January 17-23: “Do you plot, plan, or outline? Or, do you just go where your characters lead you? Why?

Each author’s method is as individual as their work. Join ITW members Matt Lynn, Weston Ochse, LJ Sellers, Allan Leverone, Pam Callow, Chris Beakey, Michael Haskins, Larry D. Thompson, Blaize Clement, Matt Forbeck, Reece Hirsch and Edgar Franzmann as they discuss these important questions.

Matt Lynn is the author of a best-selling series of military thrillers, featuring a group of special forces soldiers working for a Private Military Corporation. ‘Death Force’ was published in 2009, ‘Fire Force’ in 2010, and ‘Shadow Force’ will be out in 2011. He is currently working on ‘Ice Force’, which will be out in 2012. Interviews and free short story at www.mattlynn.co.uk.

Weston Ochse spent 20 years in military intelligence and special operations and has worked extensively with every U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agency. In addition to his novels, his work has appeared in comic books, magazines and Writer’s Digest How-To books. He is the winner of the Bram Stoker Award for Best First Novel, has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, and has won an international screenwriting award. He lives in Southern Arizona.

L.J. Sellers is an award-winning journalist and the author of the Detective Jackson mystery/suspense series. The Sex Club, Secrets to Die For, and Thrilled to Death have been highly praised by Mystery Scene and Spinetingler magazines. Her fourth Jackson story, Passions of the Dead, will be released soon. L.J. also has two standalone thrillers, The Baby Thief and The Suicide Effect. When not plotting murders, L.J. enjoys standup comedy, cycling, social networking, mystery conferences, and editing fiction.

Allan Leverone attended the University of Notre Dame with the intention of majoring in newspaper journalism before changing direction after his freshman year and majoring in Business Administration, a degree he received in 1981 and to this day hs never put to use. After graduation, Allan was hired by the Federal Aviation Administration and began training as an air traffic controller, a job he has held ever since, working in Providence, Rhode Island, Bangor, Maine, and, for the last twenty years controlling traffic at Boston’s Logan International Airport. Final Vector is Allan’s first novel, and will be published by Medallion Press in February, 2011. In the meantime, he continues working on follow-up projects, including a horror novel based on a fictional three-hundred-year-old Native American curse and a conventional thriller featuring an ordinary man who breaks up a kidnapping and in doing so thrusts his own family directly into the maniac’s sights.

Pam Callow is the author of a new legal thriller series featuring thirty-something lawyer Kate Lange. DAMAGED, the first novel of the series, was a Levy Home Entertainment “Need to Read” Pick for June, with Top Ten Bestseller placement in Target and Wal-Mart. Two more Kate Lange thrillers will be released in 2011: INDEFENSIBLE (January, 2011) and TATTOOED (Summer, 2011). A fourth will be published in June 2012. Prior to making writing a career, Pamela studied English Literature, became a member of the Nova Scotia Bar, completed a Master’s Degree in Public Administration, and worked as a strategy consultant at an international consulting firm. She lives in Halifax with her husband, two children and a pug.

Chris Beakey’s first book, Double Abduction, about a preschool teacher who becomes the lead suspect in the kidnapping of his nephew, was published by J. Boylston & Co./ibooks, Inc. in November of 2007. Chris lives in Lewes, Delaware and works during the week in Washington, D.C.

Michael Haskins lives and writes in Key West, Fla., where he has been the business editor/writer for the daily paper and the public information officer for the city. He loves sailing and Key West is the perfect place to live and write for a sailor.

Larry D. Thompson has drawn on decades of experience in the courtroom to craft page-turning legal thrillers.  A Texas native, he tried more than 300 lawsuits before scratching the itch to be a novelist.  He continues to be a trial lawyer but has just completed his third novel, THE TRIAL, to be published by Thomas Dunne Books and St. Martin’s Press on March 29, 2011.

Blaize Clement writes a series of hybrid cozy-thriller mysteries called the Dixie Hemingway Mystery Series. The last one was a finalist for the Mary Higgins Clark award, the sixth will be published in January 2011. She’s a former psychotherapist, which probably explains why readers find her characters compelling and believable. She lives in Sarasota, Florida, where the series is set, and the fact that she still finds it remarkable that great blue herons walk around in her yard is probably why reviewers always comment on her “strong sense of place.”

Matt Forbeck has been a full-time creator of award-winning games and fiction since 1989. His latest novel—AMORTALS—is on sale now. He has designed collectible card games, roleplaying games, miniatures games, board games, and toys, and has written novels, short fiction, comic books, motion comics, nonfiction, magazine articles, and computer game scripts and stories for dozens of publishers. For more about him and his work, visit Forbeck.com.

