Sometimes You Gotta Suck It UpAnd Write the Darn Outline

By PJ Parrish

Before you read this, I’m going to suggest you back up one day and read Steven James’s Monday post, “Fiction Writing Keys for Non-Outliners.” It’s a really good argument against outlining and I agree with almost everything Steven says.

I hate to outline. To me, it’s on par with pap smears, getting your teeth cleaned, filing taxes, and watching the Raiders play the Jets. It’s tedious, painful and feels utterly pointless. It’s not fun. It’s a major buzz-kill.

But after reading Steven’s eloquent argument, I abandoned my post-in-progress and decided I needed to respond. Because I believe – hack, hack, hack! – that sometimes you just gotta suck it up and outline.

Did I mention I hate to outline?

First, some context. I have published, via the traditional New York house route, fifteen books. My first book was bought as a full manuscript and that is the norm. First-timers don’t usually get in the door without a finished book. But for my next book (in a two-book contract), I had give my editor a full outline. This was because I had not yet established my reputation and they needed assurance I wasn’t a one-trick pony. So I did the grunt work and wrote a detailed outline.

Did I mention I hate to outline?

This outline pattern stayed in place for my second two-book contract, but by book five, I went to contract on the strength of a five-paragraph concept. This was because by this point my editor knew I could write, make deadline, and sustain my series momentum.  But when I switched to a new publisher, I had to go back to outlining because my new editor wanted a stand alone thriller. But for the four books that followed (which were back in my Louis Kincaid series), I was able to go back to contract via concepts.

I haven’t had to slog through the outline exercise for six years. Which brings us to the present. About a month ago, I submitted a detailed concept and 100 pages of my WIP to an editor at a traditional publisher. She loved it but she had to send it to the acquisitions committee, which okays every deal. (This is SOP for traditional publishing houses; everything is run up the flagpole to be saluted by editors, market types and bean counters). To do this, I had to give the editor…an outline.

Now, given my druthers, I am a confirmed pantser. My sister and I start with an idea, flesh out our main characters, then we plot-then-write in chunks of about four chapters at a time. But my new publisher wanted to know the major dramatic arcs of the story so Kelly and I spent two weeks not doing what we love – writing – but doing what we hate — brainstorming and sweating blood creating a plot map.

They bought the book.

Did I mention I hate outlining?

So I’ve swung both ways. Outlining is awful but it can be very useful if it gets you where you want to go. And every writer is different. Some of us thrive on structure; others crave chaos. There is no one path to the truth, grasshopper.

So who outlines? Let’s pull back the curtain and see…

John Grisham starts with 50-page outlines, with a paragraph or two about each chapter, setting out major events and plot points.

Michael Palmer spends four to five months outlining and goes to contract on outlines. His outlines are 40 to 60 single-spaced pages and his editor “clears” the outline before he writes one word. Sez Michael: “When I get down to the actual writing, I feel free to deviate from the outline, but out of courtesy, I will call and discuss any major deviations from what was agreed upon with my editor. There are those writers who can pen a novel and then do it over again if the story doesn’t work. With my busy schedule as a doctor and a daddy, I am not in that group. Reworking a detailed outline is possible for me. Rewriting an entire book would be disastrous.”

James Patterson writes a detailed outline and then hires someone to write the scenes, usually in 30 to 40 page chunks, which he reviews. Patterson describes it: “The outlines are very specific about what each scene is supposed to accomplish. I get pages from [the collaborator] every two weeks, and then I re-write them. That’s the way everything works. Sometimes I’ll just give notes. I’ve done as much as nine drafts of a book after the original comes in.”

Self-published eBook phenom Amanda Hocking (now in print with St. Martins) hand-writes her outlines before formatting them. “I’ll write usually about two or three outlines, so by the time I do write the book I’ve got the story completely mapped out in my head,” she says.

Joseph Finder describes writing without an outline like doing a high-wire act without a net, saying that his book Power Play, “took me several months longer than usual, simply because I wasted a lot of time on plot and on characters that I ended up cutting out.”

