#marywrites: Outlines

I think I talk about writing a fair amount on the blog, and while I recognize that most of what I talk about is reading, I’m trying to actively talk more about writing since I’ve got some goals this year.

  1. Edit sister witches 1 & 2 into final drafts.
  2. Write the first draft of sister witches 3, which will complete the trilogy.
  3. Write the first draft of vampire detective.
  4. Write the first draft (FINALLY) of Mason.

Okay, so, I linked my goals post AND copy & pasted my writing goals, whatever. I also really need to do a quarterly goals check-in, so uh, someone hold me accountable for that next month. I’m actually doing pretty good on these, too, because SW1 is currently with my critique partner, Chelsea, and she’s asking all the hard-hitting questions so that I can make it glorious in the next round of edits, and SW2 is done and edited into a first draft, so we’re chugging right along.

However, a few weeks ago, I posted this.

SW2, fondly referred to as monsters included, wrapped up, and it was a cliffhanger ending, so I immediately wanted to dive straight into the third one. But it’s the last in the trilogy, so it’s going to require some forethought before we get there. And then I got to thinking. I’ve talked about my books in general, but never actually about the process, from beginning to end. So, it seems like SW3 is going to be that book. At the time of writing this post, I’ve only outlined, though this is scheduled to go out 20 days after drafting it, so who knows where I’ll be then, but I’m going to try to post occasionally about my process while writing.

So, outlines. Plotting vs pantsing. Some of my favorite bloggers have chatted about this topic, though two that always stand out in my mind are Paper Fury & The Orangutan Librarian. I’m not going to rehash it all because, though I was once a panster, I sit firmly in the plotting side now, and so, we’re going to chat outlines.

Enchantress Herbal Candle

Okay, look, I know that you were expecting a picture of an outline, but I have to protect my ideas just in case, especially because I already post a lot of my writing on here (yoooooo shameless self plug), so instead you’re going to get aesthetic pictures of SW3 since I’m working on it. And if you’re curious what the hell it’s all about, here you go. This post is not dependent on you knowing what it’s about, but I’m always game to toot my own horn a little.

Outlines! They used to be the bane of my existence, but they’re honestly my favorite thing in the world now. I usually outline about three times in the entire scope of a novel–at the beginning, at some point in the middle when things have gone off the rails enough that I need help, and usually the very end. We’ll break each of these down because they’re each very different outlines.

The Beginning

Outlines, at the beginning, are all about characters and high level plot. For sister witches, the characters section has died out by the time we get to the third one, but in the first one, I did sketches for the three main witches and our resident demon. Things covered include: name, age, hair, eyes, ethnicity, orientation, features specific to them (like if they have pets, if they wear a specific ring all the time, etc.), and history.

For a more ridiculously long version of this, I did a Character Spotlight way back when for Henley, where I broke down what her history is.

But these kind of things are really helpful for me to know. For a long time, while writing a high fantasy novel, I couldn’t remember if one of the dragons was blue or green, and he changed color every other time I wrote about him. Thus, it’s so useful for me to be able to step back and go, “Okay, wait, what color eyes does this person have?” This is also useful for me because a lot of the time, this is how I figure out who the character is, at their core.

For one of my books, I’ve got a few pretty old vampires, and so I needed to figure out where exactly they lived in history, and being able to sketch this out before I even started meant that I had a better grasp on their character’s personality.

Character sketches are still the bane of my existence, but I make myself do them every time because they’re also the most helpful part of my pre-writing. And I make myself do them for every single main character. Vampire detective doesn’t just get Andrew & Sam because they’re MCs, but also Raf (above), Penelope, and Dmitri because they all affect the story in some way. For sister witches, I did sketches for not just Henley, Adelaide, and Margot, but Wren (villain), too.

And they keep happening! When it was time for SW2, I had an entirely new coven to introduce, so it was back to the drawing board. I did sketches for Ileana, Kiran, and Zariah, and then, as I was starting to write, realized I also needed one for Diego and Finn. Character sketches not only help me figure out a character’s looks and history, but they help me figure out how they fit into the story.

It gets a little more exhausting when you’ve got a story like planet novel, which literally has nine main characters for each of the planets, and doing sketches for each of them took forever and a day. But it was necessary, and when I finally sit down to write it, I’ll have a much better understanding of the story as a whole.

