Category Archives: Outlining

New Tech Tools and Templates

I found a new fascination this weekend. On the recommendation of a new author friend, I took another look at the program called Notion. I’d heard about it before but didn’t really understand the full capability of the software. Now, I get it.

This tool is a powerful combination of databases and freeform storage, and it’s a perfect fit for building and incredibly versatile novel or series bible (aka a place for you to keep track of everything you create so you don’t forget details along the way.)

To teach myself how to use this program, I built a blank template I can use for my own stories, and I wanted to share it here with a general overview of how to navigate the program and my own template. Feel free to copy the template and make changes so it can better fit your needs! Also, the free version of the program is more than enough for most user’s needs. You can also use Notion’s Guides and Tutorials section for more detailed walkthroughs on the specific functions within the program.

Now, an introduction to the Novel Notes template in Notion.

This is the template’s landing page and the main navigation point for the whole tool

The customizable blank pages can be adjusted to fit a wide variety of needs. I set up this template to highlight the key description of the story, a callout for important notes or reminders, and the navigation links to the rest of the pages in the tool. This should allow for easy access to all the information within the tool.

This shows a section with character cards, and spaces for overview information on the book(s).

Because Notion also incorporates robust database tools, it allows for comprehensive information organization and various ways to view/sort that info. In this template, I highlight the character descriptions with a “Board” view of the character database. This essentially gives each character a card that displays the reference photo (if you choose to upload one) and whichever key details you choose. Databases also include a tagging system that can help you keep even extensive cast lists or outlines organized.

The actual database view of the character list

Here’s what the actual database looks like for the character sheet. It’s essentially a fancy spreadsheet. What’s special about a database versus a spreadsheet is the type of information you can put in each cell, the powerful filter/sort functions, and the easy way you can link information from one table to another. These information links are called relations or references. Notion usually calls them relations. As an example of what you can do with these links, I usually link the characters to my outline database so I know who appears in each chapter.

When you open a record, you have even more space to add information.

Each row in a table can also be called a “record”. In Notion, when you hover over the first cell in the row, you’ll see a button appear that says “Open”. Clicking on this will open the view shown in the image above, and with the space provided here, you can include a TON of additional information in the open space at the bottom of the page where it says “Press Enter to continue with an empty page, or create a template.” Nothing entered in that space will appear within the table or in any view you create (like the Board view shown in an earlier image), but it is the perfect place to go into lengthy detail about the character, chapter, etc. you’re trying to track. As a bonus, this section acts exactly like the main page, so you can add images, create lists, link to other pages, or any number of things.

Add images to create an inspiration board or to remind yourself of key details within the story.

Back on the main page, the last feature I included is space for an inspiration board. Notion links directly to Unsplash, so you can choose images found on that site or you can upload your own. By dragging and dropping, you can reorganize the pictures and add or remove the number of columns in each row.

And that’s it! At least in the most general sense. Below are some details on each of the other sections within the template and why they’re included.

Outline –

This is mostly self-explanatory, but most people don’t outline in a database, so I’ll explain a little bit about why this is a pretty cool option. With the database tools, an outline can link directly to your characters (so you know who appears where), your timeline (so you know when everything is happening), your research (so you always have access to the right information), and your quotes (so you know when you referenced some clue or description or detail).

Plot Notes –

I usually leave this as a more freeform page, so this is where I write out my summary and synopsis, map out plot beats, scribble down revision notes, or anything else I need to keep track of.

Glossary –

This is going to be most useful for those writing something within speculative fiction in which you need to invent words, phrases, and place names. This database helps track the meanings of those words and can give you space to remind yourself how you came up with it, too. If needed, you can also link this to other databases (like the outline or character list) if you want to track where the words are used or who says it.

Timeline –

If you’re using a regular Gregorian calendar (the one that’s the official calendar most people use on a daily basis), the timeline function within Notion can be a good way to track events and dates. If you’re writing speculative fiction with an alternative calendar, you might have to get creative in how you use this feature, but it still could be useful. For example, you could simply use it to track the number of days between events or how long certain journey takes, etc.

Quotes and Notes –

I started using this tool when I was writing my last series and was having a hard time remembering how I’d described certain things (like important rooms and technology I invented) and when I’d referenced details that laid down key clues. Tracking them in a sheet like this gave me an easy way to remember who, what, where, when, why, and how of my own story. Which is good, because I don’t trust my own memory for anything.