Reece Hirsch’s debut legal thriller THE INSIDER was published by Berkley Books in May 2010.  Reece is a partner in the San Francisco office of Morgan, Lewis & Bockius specializing in privacy, security and healthcare law.  He is also a member of the board of directors of 826 National, a San Francisco-based non-profit organization that conducts writing programs for young people in underserved communities.

Edgar Franzmann, born in 1948, lives in Cologne/Germany. After thirty years as a newspaper editor he is now editor-in-chief of the official Cologne website. His first novel „Millionenallee“ („Millionaires’ Avenue“) was published in 2009, his second novel „Der Richter-Code“ („The Richter Code“) will follow in April 2011. He writes thrillers set in Cologne, a city of one million inhabitants and a history of 2,000 years. Franzmann is a member of „Syndikat“, the German mystery writers’ organisation.

Latest posts by ITW (see all)
  1. German writer Bertolt Brecht said in his Threpeeny Opera (1928): „What’s breaking into a bank compared with founding a bank?“

    I don’t know if I preferred to be a gangster or a bankster. But I know that I would never commit a crime without a plan. So why should I write a crime novel without a plan?
    I start small: My story in 50 words, you may call it the logline. I try hard for weeks to edit and re-edit these 50 words that describe my hero, the unique idea of the story, the main conflict, some twists and the ending.

    I had these 50 words when I began writing my first crime novel „Millionenallee“ („Millionaires’ Avenue“) in November 2007. These 50 words sold the script in May 2008. These words (minus the ending) even sold the book when it was published in October 2009.

    I used the same 50 words method for my second novel „Der Richter-Code“ („The Richter Code“) which will be published in April 2011.

    The 50 words tell me where to start and where to end. The journey itself is not yet totally determined. To have more milestones I write down the most important scenes on index cards (this year I tried the Index Card app for the iPad which works fine for me).
    Inspired by Blake Snyders „Save the Cat“ I use his Beat Sheet for the 15 must have scenes, then I lay out the story in detail on a Board in a total of 40 up to 60 scenes.

    While writing the crime novel the Board and the Beat Sheet may change when the characters begin to live their own lives. The 50 words logline helps to keep them on the way to succeed.

    1. Hello, fellow Cat! I love Blake Snyder’s SAVE THE CAT, as well as his two follow-up books. I recommend them to anyone who is struggling to understand story structure, especially for something as long as a novel or screenplay. Blake’s books are informative and VERY entertaining.

      Thanks, Edgar for your comments and insight, and good luck with your second novel.

  2. Bevore I became a writer, I was a trial lawyer (still am, for that matter). Most really good trial lawyers prepare for every possible contingency and then expect the unexpected. When I wrote my first novel, I prepared a far too detailed outline (twenty-five pages, single space). Then I put it away and never looked at it until I finished the first draft. When I read it again, I was amazed at how close I had stayed to that outline, written eight or ten months before. Taking the time to do the outline etched the story into my brain.

    That doesn’t mean that characters don’t come up with their own scenes. Good characters always do. My wife gets a real kick when I go to her office (we have adjoining home offices) and say, “You’ll never believe what Luke just did!” It’s great fun to have a character take the lead and follow along to see where he’s taking the plot. Still, since I’m in charge, if he strays too far afield, I can always pull him back. That happened in my first legal thriller. My protagonist had left an expert witness bleeding on the courtroom floor (not literally, of course). I read that scene and realized he had done far too good a job of destroying the witness’s credibility; so, I had to re-write the scene and let the witness land a few haymakers (Unlike a real trial where I can only ask the questions and hope for the right answer, as a writer I get to ask the questions and answer them. That’s really fun).

    I’m now starting my fourth novel and my outlines have become much shorter (this one was eighteen pages, double space). I admire those really fine writers who just sit down at the computer with an idea in mind and let the words flow. Alas, I don’t think I’ll ever be one of those. Last, my publisher requires a proposal; so, if I’m going to do one, I might as well make it serve a dual purpose.

  3. I guess our approach to planning reflects, as Larry points out, what we were doing previously. Before starting the ‘Death Force’ series a couple of years ago, I spent about five years as a ghost-writer for Random House. I churned out seven action-adventure thrillers, books that were supposedly written by spies and special forces guys.

    In many ways it was a frustrating experience. You get quite well-paid, but you don’t get any credit for your work.

    But it did teach me one really useful thing – the importance of planning your plot.

