“How do you outline a book?”

Sticky notes. Seriously. I’ve even framed the outline for Ripper’s Victims because honestly, how pretty is that? They’re not just sticky notes – they’re COLOR CODED sticky notes. I had some issues because you can see how one of the chapters exploded and took over a few more columns at the bottom, but that, my friends, was a labor of love. There was a yardstick involved.

I use sticky notes because the blank page paralyzes me the most when I have absolutely nothing to work from. Whether it’s the pen getting all hot and sticky in my hand or the cursor endlessly blinking, it’s just too intimidating. If I’m doing sticky notes, then I can only mess up in small ways and have to toss a single note instead of a whole sheet of paper. (Erasable pens help there anyway, but I love the feel of a good Sharpie.) Plus the whole point of a stick note is to be movable. You can put it one place, change your mind, and move it to another. For some reason the cut and paste function in Word just doesn’t work the same way for me. Typed things look far too official and assured for the outlining stage.

Color-coding also really helps me. In the Ripper’s Victims outline it means you can still tell what fits into the 1990s chapter, and it also gives a good visual of how the text was going to unfold: the first couple chapters cover two decades each, with only three sticky notes, and the last three are all since the year 2000. It gave me an idea of how much had to fit into each chapter, as well as how much work I still had to do. There’s a little X in the bottom corner of each sticky note. One slash meant I’d read the book, and the second meant I’d typed up the important notes from it.

Now, Ripper’s victims was actually pretty easy to outline once I’d gotten the concept: a survey of full-length single subject books about Jack the Ripper, focusing on what they had to say about the murdered women. That outline is literally just a list of book titles sorted by decade. It still looked like a monumental task, but I could cross off a number of books right away and then read them in publication order, since I didn’t necessarily want to put them all in conversation with each other until the conclusion. For Words of a Monster, the focus was different (and there aren’t nearly as many books about H.H. Holmes as there are about the Ripper). That one is more thematic, trying to catch all the broad strokes that made up the person I was seeing him present himself to be.

Sticky notes are also great for jotting down ideas as they come to me when I’m reading or even when I’m thinking about something else entirely. If it’s a good idea, I want to get it on paper before it can fly away. Right now I’m trying to keep all my notes together, but even a scrap of paper will work for a few words. They usually take the form of either a more general idea or a specific example that would fall under one of those ideas, and – again – the sticky note/scrap of paper method means I can move them around before figuratively cementing them in place.

Stephen King says that “You must not come lightly to the blank page,” but it’s a lot less stressful to come to a blank sticky note.

[originally shared on my Facebook author page]

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