Faster Than a Speeding Bullet

I have a confession to make. Since about 2009, I’ve been leading a secret life.

As a woman.

Yes, it’s true. Several years back I was working a day job and writing my novels for St. Martins at night and was so exhausted all the time I could barely form a response to anyone who asked me what time it was. And if I managed, it was usually “Bedtime.”

Life as a midlist author for one of the Big Five is not all champagne and roses. My advances were decent, but not fantastic. And spread out over a couple of years, the royalties they were doling out were not enough to sustain my hedonistic lifestyle. I mean, Ferraris are expensive to maintain.

So I knew I had to do something to make the leap from day job zombie caffeine addict to full-time writer zombie caffeine addict and the only way to do that would be a) drink more coffee; and b) find more writing work.

And since we’re supposed to be talking about writing here, I’ll spare you my opinion on Jamaica Blue Mountain beans and tell you about the finding more work part.

Oh, and the woman part, too. I’m sure you haven’t forgotten about that.

You see, many of my writer friends are women. And many of those woman work in the world of romance, specifically the world of Harlequin romance. Some of them work for a line called Harlequin Intrigue, which is all about romantic suspense, and the emphasis on suspense over romance is completely up to the author.

When I asked my buddy Debra Webb (the Queen of Intrigue) if any men ever write for the line, she told me they did indeed and “Oh, my God, you should write for them! I’ll introduce you to my editor!”

The next thing I knew I was writing an outline and sample chapters and within a month I was working for Intrigue under a female pen name that I will happily reveal to anyone willing to pay me a hundred bucks, so long as you promise not to reveal the secret (hey, I’ve gotta make money SOMEHOW).

Anyway, I was attracted to Intrigue because the books are only about 50,000 words long, fairly linear, and I figured I’d be able to bang them out pretty quickly and earn enough extra money to dump the day job.

And I was right. Thanks to Harlequin and a very nice deal with Penguin, I was able to do just that.

But I had one very small problem…

I’ve never been what you’d call a fast writer. So now I was in a situation where I had to not only write a big 150,000 word apocalyptic novel for Penguin, I also had to do a couple of those 50,000 word romancers.

Had I just shot myself in the foot? Painted myself into a corner? Taken a long walk off a short—you get the point. Choose your own cliché.

Ever since I started writing, I’ve been a pantser. I come up with an idea, kinda sorta figure out who the main character is, then sit down and start writing. I had tried outlining many, many times (just like all the writing books say we should) and I just couldn’t stand to do them. My eyes would glaze over after three paragraphs.

Isn’t writing supposed to be fun?

But for the Harlequin Intrigue audition I had no choice but to write that outline and three sample chapters. It was full proposal or don’t bother auditioning. They weren’t going to hire me simply because they liked my Facebook page. (Or maybe in was MySpace in those days.)

When it came time to actually write the book, however, I discovered something quite wonderful. Because I had worked everything out in that outline, all I really had to do was, as they say, “word it in,” and I managed to bang that thing out in record time.

From there on out, I was a convert. At least when it came to Harlequin romances. I still wrote (and continue to write) my Robert Gregory Browne books by the seat of my pants (except for one exception I won’t get into here), but the Intrigues were all outlined first. Even after my editor said all she needed was a paragraph from me. I would write a ten to twenty page outline for myself, because I had to write those suckers fast.

I think the fastest I ever went from outline to finished book was about two and a half weeks. I’m no John Creasey, but I think 50K words in that amount of time is pretty damn fast.

So if you’re concerned about your snail’s pace as a writer, just know that as much as you might hate them, outlines can certainly be your friend.

Now that I’ve said goodbye to Intrigue, I still loath outlines and avoid them completely.

But that doesn’t mean you have to.


20 thoughts on “Faster Than a Speeding Bullet

  1. I feel your inner Patterson, Rob.

    But hey, you do outline, it’s just that when you “pants” you’re working out that outline like the Keystone Kops used to work out catching bad guys. Eventually they did, but not without many pies in the face and wild streetcar chases.

    Re: the Harlequins. You shaved for the author photo, right?

  2. I was asked to submit a 3 book proposal to an editor (thank goodness they wanted the first book finished first) and the best I could do was come up with a vague couple of paragraphs about the characters who would be featured in books 2 and 3, with their GMCs.