    When you are ghost-writing, you need to get the ‘author’ and publisher on board. The last thing I wanted to do was spend months on a book, and then get told it wasn’t what they wanted. So I started writing incredibly detailed outlines. I’d do a 15,000 word outline for a 100,000 word book. Every chapter and incident would be detailed, bits of dialogue, and character development. Then I’d make sure everyone was signed up to it.

    And you know what. I found it was a tremendous discipline. It forced me to really think ruthlessly about where the plot was going. It forced me to think hard about turning point, and twists, and to fitting the characters into the story. And it made me much better at chucking things out – I could edit much more fiercely on an outline than I ever could on a finished manuscript.

    So now that I am writing my own books I still do these incredibly detailed outlines.

    And that has two big advantages.

    First, the plots are much better. They start in the right place, they are tighter and leaner, and more exciting.

    Second, when I’m writing the actually book, I don’t have to worry about plot and structure because that is already done. I can focus on jokes, dialogue, one-liners, terrific action descriptions, and all the other stuff that goes into a first-class thriller.

    So if there is one piece of advice I would always give an aspiring writer it is – plan, plan, plan.

  4. ITW
    Do you plot, plan, outline
    Jan 17
    Michael Haskins

    My second Mick Murphy Key West Mystery, “Free Range Institution,” is out this month and my first in the series came out in 2008. Both these books came about because something I read made me wonder, “what if.”
    My third in the series, “Car Was Blues,” is done and being considered by the publisher.
    The one thing, other than me, that these books have in common is that when the spark of “what if” ignited my imagination, I got my notebook out and wrote down the beginning, middle, and end. The fun part was filling in the empty spaces between the areas.
    So, yes, I plan first, usually in my head and when I feel something has come together, I put it in my notebook. There is no order to my notebook. On one page could be some thought or dialog for the opening and the next page a twist I think will work in the middle.
    For these three completed books I plotted, planned and outlined.
    But a funny thing happened on reading the ARC of “Free Range Institution.” I read a chapter and thought that I had put “this item” in and finally went to my notebook, found “this item” but realized that what was in the ARC was actually more interesting or better. I couldn’t find what I’d written in the book in my notes. The thought came while writing and I went with it.
    I checked my notebooks for all three books and realized that about a third or more of my plotting and outlining never made it into the story. The story worked without it, sometimes better. The characters led me in different directions as the story unfolded. Good guys were bad and, yeah, bad guys were good, endings written in the notebook did not make it into the final product. Of course, time had passed from when the idea sparked and when it came time to write the scene or chapter and make it fit the storyline. Also, as expected, the story had grown, expanded and gone off on its own.
    The end of “Free Range Institution” has a shootout at the end and I knew how it would be and wrote it faithfully. When I reread it the next day, it didn’t ring true – possible yes, but it was wrong. I began reading from the beginning of the book and half into the story I have three of the main characters talk about war and killing and I realized who had to save the day at the shootout – and I can’t tell you because it would ruin the book incase you want to read it.
    Had I known it when I wrote those pages? Were the characters trying to tell me they had a better ending?
    When the spark for book four hit, I had a brilliant idea (is there another kind?).
    What sparked my imagination was a news story in Key West about a Jet Ski mechanic showing up early one morning and babbling about agents being out to get him. He gassed up a Jet Ski and told the crew he had to escape these men and took off toward the reef. The only land after Sand Key is Cuba – a choppy Jet Ski ride on a good day.
    Well, after the long Coast Guard search was called off the story went away. To this day, he or the Jet Ski has never been found. So, what if . . .
    I did a lot of thinking (planning) on the idea but as I was about to start writing in my notebook, (plotting and outline) I had another brilliant idea. Why not let the story write itself? Let the characters have the freedom to go where they want. There had to be a little organization, so I worked on ideas for the first few chapters, finding a body of course, and before I finished writing the chapters the story had taken on a life of its own. The next few chapters were decided by what had happened earlier.
    I am now 150+ pages in the new book and the writing is going well. When I write I keep a daily tab of the timeline and word count for each chapter and comparing it with the other three timelines there is no big difference. Some days it kills me to get 300 words down, other days I write 1,500 words or more. I use down days to read over what I’ve written, edit, and often discover where I have to pick up the next day.
    I don’t know if I would do this again. I’ll have to wait until I am done to decide. I do miss knowing ahead of time, the security of it in the morning as I sit down, but the fun of discovery is exciting too. Of course, the question I ask myself is who is writing the story, me or a group of dysfunctional characters? In Key West, being dysfunctional is normal.
    When I mentioned what I was doing to Joe Moore one day at a luncheon he looked at me as if I was insane, but he smiled and wished me luck. I didn’t take it personal because to be normal down here you have to be a little insane and tourists remind us of it all the time.
    I look forward to hearing your opinion and thoughts.

