Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Flexible Chapter Outlines

Kathryn Page Camp
I’m not going to get involved in the controversy between plotters and pantsers. Or maybe I’ll say this much. Every writer is different, and you should do what works for you.
My own approach lies somewhere in the middle. I use a brief chapter-by-chapter outline, and I give myself permission to change it. This may or may not work for you, but if you are having trouble finding your optimal approach, maybe you will want to try it.
The picture at the top of this post shows the first half of my two-page outline for Desert Jewels, a middle grade novel about a Japanese American girl living in California when World War II breaks out. The second column includes just enough information to jog my memory about the major events covered by that chapter.
Although I’ve used chapter outlines for all of my recent manuscripts, the actual format varies based on the book. Dates were very important in Desert Jewels, and it has no chapter titles. My current work-in-progress, Creating Esther, does have chapter titles and relies less on specific dates, although I did add them to Part III. The outline for the first two parts of that manuscript looks like this:
As I write, I add, delete, or rearrange chapters. My original Desert Jewels outline contained four parts: Berkeley (my protagonist’s original home), Tanforan (the first camp she was sent to), Topaz (her second camp), and Chicago (where she ended up after her release). For any particular draft, I start at the beginning and write until I get to the end. When I completed Part III in the first draft of Desert Jewels, I realized that my protagonist’s release was the perfect stopping point. Since I give myself permission to change my outline when the story tells me to, I simply eliminated Part IV.
In a later draft, I added an epilogue because my beta readers said they wanted to know what happened to my protagonist and her friends after they left Topaz. But that one-chapter epilogue isn’t anything like my original Part IV would have been.
This flexibility does have some disadvantages. If I make changes in the middle of a draft, I may have to go back and revise events, settings, and so on that occurred earlier. And if I am eliminating or revising something that was in a previous draft, I may have to jump ahead to make sure I catch all the inconsistencies before I forget them. But this approach is the one that works best for me.
If you have a writing approach that works for you, don’t let anyone tell you that you are doing it wrong. But if you haven’t found it yet, experiment until you do.
That’s how I found mine.
Kathryn Page Camp is a licensed attorney and full-time writer. Writers in Wonderland: Keeping Your Words Legal was a Kirkus’ Indie Books of the Month Selection for April 2014. The second edition of Kathryn’s first book, In God We Trust: How the Supreme Court’s First Amendment Decisions Affect Organized Religion, was released on September 30, 2015. You can learn more about Kathryn at

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