Research –

Speaking of not trusting my own memory, I tend to be a bit overzealous wen tracking my research. When I look up information on websites, I tend to copy the whole site into my notes so I always have it for reference. I save PDF copies of articles, copy photos off the internet, and download anything I think I might need again later. Putting it all in a database like this makes it SO MUCH EASIER to find things when I need it.

Progress Tracking –

For those who are motivated by seeing their progress laid out in front of them, this sheet can help you keep track of how much you’re writing and when. With the use of tags, it can also track progress along stages of the process (drafting versus editing, for example) and give you a solid view of exactly how much work you’ve put into the story.

And that’s it! Hopefully this helps. Happy writing, all!

A permanent state of overwhelm.

Had meeting with my editresses this weekend. They asked lots of questions and made lots of suggestions on the structure and shape of The Dream War Saga series. I went into state of complete overwhelm. In fact, I feel something like these girls (aka my sisters) about to be sucked in and swept away by the Pacific:

Seriously. This happened. Read about it here.

This isn’t the first time I’ve felt this way with this series. Now I’m beginning to think that this state of overwhelm is going to be a near-constant thing in the career path I have chosen. In fact, I’m thinking that, without it, you’re probably not doing your job as well as you could be. At least, I think that might be true for me. Not if I’m working with people who are really going to challenge me.

A good editor/critique partner will not only say, “I liked this and I didn’t like that,” they’ll look at the world you created, see that dark corner you left unexplored, point at it, and then say, “Well, what about going in that direction?”

Maybe that new direction will be a good one, maybe it won’t be. Maybe the path will suddenly open up before you lit with streetlights and marked with road signs and maybe you’ll have to hack your way through underbrush to get where you want to go. Either way, even if you feel completely overwhelmed by the amount of work before you, I can almost guarantee your story will be better for it. And, honestly, isn’t that the point?

At this time last year I was…

Agenda 3 (c) Dragan Rusov

For some reason it hit me yesterday that a year has passed.

“Well, of course it has,” you say. “Technically a year has passed every single day.”

True, but it’s more significant this month, at least to me. This is National Novel Writing Month and this is the month where everything started changing for the better very quickly in my life.

Quickly is a relative word, especially when we’re talking about writing and the publication process, but looking back I have to admit that everything did happen very fast. “How so?” you ask. To illustrate, here’s a recap of my year from November 2011 to November 2012:

November 2011: Begin writing novel version of Sing, Sweet Nightingale for NaNoWriMo
December 2011: Go back through SSN and make significant changes because, you know, first drafts and all.
January 2012: Frantically try to polish first 30 pages to submit to writing contests; squeeze in under the deadline of said contests and then try to forget I entered them
February 2012: Begin planning trip to BEA in NYC
March 2012: Find out SSN is a finalist in one of the previously mentioned contests
April 2012: Finalize plans for BEA 2012
May 2012: My birthday! Also, I find out SSN won the Marlene Award!
June 2012: Attend BEA. Crash a party at Lani Woodland’s insistence. Meet Danielle and Patricia. Send Danielle and Patricia my book. Have first Skype call with Danielle and Patricia about possible revisions.
July 2012: SSN officially becomes a future publication from Spencer Hill Press!
August 2012: Get so-called preliminary edit instructions that somehow turn into a rewrite project. Spend month stressing.
September 2012: See August
October 2012: Send SSN revision off to betas and CPs. Breathe sigh of relief. Later this month, spend ten hours in one week on Skype with Lani plotting books 2 and 3. Even later this month, do more tweaks on SSN and send book plus new outlines plus notes plus other random goodies to Danielle and Patricia
November 2012: Send EVEN MORE goodies to Danielle and Patricia. Wait with barely concealed anticipation/eagerness/terror/etc. for scheduled editorial Skype chat. Also, begin NaNo, this time working on three projects at once including the as yet untitled Dream War Saga Book 2.

That has been my writing-related year. I did other things too–finish first drafts of two different contemporary YA projects I really love, write a short story in TDWS universe, connect with the amazing Twitterverse of writerly people, and other things I can’t even think of right now–but the timeline above are my big moments and why realizing a year has passed since last November is a nostalgic moment for me. November is also the home of Thanksgiving (my favorite holiday!), so I wanted to take this time to have a gratefulness moment. Sometimes it may feel like the ultimate goal (holding a physical copy of my book) is so far away, but at least the end is finally in sight. I’m working with editors I adore and I have a support network who is amazing. All-in-all, this past year has been very good for me. I’m even on track to knock out most of my New Years Resolutions! 2012 was great, 2013 will be even better, and I have high hopes that 2014 will be a banner year!