Robert Ludlum’s outlines routinely ran to 150 pages. I don’t know what he does now that he’s dead. I’d like to think he’s up there being a happy pantser.

Who doesn’t outline? Lee Child, for one. And Harlan Coben, who describes his process thusly: “I usually know the ending before I start. I know very little about what happens in between. It’s like driving from New Jersey to California. I may go Route 80, I may go via the Straits of Magellan or stopover in Tokyo but I’ll end up in California.”
That driving metaphor is a riff on E.L. Doctorow’s famous quote: “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

I’ve written both mysteries and thrillers, some romance and even fat historical sagas. Some came easy; others fought me all the way. And while being a pantser is my default method, I have come to appreciate that outlining can be useful. Here’s why:

1. It helps you get rid of bad ideas. This is very important because we all have bad ideas and bad ideas are like the Devil — they often assume a pleasing shape. (Wow! What if I have the bad guy sneak some plutonium into a White House toilet, then the Senate minority leader comes out of the john with green skin and…)  If you write your bad ideas down they won’t lurk in the shadows of your brain.
2. You might have to produce an outline to go to contract with a publisher. If you’re lucky enough to get a multi-book deal, outlining is often specified in contracts. Also, you get paid in lumps: part on signing, part on turning in the manuscript, part on publication. But sometimes, one of the lumps comes via outline.  Also, your editor might have to approve the outline before you begin working on the book.

3. It can speed up the writing process. Just seeing a map on paper can often help you manage your writing time. If you have some idea of the journey, you can budget your time more efficiently. This is important as you get farther into your career and must produce a book or more a year.

4. If you write big complex plots, it can keep you on track. Ken Follett starts with an outline between 25-40 typed pages that details chapter-by-chapter events and includes bios of all characters. He shares this with his editors before he starts writing. He also rewrites his outlines!

I rewrite the outline – and this may happen several times. Typically there will be a first draft outline, a second draft outline and a final outline, so it would twice go through the process of being shown to a number of people. The whole process of coming up with idea, fleshing it out, doing the research, drafting the outline and rewriting the outline comes to about a year all told. There are quite often a couple of false starts within this. I may spend a month working on an idea before I realise that it isn’t going to work and abandon it. But after this whole process, I’m ready to write the first draft.

5. If you’re trying a new genre, it gives you confidence. I have a friend who, after a long and successful career writing a light amateur sleuth series, is making the switch to darker fare. She has always been an avid outliner but with this new project, she found even more extensive outlining gave her sure footing in her new territory.

6. It keeps you motivated and focused. While working on my new book, the hardest thing I had to deal with was my sense of being at sea. Because I was working without the security of a contract for the first time since starting out, I often felt myself drifting into a lot of “what ifs.”  What if I can’t pull this story off? What if no one buys it? What if I’ve run out of good stuff and it’s time to hang up the creative cleats?  But there was something about writing an outline — having to do the elbow grease of the mind and produce on deadline — that injected juice back into my story and resolve back to my spine. If nothing else, I finished the damn outline.

So, yes, outlining is a good thing. But…

Can I add my caveats? If you outline, please don’t let it put a strangle hold on you and your story. It is a guide, a suggested route, one way to go but never the only one. I love this quote from Donald Barthelme:

“Not-knowing is crucial to art, is what permits art to be made. Without the scanning process engendered by not-knowing, without the possibility of the mind moving in unanticipated directions, there would be no invention.”

So even if you do outline, leave room in your planning for serendipity and detours because, as Steven said so well in yesterday’s post, that is where your story is hiding out waiting for you.

Think of an outline as those colored lines they paint on the linoleum in hospitals to help you find your way. The red will get you to the cardiac unit, the yellow to the cafeteria, the black to the emergency room. But sometimes you just gotta follow the blue and go look at the babies.

