stop outlining, start inlining

I often wonder: should I write these as bulleted lists?

Lots of people send bulleted lists—bullet-letters?—nowadays. I read a bunch of bullet-letters myself. Some newsletter people have even started additional newsletters on top of their already popular newsletters just to offer bulleted lists. It’s like there was this big, pent-up demand for bullets that everyone noticed all at once. Maybe it’s because of the sense that many of us are turning away from Twitter and Facebook. All those little bits and pieces we want to share need a new home. For example, this piece at Medium on how not to be a crank. Or this tool for turning off all retweets on Twitter. Where do I share things like that now?

No, I’m not starting a bullet-letter. What can I say? I like paragraphs. I think in paragraphs. I organize information in paragraphs. I’ve never been too good with bullets or outlines.

When an idea percolates for me, when it really starts to floresce—it’s a word if I say it is—I find it harder and harder to keep track of all its loops and branches. In the past, I’d reach for OmniOutliner or MindNode at this stage. The problem, I’ve found through long experience, is that outlines and mind maps kill my big ideas. They get bigger and bigger and nest deeper and deeper … inevitably I just can’t grok it anymore. Converting a big, messy outline into an actual useable sequential draft of some kind becomes impossible. I’ve lost the thread.

There’s a better way. I recently received a new technique from editor and author Stephen Power, brilliant in its simplicity and power like all the best writing advice. To write a full-length novel of 80,000 words, forget the outline and just write the whole story out as simply as possible. Start with 5,000 words: “John met Linda for lunch. Some assassins shot at John and killed Linda by accident. John vowed revenge.” Etc.

Anyone can write 5,000 words, right? Starting here is much less intimidating. You end up with something a step above the plot description on a novel’s Wikipedia page. With your whole novel expressed in 5,000 words, you can easily read through it to make sure it hangs together and achieves your intent. Revising the overall story at this stage becomes a cinch. There’s the beginning, there’s the middle, there’s the end. Boom.

Once you’re happy with the shape of your 5K, double it. Expand everything with a bit more personality, a bit more texture: “John met Linda for lunch at a trendy Middle Eastern place famous for its hummus. Some assassins shot at John with high-powered rifles and hit Linda by accident, ruining the hummus. Clenching his fists, John vowed revenge.” Now you’ve got 10,000 words.

See where Stephen is going with this? 10K becomes 20K, 20K becomes 40K, 40K becomes 80K. Novel finished. And never once do you stop and wonder: where the heck was I going with that hummus side-plot? You’ll know.

I’ve decided to call Stephen’s technique inlining. (Do you mind, Stephen?) I’ve been using it with a novel of my own for the last couple of months and I already like it so much better than entangling myself in those crazy outlines.

I think inlining will work for any kind of book, fiction or nonfiction. It’s kind of how I write the Maven Game, in fact, often ruining the hummus.