Don’t forget to enjoy the moment you’re in. You never know when you’ll suddenly be standing a year in the future going, “Wow. Remember when…?”

You should usually try things more than once.

Lost1 by Sanja Gjenero
Lost 1 (c) Sanja Gjenero

As of last night, book 2 of The Dream War Saga has a plot! Well, it’s had a plot for a while, but it was more like a vague, “I know this stuff needs to happen somewhere in this book” kind of plot. Now it has chapters and everything! The gloriously wonderful Lani Woodland spent HOURS with me on Skype this week going through the story chapter by chapter to help me flesh out the ideas and figure out where I needed more meat on my skeleton of a novel. I’m kind of ridiculously excited by what we came up with! Things will probably change along the way, but in my humble opinion, my as yet unnamed book 2 will be freaking EPIC. 😉

Some of the ideas that now play an integral part to this completely epic plot probably wouldn’t have been born without Lani or the order to provide an outline to my editresses by the middle of next month. While I have used outlines before, overall, I’m not an outliner. I think that’s mostly because I’ve never tried outlining while bouncing ideas off someone else. When I’m sitting there staring at a chapter by chapter outline, nothing comes. Seriously, nothing. It’s frustrating and annoying and makes me want to avoid writing completely because if I can’t even come up with ideas how the hell am I going to build a career as an author? And I don’t like feeling like that. When I have someone to talk to who asks questions and makes suggestions and gets my brain working, though, I end up with an entire plot in about eight hours.

So here’s my advice: Try things at least twice. Preferably three times. If you don’t like a method or idea the first time, fine. Go back to the way you’ve been doing things and let it rest for a while. Try it again, but change it up somehow. Approach it from a different direction. Still doesn’t work? That’s fine. If you can come up with a third alternative approach, try that before giving it up entirely. If not, maybe this idea/method/whatever isn’t for you. And that’s okay. Not everything is going to be. The important part is getting words down on paper that make your heart beat faster and tears well in your eyes. As long as you can do that, the how doesn’t matter so much.

Good times they are a’comin’!

Jumping Man (c) Asif Akbar

Yesterday, out of the blue, I heard from both of my editors! We’re finally getting close to the time when I have full permission to pelt them with questions and revisions and ideas and new plot points and anything else that pops into my head! I am so excited about this it’s kinda ridiculous. What’s even more exciting is that their texts perfectly coincided with my day-of-final-tweaks on SSN. Yesterday (excepting the three-hour break after a rodent electrocuted itself in my backyard and blew our transformer–yes, really), I went through SSN with my CP’s notes and made little changes per their suggestions. Now I just have to go back through it one last time before I can send it to Danielle and Patricia and start holding my breath in hopes they like the changes I’ve made. Cause they are numerous. And important. And OMG. O.O! Please, please, please like the changes!

I love my editor’s idea to have the entire series planned out before SSN releases. I’m also very happy they intend to help me do that because I am so not a plotter. Most of the time, I have an overview in my head and let things unfold from there. It’ll be an interesting experiment working with an outlined story. The closest I’ve come to this before is when I turned the short story version of SSN into a novel. But even then I had to expand it so much from the core idea it was almost like writing an entirely new story.

Updates on progress shall continue here throughout the publication process with as many details as possible. I really can’t wait until I can share real things like cover copy or, you know, a cover. Which I don’t have yet so don’t hold your breath for that one. The release date is still so far away it’ll be a while before any of that happens, but you can always check back here for updates and you should definitely consider adding Sing, Sweet Nightingale to read on Goodreads!

Okay, self-promotion over. The next six months will be full of amazing writerly things and I’m all atwitter to dive into it. I have new projects in the works and heavy edits to look forward to. All I have to figure out is how to fit it all in.

Wish me luck!

Writing: The Process

Writing is work. Anyone who says otherwise is either lying or selling something.

