Angels in the Outline

mind map

Who remembers the 1994 Disney remake of Angels in the Outfield? In the movie, a young Joseph Gordon-Levitt says a prayer to help the California Angels, the worst team in the history of baseball, win the pennant. And wouldn’t you know it, bam, some angels show up and guide the team to victory. As a new writer, I can’t help but wish I could do the same – say a little prayer, have some angels show up, and let them create my outline. Just give me that little push to start that will send me soaring down the road to get this mother going! Since that is not going to happen, I went ahead and started working on my outline myself and I am here to share some details and hope that maybe, just maybe, someone, somewhere, reads this blog and sends me advice. A modern version of my very own virtual angel!


They say variety is the spice of life. Well, whoever “they” are, they never tried to write an outline. Freedom of choice is a beautiful thing – when you are trying to decide if you should have red or white wine with dinner. My dilemma in drafting an outline is this: where do you even begin? There are so many methods to choose from – the traditional list form, mindmapping, the Snowflake Method, storyboards, software like Scrivener, the list goes on and on. And on. Hell, some folks don’t even use outlines; these mavericks believe in organic writing and their stories reveal themselves along the way. Lucky them!


I remember back in fourth grade (hi, Mrs. Wilson!) we were given an outline writing assignment. We could choose any topic we wanted, and had to draft a simple, basic hierarchical outline. I still remember the duality of emotions I felt – I was so excited to write about my favorite subject (dolphins!), but I was also profoundly nervous. I had so much to say and so many ideas, but my little brain couldn’t calm down enough to find a starting point. I clearly recall sitting in the classroom, pencil in hand, thinking the 9-year old version of “What fresh hell is this?”. A few decades later, I have yet to conquer the outline. I am a big picture thinker, but it’s true that the devil is in the details. It is challenging for me to start small and spiral out, to identify the granular crux of my story and develop those ideas to weave an interesting and informative “bigger picture”.

The outline is essentially the tree trunk of your story, the core that supports your branches. If you imagine your writing as a ship at sea, the outline is the anchor that will keep you from drifting off into the Bermuda Triangle, never to be seen or heard from again. Sounds simple enough, and sometimes, simple is better. Which brings me to my next point.


Whenever my Uncle Bill was confronted with a problem he needed to solve, he used to say “K.I.S.S.” – Keep It Simple, Stupid. After a few several failed attempts at some of the more…let’s say “advanced” outlining methods, I remembered Uncle Bill’s old adage and had a lightbulb moment. I am not a visual learner or thinker, so I said “Bye, Felicia” to mindmapping. The Snowflake Method makes sense, but was too convoluted for this little old brain of mine. See ya later, storyboarding.  Organic writing, ya gots ta go. What worked best for me was my way to a simple yet functional outline by leveraging software that I have used my whole life – Microsoft Word, Excel, and OneNote!


Microsoft isn’t as sexy as some of the newer or avant-garde tools of the trade. But when you are really down and out – say you are sick and need some soup, or are going through a break-up and want to Netflix and chill – you don’t call that sexy, new person in your life. No, you lean on the tried and true, always there for you friend that has seen you at your worst but still thinks you’re the best. Enter Excel.

Excel is about as K.I.S.S. as you can get. I guess it would help to tell you here that this book is kind of a creative non-fiction self-help book. At least, that is what I think it is. It’s not really self-help, more of a guide book to a subject I am well-versed in. Hell, I don’t know what it is exactly. It’s a book, people!

So, back to the outline. I created a basic spreadsheet with multiple tabs. The first tab is for the outline itself. I used the columns as anchor spaces. The first column is for the chapters and titles, but I was flexible – if I didn’t have title names yet, I left them blank. The point was to get a basic beginning and ending point for the book but to have all of the mile markers that lead us to the end in place. Kind of like a nerdier MapQuest.

The next column was for content. What are the chapters about? Just a quick, down and dirty explanation of what I intend to write about in each section or chapter.

The third column was for takeaways. What should the reader interpret from what they just read? In this column, I made sure to note what strike points I want to emphasize so that I can elaborate on them in greater detail later.

The last column on the outline tab is a ‘to-do’ list for me. This book will include some examples and worksheets, so this is where I noted any material I need to gather as well as worksheet concepts.

The next tab is for the “Story Board”. The columns here are for a brief description of each narrative and the thrust for that specific anecdote. These columns anchor where the story will be placed in the book, the major points of the story, and sample material if any.

The third tab is for Character Development. The people in this book are real, so fleshing them out was a little easier than if I were creating them from imagination. There are so many nuances that make people who they are – gender, accents, how they carry themselves, tall or short, heavy or thin, race, age, and these are just the tip of the iceberg. I wanted to be sure that I wasn’t just describing someone; I wanted to capture them in word form and show them to the reader as if I were reacquainting them with a long-lost friend. This tab is to track all of the little details that make the people in the story unique, help showcase their personality and essence. Later, I can refer back to these descriptors to cultivate the people on the pages.

Outline Template

This post was MUCH longer than intended, but an outline demands more attention than you’d think. If Excel is the yin in my outline arsenal, OneNote is the yang. Next time, we’ll get into all that. But before you go, remember how I said I was hoping that a virtual angel would help deliver me from outline hell? If you’re out there, I would love to hear from you in the comments!

As always, thank you for reading!



Ready. Set. GO.

oh my darling floral colors

This post is all about our favorite subject – yourself! As I am stepping up to the plate here, I have had some realizations about self-limitations and what it is going to take to really do this thing. I wanted to share a few of those thoughts in hopes that someone out there has gone through a similar process and may be willing to share their experience, tips, insights, or which wine goes best with frustration and deciphering creating an outline. I bet it’s Pinot Noir. Just kidding, that was a trick question. It’s obviously not a wine at all, it’s vodka.

Invest in Yourself

I told you in my first post that I have no writing experience, no connections, no tools of the trade to help get me started. All I really had was a Coke and a smile. After doing some research (and by some I mean hours upon hours), I realized that my old laptop was not going to help me as much as I had hoped. So, as with any sub-par relationship, I broke up with him and headed out to get a sparkling fresh MacBook. You guys, this turned out to be an excellent decision. There are so many functions that I didn’t know about! I will delve into my new tools in later posts, but I wanted to put this out there: Investing in yourself and your dreams really is step one.

Investing in yourself is not mutually exclusive with reaching for your wallet and making a pricy purchase. I have quickly learned that writing and blogging will require investing the most precious commodity there is – our time. I think what has surprised me most is the sheer amount of time that I have spent researching – researching writing methods, blogs, published materials, on-line classes, software tools and apps; you name it, I have probably researched it.

This side project has pulled up to the driveway, walked right in the front door without knocking, and put his feet up on my coffee table! I am doing this writing thing while holding down my full-time professional job, so between balancing work, my passion project, and just plain old living, I have learned to better organize my time and stick to a schedule while juggling the “creative process”.

One of the new tools I discovered is OneNote from our friends at Microsoft. I love OneNote because you can create a virtual notebook with different tabs to keep track of thoughts, tasks, objectives, notes, and reminders. Think of it as a TrapperKeeper for adults. The tabs are completely customizable, and you can have as many as your little heart desires. I have one tab dedicated solely to the “idea dump” strategy that I discovered during my research. The concept of the idea dump is to just get those brilliant insights that pop up seemingly out of nowhere onto paper or in this case, your computer. In OneNote, I have an entire tab dedicated to random thoughts and musings to be explored later and have the ability to track my entire process in one convenient application. Oh, and the best part? You can sync OneNote across all of your devices so your work travels with you. Out of town when a gem of an idea strikes? No problem, just whip out that smart phone and add your note. OneNote has your back for anything, not just writing. Making grocery lists, lesson plans, trial outlines, whatever you need to track, I bet you can do it with OneNote. I plan to get more granular with the bells and whistles later – remember, I am just oiling the works here.

Believe in Yourself

No other person on this earth will believe in you as much as you do. Not your mama, your sister, your bae, your Twitter followers, NOBODY. That stings a little, doesn’t it? It sure stung when I realized it, and that is why I am telling you. But, if you don’t believe in yourself and instead believe that you can’t, or you maybe can, well everybody will easily believe that too, and fast. The law of attraction tells us that like attracts like, so forget all the reasons it won’t work and believe the one reason why it will. Hint: that reason is because you believe in yourself! This is a principle that I am certain of. Still don’t believe me? The What We’re Reading page has some books on this very subject that happen to agree!

Push Yourself

There are days when the last thing I want to do is think about this book, this blog, that article I still haven’t read or the on-line class I signed up for on how to create an outline. (Seriously, how do you create an outline?) Some days, I feel like throwing my hands in the air and watching a reality television marathon. Those are the days I work extra hard, dig extra deep, and push myself to the limit. Those also happen to be the days that I think I have done some of my best work. Even though this is something I am doing for me, it’s still work. And it can be hard. But then, a beautiful thing starts to happen. I force myself to work thinking, just a few minutes, finish the tutorial, write just a little more. But suddenly you get so swept up and inspired doing something that you love, time starts to fly by and then, look at all that progress you just made!

I have always appreciated and loved books, and by association the writers that gift us with those books. So to any writers out there reading this, thank you for all of your hard work -past, present and future.

Next time, we are going to really get into the ball game, I promise!