The “O” word

By Joe Moore

theletteroI love being a writer, I just don’t always like writing. I find first draft writing to be painful. So much so, that I don’t know how I’ve managed to finish a single book, much less four novels. Some writers love the process and have an easy time at it. But many of my fellow author friends are like me—we fight for every word. It seems to be the nature of the beast for many of us. But what I do love is the process of rewriting. There, the pain is replaced with pleasure and fun as more and more meat is added to the bones.

One of the methods I have to cope with first draft writing is to use the advice I received from one of my beloved mentors who said, “A bad plan is better than no plan.” To equate that to writing, I believe you must have some plan of action before you can start. There are many writers who claim they can sit down and start writing from the first word, and complete their book in a stream of consciousness. I can’t do it. It rarely comes out freely like water from a hose. So I always create a plan of action. I hate to use the dreaded "O" word: outline. But that’s what it is. Some writers complain that outlining inhibits their creative muse. For me, it’s no different than taking a trip and using a roadmap. You might take a side trip now and then but the destination is always predetermined. I just keep it simple, basic, easy to understand—enough to have a general idea where I’m going at any given time. That way I always know what I’m working towards.

Someone once said that first draft writing is a lot like looking out over a fog-shrouded sea with only the tips of mountainous islands pocking up. With a plan of action, I know enough about the islands to realize that I must navigate to each one. What I don’t know is what will happen in the fog. My plan helps me get through it.

Do you outline? If so, how basic or extensive is it? Or do you just wing it?

14 thoughts on “The “O” word

  1. For my first book, I had a sort of outline–a few words scribbled about each planned chapter in a spiral notebook that had cartoon characters on the front cover. By the time I finished the book, it had little resemblance to the outline. But I kept the outline next to me like a talisman, to remind me what the original inspiration for the story had been. Nowadays, I outline only when I get in trouble in a story, to help me regain story structure and focus, and battle my way out of a mid-story sag…

  2. Boy, am I glad you posted this. It seems I learn of another crime writer who refuses to outline every time I turn around; i was getting a complex.

    I write pretty detailed outlines, always “in pencil.” I can change whatever I want, even the entire thrust of the story, but I need to have some idea of what I’m going to write before I sit down.

    The best way for me to be creative at the keyboard is to find entertaining ways to tell the story I already have sketched out. Otherwise I tend to ramble, and I’ve found it’s much easier to keep things fairly clean the first time and add as I go than to have to either cut tons of flab, or to reverse engineer too much of the story.

    In a side note, I’ve been reading The Kill Zone for several months and consistently enjoy it. Ahpy Thanksgiving to all of you.

  3. I kind of outline. (How’s that for a cop-out?)

    The last book I wrote, I began with a detailed outline, but it held me back and I ended up throwing it out halfway through the book.

    With the book I’m working on now, I had three chapters written before I had any idea of where it was going. The idea came to me and I just went with it. After that, I had to actually come up with a plot, suspects, etc. I don’t have anything written down–it’s all in my head.

  4. I’m a big believer in outlining. Not in the classical sense of Roman numerals followed by capital letters, etc.–I sucked at those even when I was forced to do them–but in the sense of writing a narrative description of what happens in what order.

    The first iteration of the outline hits the high points of the plot, making sure that I have what I need to motivate characters to drive the story from the beginning to the end; but it’s often short on detail. My outline for my next book includes the sentence, “Jonathan visits a contact who can get him weapons.” I have no idea who that contact will be, or how the contact will be made, but I know what Jonathan has to do after he gets the weapons.

    The only time I go back to the outline after that first iteration is when I realize I’ve lost my path through the story. Then it’s time to expand the outline–usually longhand. (See earlier posts about my Ludditehood.)

  5. I think it depends on the subject and format of the writing. I don’t write crime, but something about it makes me think it would require a fair bit of outline.

    In the military/action novels I usually write I tend to outline the first chapter or maybe as much as three chapters, then the story unfolds in front of me rather on its own. These stories take place typically in one location with characters that find themselves in fairly straight forward do or die scenarios over a period of a week or less.

    I am currently working on a historical fiction novel though that is taking a ton of outlining as it involves a span of many years taking place the distant past, historical accuracy, continent spanning movements, animals, food customs, clothing etc. With all that detail I need to know not only where I am going, but how I’m going to get there and what language I’m going to speak, and what they’re going to eat. And keep on line in the story. Therefore outlines abound.

  6. “a spiral notebook that had cartoon characters on the front cover.” Kathryn, now I know what my outlines are missing. 🙂

    Dana, it’s great to hear your feedback on the blog. Thanks. And keep coming back.

    Joyce, it seems the outline vs. free-wheeling approach is right up there with Beatles vs. Rolling Stones. I guess the bottom line is to do whatever it takes to get the book written.

    John, you describe the perfect outline–just enough to keep you focused but not too much that you can’t jump out of the groove once in a while. Your approach is very similar to mine.

    Basil, sounds like you have no choice but to outline. If I don’t write it down, I’ll definitely forget key points that might pop into my head.

    Extra credit question: does everyone know their ending before they start writing?

  7. I’ve always known the scene of the ending–the final, dramatic thing that happens. It’s what leads up to that that can go all over the map in terms of direction. Dana and all, thanks for being readers of the blog, and Happy Thanksgiving to everyone!!

  8. I write the rough draft (and whoa, is it rough) in what I like to call my “state of blind panic,” especially since I have no outline and rarely know what’s going to happen more than a scene or two in advance. Which means I’m generally terrified that I’m either going to write myself into a corner, or will run out of story after 50 or 100 pages. Neither has happened yet, thankfully. Just finished my rough of the next book yesterday (whew). What I like about working this way is that unpredictable things tend to happen, the characters occasionally surprise me, and I write it excited to find out what happens next. But it’s always a huge relief to finish that draft and have the bones of the story in place.

  9. And I never know the ending until I’m writing it. The latest one surprised the heck out of me. We’ll see what my editor thinks, but it’s definitely a risky one.

  10. Michelle, glad to hear that others get surprised by their characters. Mine tend to do things that either catch me off guard or sometimes even scare me. It’s hard to believe they come out of our heads.

    The muse worketh hard like dat.

  11. My characters (along with my co-writer, Lynn Sholes) surprise me all the time. We were on a panel once and the moderator asked who made the decisions in our writing. We both answered, “Our characters do.”

  12. I have to throw my hat in with Mr. Moore, Mr. King, and Mr. Gilstrap. I have the outline that tells me the bones of each scene/chapter, and I flesh it from there when I write. However, I’ve only completed one novel so far, and I THOUGHT I knew the ending.

    Then I got 3/4ths of the way in, and I had to add to the outline, ’cause I realized the ultimate person behind the scenes was not who I thought it was.

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