Thursday, July 24, 2014

To Outline or Not Outline, That is the Question

My apologies to Shakespeare. I wonder if he outlined his plays?  There has been a mountain of articles written about the importance of writing an outline before you start a novel. Much like extreme politics, I fall somewhere in the middle on this subject.  I generally know how a book is going to end (at least one that I'm writing) and I usually can find a way to start the novel. In most cases I have 7 to 15 scenes in my head that I want to incorporate into the novel. And everything in between happens because characters say something or do something that pushes the novel in a certain direction. I really don’t bother with a full fledged outline.

My friend, and great novelist, the late Barbara Parker believed in outlines. But she did something many people don't seem able to achieve: her novels did not appear to be mechanical or tied to an outline. They were wonderful, witty legal thrillers that felt fun and intelligent at the same time. Occasionally, I read an author and get the feeling they wrote an outline and stuck to it no matter what happened.

This blog is all about writing and fulfilling your dreams of being a writer. That may or may not have anything to do with publishing. Publishing and writing are two separate animals. If you enjoy plotting out the book in great detail ahead of time and knowing where you're going, then you should outline. If you want to spend an hour a day jotting down ideas and making your characters say all the things you wish you could say in real life, you probably do not want to outline.

If I had outlined this blog ahead of time I would've realized there really isn't that much to say about outlining. Because now, only a few hundred words into it I am completely out of ideas. I will do what I always do in this situation and turn to some of my friends to see what they would say about outlining.

From our own, insightful Paul Levine:

For me, it’s essential. Maybe if I were smarter or could hold more gigabytes of information in my head, I wouldn’t have to do an outline. But I need to know where I’m going. That said, I sometimes outline in portions. I’ll do Act One and to the midway point of Act Two….then begin writing. As I near the end of my outline, assured I’m going in the right direction, I’ll outline to the end of the book. (However, I will know the ending when I begin part one of the outline….just not all the beats or plot points to get there).

From the beautiful and talented Harley Jane Kozak:

There are many advantages to outlining and as far as I can tell, the only disadvantage—for me— is that I don’t enjoy doing it. The very word “outline” activates my Inner Procrastinator. So I don’t outline. I do write out thoughts and ideas and vague plans and maps as I go along, and even descriptions of the plot, but I would never call that an outline because I don’t want to wake the Inner Procrastinator. 

From Paul Newman look-a-like and legal thriller author James Sheehan:

You know everybody has there own take on that. I've been on different panels with authors who say they have the whole thing outlined chapter by chapter. Others have a more global approach. Me- sometimes I start with the ending. Sometimes I have an idea but I don't know where it's going to go. I never have the complete story because I don't know my characters when I start and after I know them pretty well, they show me the way. I never put an outline down on paper. It's always in my head whatever it is.

From award winning author Reed F. Coleman:

I have an organized mind and have only on the rarest of occasions found a need or want to outline. I enjoy the surprise of not knowing for sure what I’m going to write next and therefore hope the reader will be as entertained and surprised as I am. It certainly keeps me on my toes. On the few instances I have tried outlining, it’s never turned out well. I feel as though I have already written it, so why would I want to write it again. It removes all the sense of danger, risk, and surprise for me. I think as with all thing about writing, one has to find his or her own way and to discover his or her own process and routine. See what works. If outlining suits you, outline. If you feel it takes the punch out of the work, don’t. I know several authors who do limited outlining. Go with whatever works for you.

From our fabulous and talented Patricia Smiley:

I spent as much time outlining my first novel as I did writing it. Many trees gave their lives for that document. After all that work, the outline and the book weren't anything alike. I want to be a detailed outliner; I truly do, but I simply can't follow one. Writing is an exploration for me. I know I have to get from A to B. Planning an elaborate route is pointless, because I often stumble upon detours never imagined at the outset. I'm not a pantser, either. I start with a loose idea of the story. I know the heroine, the victim, the killer and maybe a few other characters. I also know the motive for the crime. Character development comes next. I often find the story in the characters' bios. After that work is done, I make a list of all the scenes that will have to happen. It's not an exhaustive list. There
will be more as the plot progresses. Then I begin writing scenes and not necessarily in order. If I feel energy in the last scene of the novel, I often write it first. I see the value of outlining, plotting all those twists, turns and plot points, but when I see one of those three-act plot graphs my head starts to spin. The beauty of writing is we all have our own "process." I've tried many approaches and will continue to do so, but for now, I write scene by scene.

From former MWA EVP and outstanding author Harry Hunsicker:

I like to have a general outline, something short, an idea of where I’m going. The advantages are you don’t waste quite as much time on blind alleys as you do flying by the seat of your pants. The downside is that some of those blind alleys might be better that what you outlined. I also prefer to have a bottle of cough syrup handy as well as some Brazilian diet pills.

From our own bestseller Jacqueline Winspear:

When I begin a novel I have the whole story “mapped” in my mind, but I do not labor over notes, because I prefer to “dance with the moment” as I’m writing and I don’t want to feel restricted by my own planning. I know the opening scene, the closing scene, landing points across the arc of the story, and I have my title. I make some notes as I go along in a composition book - which I divide into chapters, so if I have an idea for a scene I put it (broadly speaking) where I think it belongs. I am a visual person so another thing I do is to put three large poster-sized Post-it notes around my room - on the first I draw a diagram that looks a bit like the standard mean in stats - a mountain, if you will, except that it leans a bit to the right - and I mark off the landing points of the story along the way. On another I keep track of my characters - and I’m a real one for changing names as I go along until I get one that really suits them. Finally, on the third I list the things that I need to know about that I don’t know - so for example, when I was writing one of the early books, I had Maisie Dobbs involved in a car accident. I wanted her wound to be dressed with something akin to a Band Aid (what we call Elastoplast in Britain), but I suddenly thought, “Heck, was it invented then?” I put that on the list to find out about (the usual tracking down of expert historians at the companies that make this stuff) - and discovered that in fact it was invented but only available in emergency rooms, not to the general public.  So, I had to weave a bit of dialogue about how the doctor on the street happened to have some in his bag!

It’s really important for me not to be too prescriptive because one never knows what other ideas might come up, and that’s really, really important to me. I was once on a panel with someone who wrote 60 pages of planning before he started.  To me that was three chapters, right there.

From renowned music critic and author Jim Fusilli:

I used to outline in great detail in order to focus on prose while writing. But now I write freely and look at what I have after I've completed a first draft. I find my prose is much freer and my characters more vivid when I'm not limited by an outline. Characters grow beyond the framework as the story unfolds, and I don't think we can know that if we adhere strictly to an outline.

This all shows you several important points:

  1. There are any number of ways to write an outline, or not.
  1. I’m still able to trick people into doing my work.
  1. I have a lot of friends I love.
Today’s quote is:

“What really knocks me out is a book that, when you're all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it. That doesn't happen much, though.” 
J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye


  1. Another great post from you, as usual! Thank you for sharing these helpful tips.


  2. You have a lot of friends who love you, too.

  3. James O. Born7/24/2014 2:46 PM

    Thanks, Ladies.

    Just got back from taping a local PBS show and this is my first view of the blog for the day.


  4. from Jacqueline: Sorry to be late to look at your post. I'm at the Book Passage Mystery Writers Conference, which is one of the best "writing" conferences available to mystery writers at any point in their careers. I wish I had time to go through every one of your posts on writing and put them together for each of the "students" - your insights are invaluable.