  5. When I first began writing fiction, I plotted meticulously, had every scene jotted on a numbered index card, knew exactly how many scenes I had to have and where I was going. All that rigid planning took all the fun out of writing the story itself, but it taught me how to divide a story into three acts and how to space the major action scenes that carry a story.

    Now I begin writing when I have an intriguing character in an impossible situation. I let each scene lead me to the next scene, without a particular plan. Around the third chapter, when I’ve tried several possible directions, I settle on one and start a chapter-by-chapter outline of what I’ve written — just a sentence for each significant scene. This is where the old training comes in handy. When I have an inkling of how a story with those particular characters in that situation might end, I add it to the end of the outline as something to shoot for. Sometimes I actually work backwards from the final scene. I’m very visual, so on the outline I highlight major action scenes in one color, subplot scenes in another color, scenes I’ve thought of but haven’t written yet in another color. I end up with a rainbow skeleton that makes it easy for me to spot a plot’s weak spots as well as crowded places where it needs some space.

  6. I think the title of this week’s roundtable might be a little misleading, because it seems to me it would be impossible to write a novel without a “plot” or a “plan.” Without some idea of what you are trying to accomplish as an author, you can wear your fingerprints off typing and all you will have for your efforts is 100,000 random words. And some damned sore fingers.

    I think what the discussion really boils down to is one question: Do you outline?

    My answer: Yes and no.

    I know it sounds wishy-washy, and my wife DOES tell me it drives her crazy that I hate to make decisions (And yes, I am well aware that is a strange trait for an air traffic controller – I tell my wife I use up all my decision-making skills at work), but in my case it really is true. I do outline and I don’t.

    For FINAL VECTOR, I wrote a relatively detailed outline of approximately the first half of the book. Then I started writing, because I knew how I wanted to proceed from that point on – the conflict was shrieking in my head and there was no point finishing the outline, because my characters weren’t about to forget their nefarious plans.

    I seem to be in the minority, at least on this panel, because I’m not a huge fan of spending a lot of time on an outline, unless I’m stuck on the story. As long as I am comfortable with the story arcs and the characters’ personalities, those characters will carry my sorry ass along for the ride as the story unfolds.

    It doesn’t even matter if I know where we’re going. For a long time, I had no idea how my protagonist, Nick Jensen, was going to dig himself out of the hole I dug for him; I only knew that he would. And you know what? He did. I really believe if I had spent a lot of time and energy finishing my outline I might have sapped the creative energy that built up as I was steaming along toward the finish of the book.

    But that’s just me. Your results may vary.

  7. I’m enjoying reading how everyone approaches writing their books. I, too, am a planner and outliner. I figure out which characters from my series will play a role, and what new supporting characters I require. I write extensive backstory for them all, working out their motivations, conflicts, and journeys within the book. After that, I write outlines for their story arcs within the book, and then plot them in a flow chart-style grid to map intersecting conflicts, plot twists and evidence revelations. Then I create a timeline with sequencing for events, which eventually morphs into the actual outline of the book. At that point, I write the outline in a synopsis form, so I can see how the book hangs together as a story. Then I start writing. I usually find if I haven’t given enough thought to certain plot points upfront, I will quickly become stymied during first draft.


  8. I always outline. That may be my journalism training or perhaps my control-freak personality kicking in, or both. I do extensive plotting before I start writing the story, so I know all the broad strokes and false suspects. When I have solid story concept, I start writing and continue filling in the outline as I craft the first few chapters. At page 50, I stop and clean up what I have and send it out to beta readers for feedback. Then I write the rest of the story without worrying about rewriting or polishing. I write lean, so in the second draft, I add detail and character development. In the third draft, I polish language and word choices.

  9. Edgar, Blake’s Save the Cat is a tremendous book. IYour use of the beatsheet is something I hadn’t considered, but I think I might. A also think that the idea of using a logline and an elevator pitch, which is what the 50 word approach sounds like, is a brilliant way to crystallize story. I approach outlines in much the same way, sometimes even using Chris Vogler’s Hero’s Journey as a guiding principal for characterization. The hero’s journey is interesting, patterned after Joseph Campbell’s learnings/teachings. I realized when I stumbled across this when finishing my MFA that I’d been using much of the ideas contained within automatically (which goes a little ways to prove Campbell’s assertion that the reason this works is because the ideas for these archetypes are etched into our psyches). So now when I create character to populate the plot, I strive to populate all the necessary archetypes. