On the Hot Sexy Rush of the Great I Don't Know--Reb MacRath

Writers may come in all sizes and shapes...and some shapes are stranger than others. But in the end they all belong in one of two great camps.


First off, you have the outliners. Their argument is simple: a book is a journey and you can't get There till you know every Here on the way.

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P. G.Wodehouse's outlines ran to to 30,000 words and were done on index cards mounted all over the walls. Horror writer John Saul's outlines may reach a hundred pages while John Grisham's run to fifty. Even Tom Wolfe once lamented that one of his books took a decade to write because, with no outline, he found himself lost. And we can be certain that Virgil had an outline for the Aeneid: an epic divided into two parts of six Books each, with each part containing the same number of lines.


But the other camp is as large and as loud: non-outliners who insist on going with the flow--letting the book, as it were, write itself...sometimes on rolls of paper while one is On the Road. Their argument is simple too: we can't surprise our readers if can't surprise ourselves and over-plotted work lacks life.

Besides Jack Kerouac,well-known non-outliners include: Stephen King, Lee Child, Harlan Coben, Joe R. Lansdale.

                                         ENTER THE DRAGGIN'

I took fierce pride in belonging to the first camp, drafting running outlines for every book I wrote--including dialogue and action scenes. But one day, about six weeks ago, on a trip to San Francisco, I found myself in ancient Rome, facing my own Rubicon. A tough place to be for a writer accustomed to taking his time--and occasionally dragging his heels.

I had a sudden idea for a new book in series of short thrillers, The Fast and The Furies. The idea was for a contemporary thriller with deep roots in Ancient Rome and Egypt. Its grip on me was too strong to resist--though I'd spent months researching and outlining another book...one that I'd planned to begin in a week.

But when you reach your Rubicon, you know what you must do. And so I decided to start the next day--with the mere arc of the story in mind. No outline and no notes. I set a pace and stuck to it: 1000 words a day. I'd tackle each problem as it arose, refusing to be cowed or slowed. To date: 40,000 words...5000 more to go.

Tentative conclusions:
1) I'll never completely abandon outlines for future books and I look forward to working on the outlined mystery now in queue: a different MO for a different sort of book.
2) That said, I have enjoyed a very wild ride this month.

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The daily kick of fresh discoveries, the exhilaration of working with no net--just what the doctor ordered this time around for me. And I think the experience will enrich my future books.
3) There are trade-offs involved, imo, in working with no outline. On the plus side, such 'improvised' work can gain in pure raw energy--not something that can be injected into a tightly planned book. On the flip side, I don't necessarily save time working in this fashion. Day by day, I discover new things that compel me to adjust earlier things that I wrote. In the sort of short novel I'm writing--40,000-45,000 words--the extra work is an acceptable price for the freedom. But for novelists who work in the long form--80,000-100,000 words--flow charts and character cards, if not extended outlines, would seem to be a must.

In the end, possibly, it all comes down to this:

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As I sign off I wonder, though, if there might not be a third camp:

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And in the third camp the solution's to be had for a song:

Instead of a formal outline, one that reads like a short Wodehouse novel, writers might devise alternatives that work for them. Example: David Morrell keeps a daily journal in the form of questions addressed by himself to himself: e.g., So, David, you seem to have concerns about the story's time line. What are your thoughts about that?...Good morning, David. Haven't seen the character X in a while. Is that a sign that we don't need him--or are you planning a surprise?...Etc.

Charles Dickens is wrongly held up as a non-outlining author.  Actually, he used detailed work plans for his installment novels, preparing the ground as he went. (For more on this, please check this article: http://takingnotenow.blogspot.com/2011/12/charles-dickens-plan-sheets.html )

Another writer might jot down thoughts or narrative strategies that come to her or him while s/he is making it up as s/he goes. Another writer may outline the first part of a novel...then wing it from there.

Great books have been written with outlines as well as without. The trick of it for each of us remains to find our own Way...and our own brand of Muscle Milk.