That being said, how do you get from concept to finished first draft? I’m not talking about polished, ready to publish, amazingly perfect writing, just a first draft that includes a beginning, middle, and end as well as all the important elements of a good novel. Even Aristotle said so. 🙂

This is a question almost every author gets. I heard it asked during the event with Christopher Paolini and it’s been on my mind recently, hence the post. Thus far, for every book I’ve started or finished, my process has been different. Some ideas come to be with the larger story arc already in place and all I have to do is fill in the details. Others appear only as an image or scene and I have to go back through that scene with a million questions to try to see where these characters have come from and where they’re going. Sometimes I outline, sometimes I don’t. Maybe one day I’ll have a system that I employ for every book, but I find that doubtful. It kind of feels as likely as saying I’m going to follow the same routine every day for the rest of my life. Of course I’m not. No one is. Every day is different just like every book is different.

Sing, Sweet Nightingale, for example, started life as a short story. It then became two short stories. Now, it’s becoming a novel. Later, it might become a series. For this particular story, I never had an outline. I have notes now and I’m doing a lot of research into different things I will be using in the novel, but my short story versions are serving as my outline. I’ve found this to be SO INCREDIBLY USEFUL. And it’s probably going to be as close to a “process” as I get if I manage to repeat this life-cycle with the sequel. Even if I don’t repeat this system, it’s not the important part.

The important part is sitting down and writing, refusing to let procrastination and over-planning keeping you from the business of telling the story you need to tell. As long as you do that, does HOW you get there really matter?

What about you? Does anyone have a tried and tested system that gets them through that first draft with their sanity still intact?

Writing: My NaNoWriMo Novel

Remember that NaNoWriMo novel I mentioned yesterday? I think my participation is becoming more compulsory because I officially have 10,094 words. Right now, looking at that total (the sum of only two days of work), I’m having a hard time believing it. 

At the same time, I shouldn’t be quite so shocked. I know by now how my writing happens: in strange, unpredictable bursts fueled by a random idea or inspired moment. If that jolt of inspiration stays with me, I can shoot through a novel like a bullet train. If I only envision a particular scene, the going gets a lot tougher. This process is why part of me dreads working under contract and deadline. The writing I don’t do while inspired, the stuff I plug onto the keyboard just to get a word count, usually sucks.

Luckily, in this particular case, I have practically the entire book figure out already. Not just figured out, but planned, investigated, questioned, fleshed out, and outlined (in a sense). Although I do need to grow the story, change certain details and certain reasonings that won’t work in this new format, the bulk of the story is there, ready for me to write. What does this mean for you? That I’ll probably be posting about my progress a lot this month and won’t post about any of the books I planned to read and review until December. Maybe even January. I’m considering posting a word count meter on the sidebar, but I have to find one first.

All in all, this much progress so fast is extremely exciting and a little nerve wrecking. Can I keep this pace up through the whole book? I really hope so. I guess we’ll see, though, won’t we?

Edited to add: Found a really great, simple meter! Progress is now being monitored on the sidebar.

Writing: Series Issues

I know that it’s been a while since I’ve had a post on writing, so I kind of feel like it’s overdue. Luckily, I ran across something in my own work that sparked an idea for a blog. I know. You’re on the edge of your seat in anticipation! 😉

As most of you know, I’m working on a four book series, the first of which is tentatively titled Fallen. I finished it last August (August 2nd, 2007 at 2:12 a.m., to be exact) and have been slowly working on the sequel, tentatively titled Guardian, since then. While I had an outline for the book before I began writing it, it was very vague–my writing style (so far) works better when I have a generalized, chapter-by-chapter outline to keep me on track and fill in the details as I go. This meant that I knew how the second book was going to end, but i wasn’t precisely sure how the characters were going to get there. This is where the problem came in.

In chapter 12 of Guardian, something happens to one of the characters (yes, I am going to be that ambiguous) that made me realize that there were details–major, key, ultra-super-could-be-amazingly-important details–missing from Fallen. Oh. Crap. Not only has Fallen been complete for months, it’s being shopped with agents right now. (If you are one of the agents with my book, I am completely confident in the story as it is, I have simply found a way to make it even better. Writing is constant revision, right?)

So what can you learn from this? That nothing is finished until it’s published. Nothing. And even published works go through editions which sometimes involve changes. Usually not narrative changes (in fact, that is probably against the rules), but still. I’m getting off track. The other thing that you can learn is how to avoid issues like this. There are a few options:

1– Incredibly detailed, fully realized, character involved outlines of the entire series before you even start writing the first one. This involves research, worldbuilding, character development, and dedication. Time consuming, yes, but worth it in the end because all the prep work has been condensed and completed.

