I hate the idea of outlining, but...

Several novels and many short stories but never outline (except in a minimal way when halfway through and stuck.

Really want to try outlining my next novel, especially since I am struggling to get started. Been thinking about mind mapping to begin with. Has anyone found that approach useful and do you have any tips?

I’ve been using mind maps since about 1972, and I seem to have gradually trained my mind so that I can’t work without them. I find that the visual positioning of things is the only way I can organise, now. I have also done this on the floor, putting pieces of paper or piles of documents in a pattern until I could see a structure. Whether or not it will work for a person depends on a multitude of factors. The human mind uses colour, space and positioning all the time, so to me it makes sense to use it for recording information, planning, writing and so forth. I can only say, try it and see. You might read anything that Tony Buzan has written on the subject. As to software, I’ve used MindNode, which is a nice place to start, but I now use iThoughts, which has more features. Both seem to be popular choices.

Here’s a short read on how I outline I new story for NiaD each year…

One thing I learned when some pro authors showed their whole process was that their outlines were not what I thought an “outline” was. It was more metaphor than the thing they taught me in high school, with Roman numerals and several levels of indentation.

So going from nothing, I’d suggest anything that lets you just slap some quick ideas up and also lets you rearrange them and insert stuff between. I’ve always liked the standard Scrivener cork board for the initial brainstorming. Scapple can also be useful in that regard, and it doesn’t enforce any hierarchy the way mind maps do.

Thank you. I have read Tony Buzan’s work, but your ideas are also useful.

iThoughts is good for creating system, order, not for brainstorming. Scapple is better for that.

Outlining before writing. Dear Heavens. I’m such a posterior aviator! It’s taken me years to work out something that faintly resembles an outlining system.

I’ve got half a dozen books on how to outline a novel, and none of them works for me by itself. I’ve got the dead bodies of failed attempts from those systems littering my Scrivener projects and hard drive…

I’ve finally got an outlining system that sort of works for me, the key being for me to keep it loose enough that I don’t feel paralysed (“Oh god I’ve got to do six more character analyses before I can start the three-page skeleton of my first chapter and fill in its 4x5 motivation grid… Please take me now”) or that I’ve already written the freaking story so why bother?

I use various tech which includes pencil scribblings and whiteboards scanned to Evernote, Scrivener index cards ( which DON’T become my draft) and iThoughts mind maps. Yes maps, plural. I tried Scapple but… I like iThoughts with its pretty colours. Sue me. By the time I get to iThoughts I’m not really brainstorming – except that I never stop brainstorming.

Most of these preliminary docs get imported into Scrivener via links…

I don’t regret the time I spent faffing with all these authors’ systems since it’s made me a stronger writer. At this point I do (some) pre-story character development stolen from Story Genius (ordinary Scrivener docs), then I do logline, pitch (refining my character sketches accordingly) and 15 beats from Save the Cat (scribbling later refined in iThoughts and imported into Scrivener via OPML). Then I start writing (except of course I’ve started writing before this as cool scenes occurred to me). Sometimes I need a guide to take me from beat to beat, and I’ll work up a very loose mind map in iThoughts and import it as an alias to Research. After scribbling.

Good luck on your quest for Outline. May you spend less time finding your system than I did…

Respectfully, I have to disagree. You may not find iThoughts good for brainstorming, but that is precisely one of the things I use it for, just as I have used classic Buzan style pen and paper mind maps for the same purpose since the 1970s. And while I have had a licence for Scapple for a long time, I never actually use it. It has certain advantages, but also disadvantages, one of those being that there is no iOS version (yet).

As I tried to suggest above, what works for one person may be no good for another. Everyone has to try things for themselves. It is one of the reasons why I am hesitant about recommending programs. Every time I make a recommendation, I really tell people as much about myself and the kind of work I do, as I do about the program. I would submit that in this instance you have not really told us about the programs, but you have told us quite a bit about how you like to work.

Exactly, Mbbntu. I can only describe my way of working (which happens to include… well, minimal outlining, now) and what tools make it easier for me.

As far as mind-mapping software, I like iThoughts because of its colours, its features, its cross-platform orientation, and the fact that it can import and export almost any file format, often several of them automatically if you have Dropbox set up correctly. But there are many other mind-mappping apps, some cheaper, some nearly as cross-platform, and who am I to dictate? Scapple can be used for mind-mapping or freeform brainstorming if you like, but I find the fact that I have to do all the connections by hand off-putting (other writers don’t seem to mind this.) Do I use mind-mapping for all my “outlining”? No. In fact, I think I’m going to call it “pre-planning” and “intra-planning” because there’s some planning I do before I start writing (serious connect-the-events writing, as opposed to “Hey, that would be a cool scene” writing), and some I do in-progress.

