Outlining, or The Illusion Of Productivity (No wait! I actually have a plan!)

It’s back to school shopping and sale time, which is a very tempting time for writers and for any people who love the feeling of illusory productivity that one can find browsing amongst those items.

I happen to fall into both those categories, though I usually manage to restrain myself fairly well in the back to school sales. That is, mainly to things I actually need – or want – and will eventually use.

set of ten brightly-coloured Sharpie highlighters

My bright and shiny new highlighters!

I picked up a pack of highlighters recently. Note: I don’t really use highlighters. I needed a couple (in different colours) to highlight details more obviously in a proof I was submitting with some paperwork earlier this year and I had to search my house to find any. I finally did, then finally located some that worked in that assortment (one of which was mine, the other two ones my mother used) and got my project done.

It was the first time I’d used a highlighter in probably at least six years, possibly longer. So clearly picking up a pack of highlighters, however pretty – and these are pretty shiny – was the most productive purchase I could have made, right?

(Well, I have needed highlighters this year, several times, weird as that is, and using the mostly-dead ones has really not been that fun. So there’s a smidgen of justification.)

The other justification is . . . I am embarking on an outlining project.

I am embarking on an outlining project. A big one. You may recall, I don’t outline. I’m not very good at it, and it tends not to work out for the best for me as I write even if I struggle through creating one.


This project? It needs one. I have been wanting to revisit and finish a rough version of Elemental Shards. It was my NaNoWriMo project for 2011. (Wait really? 2011? Wow. I feel unproductive that was ages ago.) It was supposed to be a fantasy novel that traded the narrative between nine main characters/storytellers (yes, nine, I know; there is a good reason for that) as it told the story.

Reference notebook and index card with colour key for a NaNoWriMo project.

Original reference notebook for Elemental Shards (NaNo project 2011) along with the colour-reference key for the elements.

It turned into a trilogy under the heading of Elemental Shards, with each book claiming three of the characters who would carry the story (broken into uneven thirds; two small pieces and a final large one). That works well thematically, as the world of Elemental Shards is big on nines, in patterns of three by three. Unfortunately, you know . . . plot gets more complicated when you have not only the big overarching plot – that’s the whole trilogy’s arc – and the mini plot threads underneath, but also a larger plot for each book.

So there’s a lot of layers of plot to be arranged and put in the right places, with the right pieces dropped into the right characters’ parts of the story. Admittedly some of those plot pieces (and even some of the larger plot arcs) I really only know ‘they need to be here’ rather than ‘this is the plot’.

Look, I’ve only written book one of the trilogy thus far, and there was only supposed to be one book originally. . . Also one of the three main characters I’ve written from thus far really took the story and ran with it. I like him, and what he’s done mostly worked – I hope the sixth and ninth main characters will follow his pattern – but it definitely complicated things.

Thus . . . the dreaded (and generally non-workable, for me) outlining project. Thus also the highlighters, and why I bought such a big pack of them. See, I’m thinking for as big a project as this is, I’m going to go to the index cards method (along with the notebook I’ve already got partway filled with Elemental Shards information and notes; as usual when I work on a NaNoNovel). I think I’m going to have to. And Elemental Shards is a world where there are nine elements to which people are dedicated and which govern their world. (Thus why nines are important to them.)

hand-drawn elemental symbols

These are the symbols of each of the nine elements. Note the pattern of three featured in each one. (Look, I’m not an artist, okay? Also pretty sure I drew these at three in the morning on November first.)

I think I need to colour-code the plot arc notes by element. Or possibly main character. (This is super not my game, you know? I haven’t figured it out yet. Fortunately the Plotter Queen of the Ferrets, Rebekah, has offered a bit of advice already. I may make the big sad eyes at her and ask her to let me pick her brain some more as I get started.) Either way, I’ll need nine colours for that . . . if it works out that way. (Each main character is dedicated to a different one of the nine elements, so at least that’s easy enough to figure, whether I divide the plot points by character or element or whatever.)

three character reference index cards; part of an outline for a novel

These are the Main Character reference cards for the first book in the trilogy. The first version. Probably only partially done.

Now let me tell you, nothing reminded me that this is absolutely not my game like just sitting down to make reference cards for the main characters. Only the first three, even, not yet moving into the latter two (as yet unwritten) books. I sat down and looked at the reference notebook pages and the cards and the highlighters and had no idea what to do with them all.

Some of that is because this was my project in 2011 (I still can’t believe it was so long ago) and I haven’t touched it in quite some time, the facts and characters are rather fuzzy in my head; some of it is really simply because I have no idea how to manage this kind of plotting and reference material. Not in general and certainly not in such a way that it works for me personally.

Now if you thought I was going to have some stunning advice for anyone else who plots (or lack thereof) the way I do and yet has found themselves in a project which needs a concrete outline. . . I apologise sincerely. I haven’t any. I haven’t even figured out the basics for myself yet. But I’m trying!

I promise, if I discover any amazing secrets for the non-outliner in my quest to make this trilogy happen, I will be sure to share them.


If you are, like me, definitely not an outliner, have you ever had a project where you had to work one up – and work off of it – for your plot? If you’re a hardcore outline-writer, have you ever had a project that you needed to work on without an outline and just had to go with it?


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