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.


John Ramsey Miller

Most published authors are asked to speak to groups of one sort or another. I am flattered when I am asked to address people who are interested in what I have to say. As I was preparing a yak-up about my work (and authoring in general) I’m going to be giving next week to people gathered up to support a university library, I thought about the most frequent questions I am asked. After addressing non-writers, readers, book lovers, funders and innocent bystanders, there is invariably a Q & A exchange. No matter where I am speaking, or what aspects I blather on about, when it’s time for questions people ask the same ones.

Q: Who are your favorite authors?

A: There are so many I never know where to start. I usually say it depends on the genre and when I read them. Truman Capote, Ken Follett, Frederick Forsythe, Ken Kesey, John Carre, Ira Levin, William Golding, James Brady, William Styron, Mario Puzzo, Willie Morris, Steinbeck, Eudora Welty, J.D. Salinger, J. G. Ballard, John Cheever, Tolkien, James Clavell, Tom Wolfe, Frank Herbert, and then we have contemporary authors, none of whom I can list here without fear of leaving out someone and hurting feelings. There are so many truly great authors out there.

Q: What are your favorite books?


Q:Do you write every day (on a schedule)?

A: Yes, but not always at the keyboard. These days I write when I want or need to.

Q: Where do you get your ideas?

A: Rarely from the same place twice

Q: What is your process?

A: I think a lot. I write. I think a lot more. I write. Like that. Over and over. It’s sort of a cycle that speeds and slows but never stops.

Q: Do you outline or follow characters where they lead you?

A: I never let my characters decide where to take me. I give them a road map and expect them to go exactly where I have made the marks. I am the choreographer. I think it is pretentious to say one’s characters are so alive they take over. As the author, unless you are either in control or on LSD. Your characters are in your imagination and on the page and are not actually alive and acting independent of your mind.

Q: When did you decide to become an author?

A: I have no idea when it started. I have told made-up stories and written since I was very young. Over time I more or less got increasingly familiar with an old friend.

Q: What advice would you give an aspiring author?

A: If you are published, yours will be one of 400,000 books published that year. If you don’t have a way of effectively promoting your book, it will not be widely read.

Q: Do you believe that everybody has at least one book in them?

A: In my experience, yes. And as often as not it’s a very bad book. Most people can start a book, but few have the drive to finish one, and fewer still have any idea how to write effectively. And of the books written only about one to two percent are worth reading. In my experience, the worst are autobiographies of normal people who think their experiences are going to interest other people, followed closely by humorous or inspiring stories they have collected.

Okay gang, are there any others you are asked that I’ve missed?

How to Grab Them on Page One

It’s first page week here at TKZ, and if you’re an unpublished writer you’ve been treated to some real gold. The instruction from our band of bloggers has been a valuable workshop on the art of what I call “the big grab” – getting the reader hooked from the start.

Last week, I wrote about what not to do on your opening page. Today, I want to suggest to you an opening strategy that works for any type of fiction.

At the outset, please note that what follows is not a formula. This isn’t painting by the numbers. But it is a principle, and thus has infinite possibilities for application. No matter what your style or genre, this principle will work its magic for you, every time.

Recall that last week’s post was triggered by something an agent said at a recent conference, to wit: “If you cannot write a compelling opening scene, from the opening sentence, I’m not going to finish your proposal.”

I assume you do want agents — and editors — to finish your proposal. If so, you must grab them on page one. How can you do that?

By beginning your novel with a disturbance to the Lead’s ordinary world.

Why disturbance? Because: Readers read to worry. They want to be lost in the intense emotional anticipation over the plight of a character in trouble. Only when that connection is made does reader interest truly kick in.

But in their opening pages many writers fall into what I call the “Happy people in Happy Land” trap. They think that by showing the Lead character in her normal life, being happy with her family or dog or whatever, we’ll be all riled up when something bad happens to this nice person, perhaps at the end of chapter one, or beginning of chapter two.

Or they fall into the “I’m the Greatest Literary Stylist of Our Time” trap. This is where a writers desires to display brilliance via pure prose before, somewhere down the line, something like a plot kicks in.

But that’s too long to wait. You need to stir up the waters immediately.

A disturbance is something that causes ripples in the placid lagoon of Happy Land. It can be anything, so long as it presents a change or challenge to the Lead. (It’s important to note that this disturbance need not be “big” as in, say, a thriller prologue. The opening disturbance can be a jolt, however slight, that indicates to the Lead she is not having an ordinary moment here).

And you need to have that jolt on page one, preferably paragraph one.

This is true for both commercial and literary fiction, BTW. Compare the following two openings, the first a commercial example, the latter a literary one.

They threw me off the hay truck about noon.

(The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain)

The world outside the window was in flames. The leaves on the pistachio trees shone fire-red and orange. Mattie studied the early morning light. She was lying on the side of the bed where her husband should have been sleeping.

(Blue Shoe by Ann Lamott)

Notice that Cain starts with a character in motion at a point in time that is obviously a disturbance to him. In this case, the disturbance is physical.

In Lamott’s example, we have two lines of description, then the Lead is introduced, and the last line is a ripple of disturbance, this one emotional: where is her husband?

Dialogue, if it indicates immediate conflict, is another way to create an opening disturbance. I’ve heard more than one agent say they like to see dialogue in the first pages. Why? Because it means you are writing a scene. Not exposition or description or backstory, but a real scene. Like this:

“The marvelous thing is that it’s painless,” he said. “That’s how you know when it starts.”

“Is it really?”

“Absolutely. I’m awfully sorry about the odor though. That must bother you.”

“Don’t! Please don’t.”

(“The Snows of Kilimanjaro” by Ernest Hemingway)

From these examples it’s plain to see that there are countless ways to grab readers right away through this wonderful thing called disturbance.

Now why wouldn’t you want to do that?

Perhaps you have a reason. Maybe style is what you’re after most of all. A mood. Or maybe you’re writing a grand epic, and want to “set the scene” as it were. But before you abandon the disturbance principle, look at the opening lines from a couple of “big” novels:

The boys came early to the hanging. (The Pillars of the Earth, Ken Follett)

The gale tore at him and he felt its bite deep within and he knew that if they did not make landfall in three days they would all be dead. (Shogun, James Clavell)

I don’t know about you, but that’s enough narrative energy to propel me through the next few pages. If I get a long weather report up top, or two pages on the sunlight over Rio (no matter how beautifully rendered) I will be sorely tempted to put the book down. If you tell me how the character got to the scene, via backstory or flashback, I’m definitely moving on.

But if you indicate there’s a character here facing change or challenge, uncertainty or conflict, I’m going to want to know why. I don’t need to know the background info yet. I’ll wait for that if trouble is brewing.

John LeCarre once said, “The cat sat on the mat is not the opening of a plot. The cat sat on the dog’s mat is.”

Mr. LeCarre has it right. The opening page of a novel has to draw the reader in with an indication of trouble to come.

Do that by disturbing your characters from the very start.