Writing Excuses 7.50: Outlining the Mary Way

Mary has a distinctive outlining methodology, and this episode is all about it. She tells us about roadmaps, layers, thumbnails, under paintings, synopses, and more, in the order in which those elements usually appear.

The discussion of pacing vs. plot is particularly useful. Especially if you’re Howard.

Mary then takes us through the process of outlining a specific short story which, as of this cast, she had not yet written. Also, this episode is part of a sequence that was recorded in a different order than that in which it aired. Our bad! Here’s the one you probably wanted to listen to first.

The outline itself can be found here.


Give us a magic system in which the thumbnail, the under painting, the other imagery are the basis for the magic.

The Dragon Factory, by Jonathan Mayberry, narrated by Ray Porter

22 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 7.50: Outlining the Mary Way”

  1. I find this rather interesting. In particular how Brandon mentioned ~3 page outline for his books and Mary ~10 pages. My NaNovel that turned out to be ~75000 words ended up having a 13 page outline (according to google drive’s docs UI) and I thought that was sort of short. Comparing to what you guys talked about I may have to reassess that :P

    It is def interesting hearing how different people outline, however. I’ve been looking for all the different ways people do it for years and stealing all of them to smoosh pieces together into a Frankenstein beast that seems to work for me.

    This NaNo was the best yet so I finally feel like I’m on the right path, though I’m still experimenting as I feel like it can do even better, since I missed a huge chunk (like 4 scenes out of a 55 scene novel) right at the beginning that I had to add to the outline on day 2 of writing.

  2. Which episode are they talking about in this and last week’s, about the sailing around to the moon idea / story? I’m sure I don’t remember anything like that.

  3. I can’t seem to find the podcast that’s mentioned here. Have they been posted out of order?

  4. My comment has nothing to do with this week’s podcast, but I was wondering (more because it is my case), if you guys can do a cast about writing in English for non-English speakers… I know none of you are in that situation, but for the lot of us that do it and listen to the cast around the world, it would be amazing to hear one of your guest talk about it.

    Thank you guys and keep up with Writing Excuses: you’re doing an amazing service to the community!

  5. I love Brandon’s little “and I’m Howard — oh” at the beginning there. I know his brain didn’t actually have a spasm on this level, but I like to imagine he thought it was true for a moment. :P

    Anyway, this was a really interesting discussion. It’s always great to hear individual processes. It sounds like your outline is incredibly exhaustive, Mary — scene by scene? I mean, with the amount of scenes in a book, that’s a lot of work. But then, suddenly I find myself questioning what exactly a scene is defined by — where it begins and ends, and how long they tend to be. Gahh, now I’m second-guessing myself.

    Also, is it just me, or has Dan been remarkably quiet of late?

  6. Could you possibly post a text document showing an example of Mary’s outline for one of her published books. We would surely appreciate that :D

    Love this Podcast!

  7. LoL, that’s kind of the magic system I used in my Nano. 2 types of magic, 1 type of painting, more detail and skill added to the painting the more potent the spell. each type of magic will have different results with the same painting. Each person is only born with 1 type of magic. The under-painting is the base of the three major types of spells, then the background is the spell itself, then the detail to fill in the painting is the power. Magic well refilled when your body experiences ecstasy… It was Nano, kinda rushed

  8. I’m thinking I need to do more outline-style planning before I start my writing projects. I’ve never been one to do it before, setting up only a very rough road map. In the past eight weeks, I’ve been seeing more places in my work and in what I read that illustrate the benefits of having more detailed planning on specific content, not just major points that need to be hit.

    This just gave me another way to look at that. Thanks guys!

  9. And there’s the core idea and the thumbnail, too! Yes! Thanks, Mary. And someday, if we’re very, very good, will we get to hear the brainstorming session that started the ball rolling? :-)

  10. What a helpful episode. I don’t think it had occurred to me to not worry about chapter breaks until later, before. I feel like that is going to relieve a whole lot of pressure (and make me look like a genius!). Thanks, as always!!

  11. Mike, we posted the brainstorming session today with a link in the liner notes. Our plan had been to hold these until the spring so that we could also run the critique of the story but we goofed and didn’t mark this one as one to hold.

    So… that means we posted two episodes this week and they are slightly out of sequence.

    Also, thanks for the transcript.

  12. I’ve just discovered Writing Excuses. I love the show!

    It was very interesting to see how you outline Mary. In a way, I also do a ‘multi-layered’ approach. I write a very broad outline which is a page or two. Then, I use a program called yWriter to create all of the scenes. Each scene has various meta-data stored against it such as viewpoint character, location etc. I give each scene a paragraph or two of description.

    I’m half way through my novel outline so far and it’s currently 11 pages, so my outline will be about 22 pages in length. I’m not sure what that will equate to in terms of the actual novel. It’s all theoretical at the moment, as this is only the second book I have attempted to write.

  13. This was a helpful episode (not to say that others haven’t been). The layering idea makes sense to me. So I tried it on a short story I’m about to work on. I like the result so far. I’ve got the scenes mapped out now, so it’s time to start writing over my Christmas vacation.

    I’ve tried outlining before, but not this method. The end result was a lengthy, discovery-written outline that still didn’t really address my problems with the ending. With Mary’s method, even if you don’t start out with an ending in mind, you’ll need to develop one early on, and so can ensure that the ending matches the beginning, and vice versa. It also gives you a chance to figure out the major points before you’ve committed yourself and while the structure is still small enough to manage/rework effectively.

  14. Hi there,

    I did not listen yet to the episode (just downloaded some seconds ago).
    I just want to mention, that the episode number in the file name is wrong (49 instead of 50).
    People with outstanding technology (smartphones with decent podcatchers) will not stumble upon that, but as a “download-it-and-play-it-in-windows-media-player”-user I got irritated (right word here?).


  15. This comment is coming LONG after this episode was released, but I wanted to thank you for your writing prompt. I wrote a short story based on this seed, which I consider some of my best work yet, and it has been accepted for publication in SQ Mag.

    So, since you gave me the prompt, I’d like to say a big “Thank You!”

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