26 thoughts on “Sometimes You Gotta Suck It UpAnd Write the Darn Outline

  1. I do love the blue line.

    I chuckled when I saw your opposing view to Steven James’s post yesterday. #DebateTeamCandidate

    I’ve never been asked for an outline or sold using one, but my detailed proposal synopsis (sometimes for all the books in a series) can turn into an ordeal. I use a turning points method, similar to a summary of a 3 act structure. That’s been very helpful & seems to be a hybrid method that falls somewhere between a detailed outline and pantsing it via a Harlan Coben road trip. (Love Harlan)

    • Thanks Amanda. What’s odd is that I scrapped my post-in-progress after I read Steven’s post and wrote this quickly. Which just verifies what my sister keeps telling me…sometimes it’s better to write fast and furious! (with no outline)

  2. Nicely done, Kris. I was writing all day yesterday and didn’t get a chance to comment. Steve is a friend of mine and a darn good writer. He is in “rebellion” against the copious outlining method, and in that I’m with him. I’ve never been able, or willing, to do the Patterson-esque outline thing. I’m not sure we need much of a rebellion, though, because I honestly don’t know how many teachers actually hammer this method. (Steve’s book should have been titled Story Trumps Outlining, because all pantsers know you have, at some point, to turn your mess into something readers can relate to. Steve himself believes in the three-act structure.)

    Kris, I was sitting next to Lee Child at a TFest when one of Patterson’s co-writers described an eighty-page, single-spaced outline. Lee groaned a few times. We talked afterward about his method, which is of course he doesn’t plan….but he is also probably a certified genius, plus his background in TV has structure pounded into him, so he can’t NOT write a well-structured story.

    In my plotting, I use a combination of Doctorow and structural signposts. I know where I’m heading, bit by bit, but can let the story help me find my way. I can change signposts if I want to, but I always have fun finding my way. I can even stop and smell the roses.

    David Morrell has a method, writing a free-form document to himself, prompting himself with questions. It’s pantsing before writing. It goes deeper and deeper until he is moved to write. If need be, he says, you can shape up that document if a publisher wants an outline or synopsis.

    And one more thing: you don’t have to be wedded to an exact outline. Publishers know these things change as you write. Stuart Woods told me he used to send in a two-page synopsis for the next book, get the advance, then throw away the synopsis and write.

    • Good points all, James. I think Lee, as you said, is an exception. I think he DOES outline — in his head. His stories are beautifully structured. And Steven is absolutely right to rail against YOU MUST OUTLINE orthodoxy. Just do a quick Google on outlining and you get the most ridiculous systems. And don’t get me started on Scrivener, though I know folks who swear by it.

  3. Lynn Sholes and I produce a general outline for our own use. Writing with a co-author, we have to be in sync as much as possible. And we always have a clear idea for the ending, that way both of us are working toward the same goal. We also brainstorm daily, or at least a couple times a week.. We’ve never had to submit an outline for a contract, but have sold all our books on a synopsis, usually only a page or two long. I agree with what John said in his comment above, do what works for you.

    • It sounds like you and Lynn work just as Kelly and I do. I do feel like the exercise of doing this latest outline has been useful in that it is really upping our speed. But I don’t want to do it again!

    • Excellent post, Kris. I absolutely agree with your sixth point. I was struggling with the current WIP. I had a short, wishy-washy outline. I’d face that blank page each day, sigh, wander off, get maybe 250 words written. Eventually I stopped to create a better outline. I’m now getting 2500 words a day, and most important, I’m smiling again when I write.


  4. Great post, PJ. Thanks for a nice “outline” of the pros and cons.

    I love this discussion (yesterday and today). The huge spectrum from outliner to pantser, with all the choices in between is very interesting. And the discussion is very helpful for those of us beginners. Seeing all the different ways successful authors do it gives us choices to try, until we find what works for us.


    • You said it best, Steve…you have to find the method that best works for you. There are no one-size-fits-all answers in fiction writing.

    • Sure, mind mapping is a good visual way to get ideas. I like to use head shots of characters and draw lines between them. It’s also a good way to brainstorm scenes.

