How Life Changes Our Outlining Approach

How life changes our outlining approach

By Natalie C. Markey

As a writer and an overall control freak, I love to outline. So naturally I was excited to hear that author Elizabeth Sogard was focusing on outlining in October with her series, ‘Outlining October.’ I was even more excited and honored that she asked me to contribute to this series. Thank you Liz!

First of all, as writers we all outline to a certain degree, even if you are a classic “pantster.” Your outline may be as simple as the idea in your head or as detailed as an excel spreadsheet that could put a tax accountant to shame. The point is, that we writers like control. After all, we are the masters of our own universes. I just love saying that! But the fact is there are countless ways to outline and the truth is there is no right or wrong way to approach it. The real answer can be found in learning what works best for you and that can even change in accordance to where you are in your life and if you switch from another genre. I’m a classic example.

Having my daughter not only blessed and changed my life in so many ways, she showed me that outlining is very much like parenting. That’s right moms out there; your babies can help you with your writing—in a way. My writing background is in freelance journalism so I’m use to conducting a lot of research and interviews and constructing a detailed outline before writing. I took that approach with my first fiction manuscript, a young adult fantasy. It was helpful in the fact that I didn’t get stuck halfway through with no direction, but it took a lot away from the creative process. This made the revising process a nightmare because when I went back through it, I kept finding so many areas that could be better, expanded and so on. It just simply lacked creativity. I am published in non-fiction and my detailed outline approach is a must there but with my fiction work it killed what made my story stand out from every other fantasy out there. It took away its heart and soul. So, how can your child teach you how to keep direction in your fiction writing without losing that creative soul?

The answer is FLEXIBILITY!

If you’re a mom, then you know what I’m talking about! Everyday when I wake up I have NO idea how much time she will let my write. I have NO idea if she will play well by herself or if it will be one of those very “hands on” days where I don’t get anything done until after she goes to bed. All moms know the definition of flexibility. Our children dictate our routines. Take note from your growing adaptation to such flexibility and use it to the benefit of your writing.

I’m currently working on a new project, a middle grade and this time I’m working with a flexible working outline. I have a rough outline (yes, that was torture for this journalist to create.) In addition, to that I have a working outline that I keep by my side while I write. I’m always at least ten scenes ahead on that outline. This way, when I sit down to write I always know where I am and where to begin but the story is still somewhat flexible to take a new turn if the story calls for it. It’s flexible and allows for me to be creative without losing focus or leaving any room for chaos.

I am two-thirds through my current project and I’ve been very pleased with my new system. It works for me. Again, the key is to always experiment with new ideas, strategies and find what works best for YOU. And sometimes what works best for one project, might not be the answer the next project. I’m also, working on my next non-fiction and with that project I’m back to the strict outline process.

The most important thing I’ve learned over my ten years as a professional writer—from freelance, to non-fiction and now fiction, is that you can learn strategies for success from anywhere. It doesn’t have to be a writer’s conference or a craft book. You can learn a lot from your own smiling and sometimes crying baby. The ability to be patient, tolerant and flexible is all qualities that writers need to survive in this industry. And, what is a better writing break then playing with your precious baby!

I hope this flexible outline advice helps you. It certainly is helping my writing process and getting me closer to publishing my first fiction novel. You can learn more about my non-fiction books, freelance projects, speaking engagements and writing workshops at You can also follow my blog Pen to Publish, which frequently covers the challenges and blessings of being a writing mom!

Happy Outlining October,

Natalie C. Markey


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