One tool I use for some intra-planning is Aeon Timeline. If you’re date/time oriented it may be worth a look–but in truth, I use iThoughts for much of what Aeon is supposedly good at–keeping some track of things that are happening more-or-less simultaneously to different characters. I use Aeon Timeline for such things as, “Is this happening on a Sunday? quickly syncs up Aeon to Scriv and figures out dates/times for the last few events Oh crap yes, I’ve got to move something around because that business won’t be open…” Aeon is too detail-oriented for me when I’m pre-planning. Drives me nuts filling in all the little boxes (I delete a bunch from the “fiction” template and there are STILL too many little boxes.) And I only use it to the chapter level–if that–not below (but then I never plan below the chapter level at all.)

Of course it was my opinion, not a universal truth. :slight_smile:
Mindmaps have a given starting point and are hierarchial. Without some kind of perception of a basic structure I find iThoughts hard to use. In those cases I start with Scapple. It’s free form allow me to shuffle things around until I find the basic structure, allowing me to fine-tune it using iThoughts. Develop the structure, display secondary connections, shout-outs, comments, synopsis.

So I use both, but for slightly different phases.

For me, one of the “revelations” of Tony Buzan’s method (which I first discovered in a BBC programme called “Use Your Head”, first broadcast in about 1970) was his recommendation that you just throw stuff on the paper without thinking. It didn’t matter where it went, or if the connections were “wrong”. When you had got the stuff out of your head you could look at it and rearrange things. That is the way I use iThoughts. I just throw things out, not worrying about apparent structure or hierarchy, and review it later. Perhaps this is partly helped by the fact that I don’t use the default style, which puts items in boxes. I don’t like this, because it gives the impression that each item is separate. I have a style in which every item sits on a line, which is more “Buzan”. Sometimes, though not often, I find myself writing quite a bit of the text in the mind map, just because it happens to occur to me at the time. I’ve attached an example, which might interest the OP. For me, one of the attractions of mind maps is being able to see everything at once, having everything “exploded” so that it is not linear, and it gets away from the “jungle of words / can’t see wood for trees” problem. Or cognitive overload, if you want the psychological term :smiley:

Integrative approach - Clarkson.pdf (24.1 KB)

I like what you’re saying here…a fellow traveller!

@Mbbntu— This is not unlike my own mind maps. I don’t have boxes past the first level. As for central idea, heck, the working title of my novel serves, or whatever I name the file when I save it. It’s just a tag, I like the lack of hierarchical emphasis in your map (no progressively smaller fonts, changing boxes, etc.). Colour serves just to distinguish thought threads. Thanks for this!

@Silverdragon - You’re welcome!

That’s the exact reason why I prefer Scapple for this kind of true brainstorming. :slight_smile:

Connections are arbitrary. They don’t exist unless you explicitly put them there. I group my stuff together using frames around them, the “magnet” function to keep them together if I want to, or remove the magnet if I realize they don’t fit together.
I do use iThoughts as well, partly because it is available on my iPad. Oh, how I wish there was an iOS version of Scapple, in which one could use the Apple pencil. But as for now, there are alternatives like Papers by 53 for drawing and sketching things and Cardflow which I use for some stuff (like drawing a story board).

Whereas I find having to draw every single blessed connection by hand to be a pain in the keister exceeded only by those 3 page chapter sketches with 4x5 motivation grids. :smiley: I can create an unconnected topic in iThoughts with a double click if I want one, but 95% of the time, I don’t.

And that last sentence explains, I think, why we prefer different tools—as it sounds like 95% of the time you DO want an unconnected topic. So you choose the tool that suits the way you think—as do I. Happy writing!

Thanks everyone for the valuable and interesting replies. Much appreciated.

It’s possible that the material we deal with also influences our choices. I am exclusively working non-fiction, and I am either explaining things or constructing an argument. For me, therefore, it is not so much a matter of simple connections, but a matter of “flow”. If I get ideas in the wrong order, people will not understand. This is another reason why I don’t use boxes, because the way that I move from one thing to another is crucial to me, so connections are absolutely basic, and boxes are separators, not connectors. I don’t mind scattering things about to begin with, but the next phase will be establishing the flow, and if I do everything in iThoughts I can take the “scatter” of items that I have created and transform them into sections of the flow in the same map.

And as John Dodds is on Windows, he might like to know there is a Windows version of iThoughts.

I appreciate the heads up on the fact I am a Windows user, so an alternative to IThoughts and Scrapple could be useful.

Both iThoughts and Scapple are available for Windows: