To be a writer is to sit down at one’s desk in the chill portion of every day, and to write; not waiting for the little jet of the blue flame of genius to start from the breastbone – just plain going at it, in pain and delight. To be a writer is to throw away a great deal, not to be satisfied, to type again, and then again, and once more, and over and over….

John Hersey

Every summer for eleven years I sat around campfires, sang camp songs, rode horses, and rowed canoes down the Guadalupe River at a wonderful camp in the Texas Hill Country. The summer after my last year as a camper, I returned as a counselor. It was still a beautiful, warm, and peaceful place. But the shift in perspective from camper to counselor made me realize the work that it took to create that easy, relaxed atmosphere.

I think I struggle with the same shift as a writer. When you come to writing from the experience of being a reader, it takes a little while to peer behind the curtain and see the complicated decisions that add up to a story. Years of reading have given me good instincts, but bad habits.

One thing I am working on is my ability to create an outline. My first book, THE FIRE HORSE GIRL was created with a loose outline based on The Hero’s Journey and then revised into submission. It was messy and a little chaotic. I spent a lot of time stepping blindfolded into the next plot point only to fall of a narrative cliff.

The first time a fellow writer tried to convert me to outlining, I cringed at the memories of my ninth-grade English teacher saying, “If you have an A you have to have a B under your roman numerals” as I hunched over my college-ruled paper that was full of eraser holes and tears.

That experience taught me that writing an outline is like etching your paper in stone…with your fingernail – painful, pointless, and permanent.

Now I am realizing that a story’s outline can have the fluidity that I crave. It can also allow me to layer story elements through scenes in a second or third draft instead of a twentieth or thirtieth draft. Sometimes I think of it as a first draft.

Stories can be created without outlines. I don’t think the outline serves the story. Stories existed long before outlines. I think it serves the author (which, of course, trickles down to the reader).

I am starting to buy into the ‘why’ of outlines, and I am trying to figure out the ‘how.’ Here are a few resources that have helped me.

Story Engineering by Larry Brooks – A great look at the structure that lies under stories.


Outlining Your Novel by K.M Weiland – I like


The Writer’s Journey by Christophe Vogler – This is what I used for my first novel. It is a nice way to mark places your story needs to stop before it gets to the end of the road.


My Next Read:

Save the Cat by Blake Snyder


If you worry about getting too organized (or you just need a smile), you can check out this fun TED Talk on “Tidying up Art.” I get tickled every time I watch this:


Putting it All Together

If you have been following along on our journey to dig up the central conflicts and theme in your work-in-progress, now is the moment that we bring it all together.

I have to use a enumerated list…that is how exciting it is!

1. Gather up your three charts and a blank sheet of paper. If you missed making the charts, you can find the instructions for the character chart here. And instruction for plot and world charts here.

2. On the blank sheet of paper make three columns – Conflict, color, and character. Each column represents a key element of your story – the conflict the main character has with others, within herself/himself, and with society, the color that the setting provides, and the motivations of your main character. In the best stories, these elements connect, overlap, and interact. Hopefully this chart will help you see where that happens.

2. Go through the three charts you made and circle anything that has to do with character – their traits, their motivations, their past.

3. Underline anything that will cause conflict in your story – a new life, new goals, betrayals, limits, desires that are out of reach. Items circled in the last step might be underlined also. This is where you start to see how ideas are layered.

4. Highlight anything that reveals the color of your story. I think of this as the backdrop to the story – setting, society, culture, and emotion. Again, some items maybe be circled, highlighted, and underlined.

5. Take a moment and look over your charts. I like to look at the items that are underlined, circled, and highlighted. In the charts I did for The Fire Horse Girl the key elements cross all three categories: out of sync with society, strength, suffocating, vulnerable, promise of American dream, male-dominated society, heartbreak. It really brings those driving forces to the surface.

When I did the charts for the second book, the following showed up in all three categories – risk, competition, playing games, controlling perceptions, politics, status, passion, compassion.

6. I also make a fourth chart on the sheet of paper where you wrote the three columns. It lets me see what elements show up repeatedly, and which ones threads show up in one category, but have ties to the other two.

I hope that helps!