Now, for me, character sketches come before outlining. We all come up with the actual idea in different ways, and I can’t really pinpoint how I come up with novel ideas, just that suddenly, they’re there one day (or they’re birthed through a short story). But when I start with character sketches, I’ve already got a broad idea of what the story is going to be about, even some finer details, and these sketches help to fine tune everything down to a place where an outline actually makes sense.

Somehow, we’re still in the beginning stages.

Okay, so it’s time for the actual outline. Two small things happen before we get into the nitty gritty. I like to have an overall high level list of things that have to happen. IE: for the first sister witches, I knew that there were a few things that were definitely going to happen–Theodore needed to be accidentally summoned, a few greater demons had to attack at some point, and they were going to fight Wren at the end.

I like to do headings inside of my outline, so first we’ve got CHARACTERS, then ACTUAL PLOT, then POVS. The actual plot is full of the high level stuff, and the POVs are which characters I’ve decided to give chapters to. This is helpful for me in stories like Saintsverse, where I’ve got anywhere from 5-7 narrators, and so I want to keep track and make sure everyone is getting the same amount of chapters. I like multi-narrator novels, but obviously, if you don’t, this probably a moot point.

And now, after we’ve done character sketches, high level plot, and a list of POVs, it’s finally time for the actual outline.

Feeling Devilish Men's T-Shirt by Casper Spell's Shop

This is the good stuff, guys! Generally, my novels are a minimum of 100k words. That’s what I’ve found works best for me. It leaves enough room for ample story, plus my favorite nothing scenes, and I don’t feel like I’m stretching too long or don’t have enough space. It’s the perfect marker for me. Within that 100k, I usually have three acts. For SW3, because it’s the end of a trilogy, there will be four acts, and I’ll get into why that is below.

Sometimes, I actually split my books into parts based on the acts. Saintsverse has a very distinct end to part one. Sister witches does not. You could probably find where the acts end fairly easily if you were paying attention, but there’s no definitive PART TWO like in Saintsverse to signify that you’ve reached the end of the first part. For me, acts are usually split into big events.

At the end of act one of SW1, the human boyfriends, who have no idea that Theodore exists, finally find out he exists. Act two kicks off with a greater demon attack. The end of act two is during a dinner party when Theo & one of the witches gets kidnapped. The beginning of act three is the aftermath of that. Act three is generally the shortest of them because it’s all the ending stuff. Act three for SW2, which ends on a cliffhanger, is barely a few chapters. It would be longer if it didn’t have a cliffhanger, but the whole point of a cliffhanger is that it chops the storyline right down the middle unexpectedly at the end. Thus, act three is pretty small.

For SW1, the first in a trilogy, all of the acts are generally the same length. They each had about 10 chapters & about 30-35k words in length. SW1 ends in a mostly neat bow, so each act is fairly standard.

For SW2, acts one & two were about the same. Act one had 16 chapters, and act two had 13 chapters. Act one was a lot longer than normal @ 50k words because, remember, act one & two have to support most of the story since act three is going to end in a cliffhanger. Act two was near that, at about 40k words. Act three was four chapters long & a little under 10k.

The first duology in Saintsverse is exactly that–a duology. Thus, though there are four acts in Saints 2, the first three acts in both the first & second book are about the same length. But a trilogy is different.

A toi, divine Nature, à ta sublime mélancolie, à ton âge mûr et ta touchante humilité, toi qui sait que tout n'est que fin et mystérieux recommencement, je lève ma coupe vers tes feux, embrasement de tes jours passés, la nuit gagne et je prends conscience. (texte Artio> lacavernedartio.over-blog.com) Mabon • Autumn Equinox

Because here’s the other thing you’ve got to think about when outlining. If your book is a series, how long is that series? Originally, going into SW1, I thought that it was going to be one of those mass market paperback series that just goes on forever and ever, but as I was coming to the end of writing it, I realized there was a pretty perfect three-story arc that I could follow. Thus, when I started outlining SW2, I was not just outlining the second book, but the entire trilogy as a whole. Because if you’re going to write a series, you have to also outline the series.

Now, I never actually wrote down my outline series, but that’s because it’s pretty basic. I knew that I wanted to fight two main villains. The first villain, Wren, is in the first book. The second one, which is a spoiler, doesn’t actually come in until the cliffhanger ending of the second book, but we’re talking about him throughout the second book with tiny hints of him throughout the first, so we’re ready for it when it happens. The third book is all about the final villain. I knew that there were certain pieces of the story I wanted to cover, themes that I wanted to tackle in each one that connected to the overarching story.

And so, as I was beginning SW2, I had to pause to outline the series in my head, and then it was back to work.

La Maison Boheme: Cottage Green

Alright, we’re almost done with the beginning stages. Series finales, whether it’s a duology or trilogy or quartet or longer, are almost always going to be longer & contain more acts. Because I promise you that every novel you’ve ever read is broken into acts. The author may not even do it intentionally, but that’s how we work. That’s how stories work.

I’m about to embark on my series finale, so my outline has four acts. The first three are like the regular three in a first book. Each will be about the same length. Probably 10-13 chapters with 40k each. That’ll bring us up to about 120k at the end, which is fine because act four is almost always 10k or less. It’s similar to the cliffhanger act three in its shortness, but instead of pulling the rug out from under your feet, it’s going to tie up loose ends. For SW3, we’ll see the happily ever after, basically. It will probably be a small jump into the future, maybe a couple months, and we’ll check in on each character that survived act three. (Oh, heck yeah, there are casualties. Oh, we should talk about that, too.) There will probably be a last POV chapter for each character who gets one, and then, because I’m me and I like rituals, it will probably end with Henley since the whole series started with her.

And that’s that. That’s the outline. That’s where I’m at right now. A full outline, all four acts, two books behind me, ready and roaring to go.


The Middle

I promise these are both going to be much shorter than the beginning outline, but somewhere around the end of act two, I’ve inevitably done something to really rock the boat, and my original outline is kind of useless to me. It’s evident in every single outline I’ve ever done. I have a nice neat act one/two/three, and there’s a new heading suddenly that says something like NEW WORLD ORDER or NEVERMIND or OKAY START OVER, and suddenly I’ll be outlining the end of the book again.

Look, writing is not linear. What you started out with is not where you’re going to end. Characters have a mind of their own. And, for me, having an outline that no longer reflects what’s going to happen is very distracting, so I usually outline again somewhere in the middle of writing a story. It’s still similar to the outline that I created at the beginning, though some of the information has changed.

Oh! We’ve gotten this far before I realized I didn’t actually talk about what was in my outline. I think I subconsciously did that on purpose because what’s inside your outline is going to differ for every person. My outline for the first act of SW2 is literally:

  • introduce new coven
    • some slice of life, just seeing how they interact
    • but also reacting to Henley
  • Finn’s grandmother is ill
  • Theo needs to get supplies, so date with Finn
  • Henley is high key overwhelmed about everything
  • This should probably end on the Halloween party
    • magic with original coven
    • but also new coven being yeah no about Theo
      • they try to banish him on the spot, but surprise daddy dearest has sent some demons & Theo saves everyone

I know I said above I wasn’t going to show you my outline, but that was for SW3 because it’s much more specific than this on things that are spoilery for the series as a whole, and I remembered that the first act of SW2 is kind of boring because middle books have that vibe at the start. But that is really my entire outline for act one. There is a lot that actually happens in act one (duh it’s 50k words), but I don’t outline chapters until

The End

Okay, so we start with an outline that’s pretty high level, and then the re-outlining that happens in the middle is a little more specific, but the last outline? My dudes, it’s about as specific as I’m ever going to get. For SW2, because it ended in a cliffhanger, not only were the last about 10 chapters plotted out into scenes, I also spent two full pages working on a spell they were going to use. And I mean every chapter. I had who the POV was and what specific scenes in what order had to happen.

Now, here’s the thing. At the end of the day, we’re all going to do it a little differently. This time around, I’ve got some new ideas about revision thanks to Margaret @ Weird Zeal, but will it look exactly the same? Nah. And really, outlining is going to be different every time, too.

