Questions from the Tour: Outlining, Part Three

by Jeff Abbott on August 9, 2008

I have used three tools in outlining my novels:
First, index cards. Simplest and fastest way. Easy to rearrange scenes just by moving cards around, and you can lay them out on your desk for a nice visual of your book’s flow. Cheap, easy and nothing to learn. The disadvantage is you can’t “save” or backup index cards.
My second way was using the outliner Inspiration. Originally designed for students, Inspiration is a favorite of Memoirs of a Geisha author Arthur Golden. Inspiration allows you to create a visual map of your ideas–much like laying out index cards–and you can work with your outline is either this visual form, or in a regular outline form. It’s a great product, works on Mac, PC, and Palm, and is a very good starter outline program.
My current choice for an outliner is Tinderbox. It is one of the most powerful outlining programs I’ve ever seen, and it has a reputation for being somewhat difficult to master among Mac users. Aside from being popular with writers, it’s also popular with academics, researchers, and anyone who has to put a structure on detailed information. But I don’t try to master Tinderbox; I simply use it to create my outlines and the related information I want to keep with my outlines. Like Inspiration, Tinderbox shows you see your outline either visually (like index cards spread across a table) or as a standard outline (it can also show your outline in a number of other views, none of which I use). You can attach detailed notes to your outline entries. You can put related groups of entries into visual boxes called containers. I create containers for backstory, Act One, Act Two, and so on, which is an incredibly powerful and flexible way to organize my notes and structure my story. I can also have notes appear in one than more place: so I can have a note about the scene where the hero meets his true love in the main book outline, and then make that same note reappear in a subplot outline called “love affair”. That lets me reuse the same note in more than one place–extremely handy for making sure that subplots are adequately and clearly developed.
Tinderbox is also popular with my fellow crime author, Sarah Smith. You can see a discussions about using Tinderbox in crafting fiction (including a discussion I started) at their user forum. Tinderbox is Mac only, but a Windows version is in the works. The developer, Mark Bernstein of Eastgate Systems, is very responsive to user feedback and has clearly thought a great deal about ways to organize, connect, and present information. (He also posts the most mouth-watering cooking anecdotes around on his blog.)
Tinderbox gives me a powerful way to organize all my thoughts connected to a book, in a single place, and to rearrange my notes as the book takes shape. I have heard of some writers actually doing most of their first draft writing in Tinderbox, but I prefer to work my drafts in a word processor (in my case, Word 2008 for Mac).
I know this sounds complicated, but after using it a while, it’s not. If you think your book would benefit from outlining, start simple–go the index card route. If you like working this way, consider moving up to a software outliner.
UPDATE:a couple of suggestions, based on private emails I’ve gotten on this post.
1. Download Tinderbox for a test drive. I think you can use the demo for a couple of weeks and see if you like it. Start in outline mode, it’s easiest, and you can see how quickly you can enter in your ideas. Then look at your outline in map view. Gives you a great visual layout of your ideas. You can color code, rearrange, etc., just like you were using index cards.
2. Read the manual a reasonably short time after you start playing with Tinderbox. Really. It will make your life easier rather than just diving in.
3. One of the most powerful features of Tinderbox are agents, which are sort of constant smart searches/filters (I’m not technical enough to give it a better explanation) that can show you notes that are related in some way. For instance, I can create an agent that shows me every note/scene that includes a certain subplot or a character. Or if I create a new scene with a character, that agent can automatically color code that scene so I know where it fits. This is very powerful stuff when you start getting into detailed outlining. And I think Tinderbox is the only outliner of its kind that offers agents. This also makes Tinderbox a powerful holder for your research notes.

    { 2 comments… read them below or add one }

    Kirk August 9, 2008 at 1:26 pm

    You actually use Tinderbox now? I’ve never been able to get my head around that program. Maybe you can teach me one day. :-)

    Jeff Abbott August 9, 2008 at 2:01 pm

    I think the key to success with Tinderbox is to start simple and then see if you even need the more advanced features. It’s a very powerful program, but I only use what I need. It’s clear that many people use it for far more complicated projects than writing a novel. That said, it does have a bit of a learning curve. But the time I have gained through using Tinderbox is less than the time I’ve spent trying to learn it, so it’s worked out well for me. But some of the power in Tinderbox I will never use–those functions are aimed at a different audience than novelists.
    Inspiration is easier to learn, but it’s in great need of an interface overhaul to bring it into the 21st century. It also lacks some of the power of TInderbox that I find particularly useful in outlining a book (such as being able to use a note in more than one place in the outline).

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