2– Write the entire series before sending the first one out for publication. This may not be feasible if you’re planning a ten book epic thriller fantasy mystery series that spans the length of space and time itself, but if you’re working on a trilogy or a quadrilogy (yes, it is a real word. I looked it up and everything), it’s possible. Even, perhaps, preferable.

3– Don’t write a series. Self-explanatory, I think.

The point is, don’t let it discourage you. I used to be amazed when authors mentioned something in book one and it suddenly became extraordinarily significant in book three, but now I know that they just worked their @$es off to build a world and a story that was as complex as the one we live in today. Writing a book like that is not only possible, but achievable. You just have to be willing to put in the time.

Outlining: The Good, the Bad, and the Helpful

I used to hate brainstorming. Do you remember those days in elementary school when the teacher would set aside time in the day for you to create Venn diagrams and outlines and idea trees? I despised those days. I couldn’t understand why people needed to do that or how it helped them. If the teacher wanted a report about whales, that’s what I would give them. Who needed planning?

This attitude followed me through most of my academic life. I didn’t outline for papers or creative projects, and my planning involved research or locating sources and little else. But then my papers began to become more complex, and I was forced to pull from a wider variety of references. Suddenly, I needed something to keep me focused, to keep my mind off the tangential paths my thought process was prone to—I began to outline.

At first, these outlines were incredibly minimalistic things that simply helped me keep the sources and main points of the paper in some kind of order, but, eventually, they included quotes I wanted to use, example, topic sentences, and, occasionally, entire paragraphs.

I know what you’re thinking: “That’s great, but what does all that have to do with fiction?”


How much more complex is a story than a research paper? Stories have characters, plots, sub-plots, histories, scenes, settings…basically, everything and anything you can think of. Keeping everything straight can be a chore, especially if you’re working on more than one story at once. Outlines can help you keep from losing track of both your story and your mind.

Some people believe that outlining takes the spontaneity and creativity out of writing, but that’s not at all the case. How, except with an outline, do people expect writers to keep track of the main plot (or main plots, in some cases) and characters while simultaneously weaving in references to minor characters and subplots? For most people, trying to do this spontaneously results in either a confusing mess or the complete inability to finish the story (or, at least, it does for me. If you’ve found some genius spontaneous method, let me know!)

Bad news first: outlining is hard work and (usually_ only works if you know your characvters really well. Why? Because you have to be able to predict or anticipate what your character’s natural reaction to a situation would be without seeing it in a scene. A lot of time could be wasted if you don’t know or misjudge your characters, especially in crucial scenes. But getting into your character’s head is a whole other entry (coming soon, promise!).

So, assuming you know your characters and you have an idea of where you want the book to end, how do you actually go about outlining? That is, thankfully, up to you. Here are a few possibilities:

Outlining by Chapter

1. The Beginning
    a. Mary-Sue is on her way to work when someone crashes into her.
    b. Joe Schmo, the driver of the other car, apologizes
    c. Mary-Sue cries over her wrecked car
    d. Joe offers her a ride to work—his truck is fine.
2. The Chat
    a. Mary-Sue and Joe talk on the drive
    b. Mary-Sue realizes that Joe is her long-lost brother
    c. Mary-Sue decides not to say anything in case she’s wrong
    d. Joe drops her off at work and gives her his phone number.

Outlining by Event

I. Accident: While on her way to work, Mary-Sue is bumped into the guardrail by a truck. She is okay but her car is totaled.
II. Aftermath: After the cops say they can go and her car is towed, Joe Schmo offers her a ride to work.
III. Coincidence: As they talk, Mary-Sue realizes Joe is her long-lost brother
IV. Goodbye: Joe giver her his number when he drops her off at work.

Outlining by Idea

I. Mary-Sue gets in an accident.
II. The guy who hit her is her long-lost brother.
III. She realizes this, but doesn’t say anything.
IV. Joe Schmo drops her off at work.

These are just three choices, but there are a myriad of other possibilities. Outlines can be detailed or vague. They can be broken by chapter or not. Exactly how you format your outline is up to you (personally, I use the Chapter method).

One last thing that is very important to keep in mind is that, until the book is published, nothing is set in stone. Just because it’s on the outline doesn’t mean it has to happen in that specific spot, or at all. If, while you’re writing, the story veers off in an unexpected direction, go with it! If it doesn’t work out, you always have that old outline to fall back on.