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.

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We Interrupt Our Regularly Scheduled Program…



I used to really enjoy Larry King’s column. It consisted of a number of comments of a sentence or two that were either 1) informative or 2) opinionated. One could read it quickly, and best of all, one did not have to look at or listen to Larry while doing it. Yay!

So what does that have to do with anything? I’m glad you asked: the dreaded deadline doom is approaching and I’m functioning (if that’s the word) on a few hours of sleep and really don’t feel competent to devote three or four paragraphs to a single topic. I accordingly am going emulate Mr. King and provide a sentence or two about a number of topics, primarily related to books and the musical and visual arts but also to some other things as well. We’ll be back to normal in two weeks. Maybe. Here goes:


Joseph Finder, after a layoff of a couple of years, is back with SUSPICION, which may be his best book yet…with all of the bombast about the Hachette vs. Amazon disagreement, has anyone considered that there are no good guys or bad guys here? They are just a couple of entities which are unable to come to terms at the moment but will do so eventually…I am loving every minute of 24: Live Another Day…I AM PILGRIM by Terry Hayes reads like a true account of a near-miss terrorist act. I was up all night reading it…Find a way to be the first on your block to hear “Thirteen Sad Farewells” by Stu Larsen before everyone else does. Great video, too…How will the second season of True Detective ever surpass, let alone equal, its first? I still watch all eight episodes once a week at least…Is it just me, or has this year been a particularly strong one for the mystery and thriller genres? Established authors are stepping up and writing the novels of their careers while every week brings a new and worthy debut. It has always been difficult to keep up but it seems to be well-nigh impossible now…

You know that the Skinny Cow brand of ice cream sundries and candies have officially arrived when you see that they now have their own fleet of trucks. Eating a box of the candy bars kind of defeats the purpose of having a diet chocolate treat but they are hard to resist…Health tip: add ONE drop of  Yucateco Chili Habanero Hot Sauce (the green one) to your food at each meal and mix it well. It will ward of colds and flu…

Sunbathing Animal, the new album by Parquet Courts, is a punk classic, a pre-dystopian soundtrack of what the night before the Apocalypse will feel like…following the success of Afterlife with Archie, Archie Comics publisher is planning a similar adult-themed rebooting of Sabrina the Teenage Witch…and, best for last…Kill Zone alumnus John Ramsey Miller is a step or three closer to the recognition he so greatly deserves as a television series based around his character Winter Massey approaches reality. Go, John, go!
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We Interrupt Our Regularly Scheduled Program…



I used to really enjoy Larry King’s column. It consisted of a number of comments of a sentence or two that were either 1) informative or 2) opinionated. One could read it quickly, and best of all, one did not have to look at or listen to Larry while doing it. Yay!

So what does that have to do with anything? I’m glad you asked: the dreaded deadline doom is approaching and I’m functioning (if that’s the word) on a few hours of sleep and really don’t feel competent to devote three or four paragraphs to a single topic. I accordingly am going emulate Mr. King and provide a sentence or two about a number of topics, primarily related to books and the musical and visual arts but also to some other things as well. We’ll be back to normal in two weeks. Maybe. Here goes:


Joseph Finder, after a layoff of a couple of years, is back with SUSPICION, which may be his best book yet…with all of the bombast about the Hachette vs. Amazon disagreement, has anyone considered that there are no good guys or bad guys here? They are just a couple of entities which are unable to come to terms at the moment but will do so eventually…I am loving every minute of 24: Live Another Day…I AM PILGRIM by Terry Hayes reads like a true account of a near-miss terrorist act. I was up all night reading it…Find a way to be the first on your block to hear “Thirteen Sad Farewells” by Stu Larsen before everyone else does. Great video, too…How will the second season of True Detective ever surpass, let alone equal, its first? I still watch all eight episodes once a week at least…Is it just me, or has this year been a particularly strong one for the mystery and thriller genres? Established authors are stepping up and writing the novels of their careers while every week brings a new and worthy debut. It has always been difficult to keep up but it seems to be well-nigh impossible now…

You know that the Skinny Cow brand of ice cream sundries and candies have officially arrived when you see that they now have their own fleet of trucks. Eating a box of the candy bars kind of defeats the purpose of having a diet chocolate treat but they are hard to resist…Health tip: add ONE drop of  Yucateco Chili Habanero Hot Sauce (the green one) to your food at each meal and mix it well. It will ward of colds and flu…

Sunbathing Animal, the new album by Parquet Courts, is a punk classic, a pre-dystopian soundtrack of what the night before the Apocalypse will feel like…following the success of Afterlife with Archie, Archie Comics publisher is planning a similar adult-themed rebooting of Sabrina the Teenage Witch…and, best for last…Kill Zone alumnus John Ramsey Miller is a step or three closer to the recognition he so greatly deserves as a television series based around his character Winter Massey approaches reality. Go, John, go!
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The Terrors of Timeliness

By John Gilstrap
 I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that for at least a few writers, the news of Osama bin Laden’s demise was met with less than pure elation. These writers are no less patriotic than their neighbors, nor are they sympathetic to terrorist causes.

