/read some authors say that each book is a different beast, and each one demands a different way of working. So you never know, this non-outlining thing might change with the next book?

    I’d really love to hear how you use tarot cards to help you plot. Choose cards randomly and see what ideas are sparked? Or choose cards deliberately to represent steps in the plot? Or do spreads for your characters, pretend to tell their future? …Hmm, all of that sounds like fun. 🙂

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Not that such speculation is necessarily helpful, but I think that if it were me and my writing giving me that sort of trouble that it would mean I was dealing with some sort of brain exhaustion. After I finished grad-school I could not *bear* the thought of doing day-job work after hours anymore. I had been working on my thesis *all* the time for so many months (and seen my then-toddler withdrawing from me as a result) that even the thought of doing it *one* night as an exception was just too horrible. Two years later, I find I can now bear the thought, though it’s not yet something I’ve had to actually test. Similarly, I have some work weeks when I have to *really* focus and think for my day job for long stretches and I come home completely exhausted – but if I then go to my martial-arts class I find I am suddenly alert and happy, because I am in a completely different brain space than my usual stressors.

    Again, probably not a helpful ramble on my part, but maybe your brain is just seeking rest or change? And those things are definitely achievable.

  • Quillet: I can hope, can’t I? There’s a spread that I learned that is useful for plot building. I can’t remember what it’s called, but maybe I”ll do my next post on that. I used it to get so far into a book, then used it again to develop ideas for the next bit of book. Sometimes I do a three card spread to see if the three give me ideas for the next bit of plot. It will often work. The nice thing is that the various ways of reading a card give a lot of options, and I have several different decks so that if one doesn’t spark something, another might.

  • Hepseba: You are actually probably well on target. I left a fairly toxic job last year and moved, and that was good, but then my son got sick and has been sick for nine months with no diagnosis. So this mind problem started when I was at the toxic place, and has continued. For a brief window before my son got sick, I wrote with incredible merry passion despite not knowing the end. So I totally embraced it. I’m hoping to get that back. I wish I knew how to meditate. Exercise helps if I remember and make myself do it.