I'm in the second camp. I usually write a short synopsis, and have an idea about how the novel will end. But I don't really know what's will happen until I'm with the characters and immersed in the environment of the story.
glitter noir said…
Thanks, David. I'm somewhere in between as well: my outlines grow sketchier around midpoint--and I seldom look at the outlines after I've done them.
Wendy H. Jones said…
I'm a mixture of second and third. I might just give one a go and see how it goes. Great overview by the way. Thanks for this.
Chris Longmuir said…
I'm in the second category, although my books are longer, averaging 90,000 to 95,000 words. It's a game of 'what if'. The only problem is that because I write crime, and of course, because I don't know whodunit (I like to surprise myself) I have to keep a detailed timeline to ensure the eventual killer is actually available, at the time, to commit the crime. He/she can't be miles away from the crime scene when the dastardly deed is done!
Bill Kirton said…
I'm with Chris. All my books have been seat of the pants things. The WIP, however, is taking an inordinate amount of time to write and I'm beginning to wonder whether it's because I did too much research on various specific aspects of it - transport times and methods north of Inverness in 1841, design of vessels taking emigrants to the Americas and the on board conditions, scripts of melodramas, acting troupes, etc. It's all useful but the characters have got lost amongst it all somewhere. I'm (unintentionally) limiting their freedom.

But I'm looking forward to this new opus of yours.
Mari Biella said…
I hover between the two camps. I do like to outline stories, but not in any great detail. Once I have a basic framework in place, I like to let the story grow organically. Things happen that I didn't originally foresee, characters turn out to have greater depth than I imagined... it keeps it interesting!
Lydia Bennet said…
I began The Operator with an opening scene, a visual in my head of the first murder, and all kinds of things I wanted to write about medical sadism - many rewrites it took to get to the end, but as Chris says you need to keep hold of all the deets with a crime novel - The Rotting Spot, I had an idea of a theme and a place, the skull collector's eponymous rotting spot. So many ways to get there! Good luck with the new Roman novel, Reb. Infamy, infamy, they've all got it infamy! to quote Kenneth Williams.
glitter noir said…
Thanks for the feedback, everyone. Special thanks to Bill and Val for their interest in the Roman/US WIP. Painting myself in a corner each day, then having to figure a way out the next, has definitely kept the Muse wired.If I'd worked with an outline, I don't think 'I' alone could have come up with some of the narrative tacks that she takes. Enough said, though. I'll learn if the tacks are working soon, when I start the second draft.
Debbie Bennett said…
Pure pantser, me. Couldn't write any other way! Sure there are pitfalls - I write myself into corners, I scrap chunks of work. But the thrill of the ride is worth all the pain...
Leverett Butts said…
Great post as usual, Reb. As for me, I fall firmly into the third camp. When I was younger, I always wrote by the seat of my pants, going where the tale took me, and mostly I still do. However, because I planned GUNS OF THE WASTE LAND as a series of four novellas, I found myself loosely outlining the books so I don't go down too many rabbit holes. However, I still allow the characters to take me where they want to go (as Moaco says, it's reallly their story, not mine), so I often wind up revising the outline as I go to allow for new directions. My outline then is not so much a map of the story, as it is roughly handwritten notes taken from an old toothless guy in overalls on the side of a dirt road telling me how to get to the next gas station.
glitter noir said…
Thanks, Debbie and Lev. And, Lev, your last sentence there is a classic.
Enid Richemont said…
I have never planned nor plotted. I begin with a soup of ideas and one main theme I'm in love with, and then run with it. Lev - I loved that sentence too.

In recent years, though, I've been writing to a proscribed word length - stories for early readers, and picture book texts - all of which I find challenging, and also good poetic discipline (hope that makes sense, as I do sweat over these things).

My lengthier Young Adult novels, all now out of print, are enjoying a new life as e-books for the Kindle.
Nadine_Feldman said…
I don't outline at first. I write a few drafts to get clear on the story I want to write...I don't know what I'm writing until I'm writing it. Then, when I'm revising, I outline the book, and that helps me identify how to modify the action.
glitter noir said…
Thanks for your feedback, Nadine. Your strategy intrigues me.

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