Back in July – I began an irregularly appearing feature about writing a crime thriller, explaining how I got started as a writer and where I get my ideas. This post will help you answer one of the first questions about writing a novel. Should you outline your book from beginning to end before you start writing?
I’m wary of statements that divide people into two types, e.g., them that do and them that don’t, but this is one divide that holds true. Some writers outline and some don’t. Which you should choose depends on what works best for you and to figure that out, you’ll have to try both.
I was a trial lawyer for twenty-eight years and I lived and died with my outlines for depositions, briefs and trials. It was the only way I could organize my thoughts and the evidence so that I could properly prepare. I assumed the same approach would work with my novels. Boy, was I wrong! For me, an outline is a straightjacket and a creativity crusher. My creative process is too organic, too fluid and too subject to change to figure a book out before I start writing.
Not true for other writers. I once heard James Ellroy say that he outlines everything and that his outline for The Cold Six-Thousand – a 688 page book, was over 300 pages. He also said that once he finished the outline, he never deviated from it. That’s crazy shit but, then again, Ellroy is known for saying a lot of crazy shit, including this standard opening monologue –
Good evening peepers, prowlers, pederasts, panty-sniffers, punks and pimps. I’m James Ellroy, the demon dog, the foul owl with the death growl, the white knight of the far right, and the slick trick with the donkey dick. I’m the author of 16 books, masterpieces all; they precede all my future masterpieces. These books will leave you reamed, steamed and drycleaned, tie-dyed, swept to the side, true-blued, tattooed and bah fongooed. These are books for the whole fuckin’ family, if the name of your family is Manson.
As much as I love Ellroy’s books, I don’t love them enough to outline mine.
So what do you do if you don’t use an outline? Figure out who and what you want to write about and why? Who are the leading characters? What makes them interesting, believable, sympathetic or so rotten that they’re irresistible (people love to hate villains)? Where does the story take place? Why there and not somewhere else? What happens to kick off the action? What’s at risk? Figure that out and get started!
You can jot down notes or keep it in your head or draw a diagram on your bedroom ceiling and study it morning and night. But you have to get started and you have to have some idea where you’re going. Lee Child once said that all he does with Jack Reacher is to put him in one impossible situation after another and then see how Reacher gets out of it.
On the downside, you’ll probably have to go back to the beginning more than once to change or fix something you’ve already written but that’s just evidence that your creative juices are blowin’ and goin’!
Image source: photogeek21