    Since I’d already written book 1, and my hero and heroine for book 2 were in that book, I knew them, and I had a vague idea about where I might take the story, but I needed to be writing before I actually knew what was going on. My editor says she likes my ‘surprises’ and they’re surprises to me, too.

    Book 3, which I’m about 40K into, bears absolutely no resemblance to that short paragraph I sent the editor (who decided she didn’t want the books after all), and it took me quite some time to drop the ‘obligation’ I felt to follow even that brief proposal. Once I did, and let the characters reveal themselves to me, I was able to move forward.

    And, as I whined about how hard this book was to get going, one of my critique partners pointed out that I do this with every book. But if I have an outline/summary/synopsis, I get in too much of a rush to race through the plot points. I’ve tried. It hasn’t worked. Yet.

  3. That kind of writing schedule is mind-boggling to me. As is writing outlines for each novel, even though I know it works because I did actually try with a chapter outline once. I think the thrill of writing by the seat of our pants is in the unfolding story where we as authors are constantly surprised at each twist and turn. Where’s the fun in knowing what’s going to happen next (even if it means more money to support our lavish lifestyles?

    • Don’t think of an outline as being set in stone. It’s an idea of how the story unfolds, but you are always free to adjust, alter and even blow up the plan when surprises happen. I outlined my last story, then changed the outline almost weekly. I had a character that I knew was a comic relief “stuffy English tutor” type. Halfway through the MS and quite to my surprise, he revealed himself to be the real villain of the piece. *THAT* took some adjustment both in what followed and what had to be changed in the already written parts to make it work, but it was worth it. And it wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t had a plan for what I thought the story was.
      It’s like if you’re going to make a cross-country trip and want to end up in Florida. You’ll check out the maps, plan a route. But when you get on the road, roadwork might force a detour. You might decide to take a scenic bypass (Alabama’s Gulf Coast is worth a look.) You might decide you’d rather finish the trip in South Carolina. The point is, you want to start your trip with an idea of where you’re going and how to get there, that’s just prudent. But you’re free to change your route once you get on the road, that’s the fun of a road trip.

  4. I enjoy creating outlines. It’s so much easier than writing from the seat of your pants. But every writer is different. I enjoyed your story. Happy writing!

  5. Thanks for sharing the tale of your walk on the wild side. I envy your productivity. You are an innovative person.

  6. I just spent two hours writing two paragraphs.

    Just hand me the razor blade now.

    Thanks for the laughs today. I need it.

  7. I’m a slow writer too so maybe there’s hope for me. Although, I’m a slow outliner too because for me, it’s the thinking process, the figuring it out, the changing my mind, that takes so much time. Thanks for the inspiration.

    • Jagoda, it took me four years to write my first book. It took me a year to write my second book. By book three I was down to six months. Book four took four months. It’s just a matter of practice…

  8. The best process is the one that works. And as you’ve said here, what works for one writer works for, well, one writer.

    Jim is right, pantsing – when done by someone with your level of experience – is really not all that different than outlining. Both are a means of finding your story, the means being the search itself. When you do those intrigue outlines, are you not “pansting” the outline, using your story sense to land on the best available story thread, then following that toward a satisfying answer? Am betting the answer is yes.

    That’s exactly what you or any pantser (with an elevated story sense) does. Except here’s the catch, in a general sense: not every pantser has that developed story sense. So when they use a draft to search for and believe to have found a story, that’s a 400 page bet with low odds. The risk is twofold: that pantser (the one with the less-than-full developed story sense) may not even realize the story could/should be better, so off to the agent or publisher or – more likely – the Kindle “Publish” button they go, with no vetting. And because those 400 pages were a huge investment of time and blood and soul, they are less than willing to rewrite it all. The result… is trouble.

    So let there be clarity: pantsing works, and is most viable, for authors like you. Pants away. If you have no fun writing from an outline, that’s your call, and probably doesn’t incur a qualitative cost. As for me, I have more fun knowing that the outline I’ve sweated and vetting for months, using my own version of story sense, is solid and the best story I have in me, which – much like decorating a house, only using words instead of wondering about where to put the walls – that draft becomes a total blast.

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