They are authors who were 50,000 words into a novel about the capture or killing of Osama bin Laden. As the mass murderer’s brains were spattering the walls in Abbottabad, the potential value of those manuscripts dropped to just about zero. Months of work (years?) shot to hell—literally. Those writers learned what I consider to be a valid—though painful—lesson:

Reality in fiction ain’t all it’s cracked up to be.

It takes a lot of work and countless hours to turn out the kind of books I write. For them to succeed among my fans, the stories need to feel timely and current, and with a contract to produce a book a year, I can’t afford waste. That’s why none of my timely, current stories are ever set in real places.


My series character, Jonathan Grave, lives in the Northern Neck of Virginia (a real place), in a town called Fisherman’s Cove (not a real place). In No Mercy, a lot of the action takes place in the fictional town of Samson in the very real State of Indiana. In Hostage Zero, one of the characters is spirited off to an unnamed village in Colombia. The bad guy who does the kidnapping is able to do so because of a series of diplomatic agreements between the United States and Colombia that never happened.


They call this stuff fiction because it’s all made up. If an author expends enough intellectual energy to construct his fictional world with a few dollops of reality and a pinch of bravado, the reader will follow him wherever he wants to go. I don’t see a reason in the world why the Fisherman’s Cove or Colombian jungle of my imagination have to be any more real than JK Rowling’s Hogwarts.


Jonathan Grave and his crew use some amazing technology in their missions. Some of it is real, but a lot of it is just plain made up. One bit of made up stuff actually prompted a Navy SEAL buddy of mine to ask how I knew about such a top secret project. I told him the truth: Having hung around with a lot of spooky people in my time, I’ve learned that there’s a development project for just about anything anyone can think of. I don’t even have to understand the technology; I just have to convince my readers that my characters understand the technology. I think of it as literary sleight of hand.


There are a lot of authors out there who disagree with me on this subject. These are the types for whom research is an obsession—a calling. For some—like historical fiction writers—the research by necessity never stops, but for the average suspense writer, I think that making stuff up is a way more efficient use of time. I know crime fiction writers whose books are equal parts story and travelogue. Los Angeles and New York seem to be the most frequently-traveled.

 
Fictional characters travel real streets and eat in real places. They do a lot of stuff that I frequently skip over. Think about it: Unless the specific intersection of Hollywood and Vine plays a role in the story, it might as well be the intersection of Maple and Elm, because, as a non-resident of L.A., I’m dependent exclusively on the author’s description, which means that the realness of the description is irrelevant.


Some research is just a little bit crazy. My friend Joseph Finder posted a piece a week or so ago in which he—a self-described claustrophobe—allowed himself to be sealed into a coffin so that he could adequately describe what it’s like to be buried alive. Really. Turns out it was quite unsettling. I gotta say, as a borderline claustrophobe myself, I think I could’ve just made up the darkness, stale air and panic and saved myself some long-term counseling.



(Love ya, Joe!)


The more specific a writer gets in the depiction of real things and real places, the riskier the writing becomes. The devil is deeply embedded in the details. I read a book not too long ago that involved the fire service. During a response to a call, a character flipped the switch on his Federal Q siren and got a whooping sound out of it. The scene would have worked just fine if the author had stopped short of showing off his research. A Federal Q siren doesn’t whoop. I suppose for most of his readers it wasn’t a big deal because they wouldn’t know the difference—which invites the question (happy, Jim?), why not just leave it at siren? Or, if that extra level of verisimilitude is important to the author, he could just call it a Predator Nine siren? (There is no such thing, to my knowledge, but it sounds like it could be real, and the rank and file reader would be none the wiser.)


When your character jacks a round into his Glock and thumbs the safety off, you alienate people who know that there’s typically no need to do one of those actions, and that the other isn’t possible. It’s a mistake that pushes some of the audience out of the scene. No one would raise an eyebrow, though, if the character jacked a round into his pistol and thumbed the safety off.


So, dear Killzoners, if any of you are among the fictional bin Laden hunters, I hope you’re able to retool for the hunt of a more generic terrorist. Take heart in the knowledge that you’re treading the trail followed by downtrodden Soviet threat writers.

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