For SW3, I’ve got a line in act three that just says:

  • does anyone die?
    • we’ll circle back

I don’t know yet, but the answer is almost definitely yes, and I’m going to figure it out along the way. Eventually, when I’m approaching the middle, where I need to re-outline, I’ll probably have a solid answer and put that answer into my outline.

I’ve also got a line that just says:

  • lots of destruction, it’s a bad time for everyone involved

You don’t have to go crazy on your outline. You know what “lots of destruction” means, and this is really just a placeholder so you remember, oh right I was supposed to destroy a lot of things. Or, heck, go crazy. If you’re the kind of person that really thrives on an in-depth outline, go hard. Just remember: eventually, you have to write the actual story. Eventually, you have to stop outlining.

And, well, I guess that’s a topic for another post.

La lettre R... - www.paolacartotarotastro.fr

13 responses to “#marywrites: Outlines”

  1. Margaret @ Weird Zeal Avatar

    This was really interesting to read! I find that outlining is most helpful to me in planning out characters and getting to know them before starting out, since they’re the ones who have the biggest impact in the types of stories I like to write. My plot planning is usually pretty minimal; your act three note of “does anyone die? we’ll circle back” is very relatable 😂 I’ve never written a series or a story with more than two POVs, though, and I imagine that outlining would be even more important in those instances! Best of luck to you with writing!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. marydrover Avatar

      If I don’t make myself laugh at least once in an outline, what’s the point, hahaha. I’m always so interested to see how other people plot, too! No one seems to do it the same way.

      Thank you!


  2. Jai Lynn Avatar

    Thanks for sharing your process! It’s so interesting that every post I read about outlining, even though for the most part it’s the same general idea, everyone has their own little quirks and ways of doing things. I’m in the process now of outlining my story. I think I was always a planner but maybe a little too focused on the outlining and not as much sitting down to write the story. I’ve learned though that you can plan all you want in the beginning but once you start writing and the characters start to breathe and come to life on the page, oh man things are going to change! Writing is re-writing, I learned, and you can’t get it all right in the beginning. It’s really smart that you DO outline three times Mary! Sending good vibes your way for writing!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. marydrover Avatar

      It really is interesting! I love seeing how different people outline because there’s always some little nugget of wisdom I hadn’t ever thought of before. And YES! Whenever I’ve tried to stick firmly to an outline while writing, I end up ignoring the book altogether because things change and happen while you’re in the process, and you’ve got to go with the flow. But I’ve found outlining a second and third time helps keep me on track because, otherwise, everything just goes off the rails, there are too many open plotlines, and no one has any idea what’s going on anymore, haha.

      Thank you so much for reading! Sending you lots of good writing vibes, as well! ❤

      Liked by 1 person

  3. waytoofantasy Avatar

    Loved seeing this process, I don’t often see people break it down in such detail. Also you had me at ‘vampires’ lol.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. marydrover Avatar

      Oh, thank you! It was a lot of fun to try to put into words what kind of just happens on its own now. And YES! I am so hyped to write about vampires, it’s going to be the best.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. #marywrites: Research – Mary and the Words Avatar

    […] couple weeks ago, we talked about outlines and how important they can be. Outlines are not for everyone, and it’s totally cool if you’re not into them, but […]


  5. theorangutanlibrarian Avatar

    So cool to see your process! I sit firmly in the plotting side too- I love it and I also like to hear about how other people do it. Thanks for linking to my post 😀 ❤

    Liked by 1 person

    1. marydrover Avatar

      It’s so interesting how different people go about it in such different ways. Like, we’re all doing basically the same thing, but we all have these tiny little quirks that make it completely unique.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. #marywrites: From Conception to First Draft – Mary and the Words Avatar

    […] year ago. Things have changed as I’ve figured out more and more of the story. I talked about outlines back in March, and I’ve still got literally all of that to do. But we’re also no longer […]


  7. #marywrites: Being Inspired – Mary and the Words Avatar

    […] draft, writing a query letter, revision, finishing a book, using other characters, research, and outlines in the #marywrites series. This is the last one I currently have planned, and though I can […]


  8. #marywrites Three Act Structure – Mary and the Words Avatar

    […] three act structure fits neatly inside of that. I’ve talked before about how I outline and why it helps me, and while outlining is definitely something that about half of writers scoff […]


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