    • Sweet! Cause the textual outline makes my head hurt. Being dyslexic is a pain in the tubb. *winks*

      I need a visual tool because the concept I am working on needs to loop around on itself a lot. Think Doctor Who, where the seemingly unrelated elements suddenly take on meaning later.

      I had to find a way to keep that straight and mapping works for me.

  5. Here’s another good reason for using an outline that I’ve never heard anybody mention: It keeps you on track when your writing time is hopelessly splintered.

    I work sixty or seventy hours a week at my manuscript-editing business. For now, writing is something I do when I can steal an hour from myself here and there before my daily allotment of working brain cells runs out. I don’t have the luxury of writing in a grand operatic flow of starburst inspiration. I get an hour on Tuesday morning, maybe an hour and a half on Thursday evening, maybe two hours on Sunday. And maybe not.

    So, the thread of cerebral continuity is continuously broken, and in constant need of re-threading. That makes it damned difficult to pick up wherever I left off and just fall through the rabbit hole of my story without a trail map.

    That said, I don’t outline. Instead, I write synopses. And rewrite them constantly.

    Before I start on a novel draft, I write a 500-word synopsis. Then I write a 1,000-word version of it. Then a 2,000-word version. Then a 5,000-word version. Each time, obviously, I layer it with complexity, character depth, reversals, reveals. Each time I find weaknesses in the last synopsis draft that can’t withstand widened exposure, and need to be fixed. I’ll go as long as 10,000 words before deciding whether I’ve got a watertight story, or a shaggy dog that needs to be taken to a farm in the country. You know, to run and play with the other farm dogs.

    If more than a few weeks go by between activity on a manuscript, I’ll pick up the latest synopsis and rewrite it. Then sink into to the actual novel.

    Some famous writer (Elmore Leonard?) once said that they learned to write their own novels by retyping their favorite novels by other people. What I do is sort of like that. Just with my own favorite synopses.

    (Have I mixed enough metaphors for everyone?)

    • Jim,
      That is an excellent point. Most of us do not do this full-time and we catch our writing moments as best we can. I know when I step away from my story for a day, I lose the thread so I can only imagine how you must feel trying to cope. Thanks for the insight.

  6. You know, I never thought I’d need to outline. It all flowed so naturally. But as I’ve progressed to more complex intertwining plots in my current series I’ve come to realize that it is really necessary to keep everything straight.

    In previous books it was one plot, one set of characters, one course of action. But now I’m dealing with one over all plot, three major subplots, and numerous major characters that all have their separate adventures that have to coalesce in the same finale after three books.

    I recently finishing Follet’s Century Trilogy and realized I have to get more organized like he is, if I’m going to write at that level. Currently I am at a point of scrapping large parts of this project and going back pretty close to the finish line. From there I’m going to stick with writing out a full outline of the sort mentioned above. This may mean I won’t be putting out the next novel in a year or even two, but if it takes three years to write something that turns out like I want this one to, then that’s what I have to deal with.

    Time to get the pencil to the grindstone.

    • Basil,
      I was hoping you would contribute to my “bad idea” plot about the White House plutonium toilet. I am in awe of your plot- brain, :))

    • Mme Parrish,

      Thank you for bringing that up, especially about the plutonium in the toilet. Basil wasn’t willing to admit it publicly, but your mention of it here has made him change a relevant section of his manuscript that my brothers had convinced him would work, but that I held out on.

      I mean while bits of plutonium in a toilet might do some damage, ha…we all realize you’d actually have to make the whole seat out of it to work in such short trips to the lieu. That or give the aforementioned Senator a massive case of slow moving diarrhea or something to keep him in place long enough.

      That said with the assistance of your mention here, I was able to steer him away from the glowing green toilet concept toward something more sensible, like radioactive burritos that light up the target’s bum so the assassins can see them walking away.

      Again, thanks.

      The Sensible Leprechaun

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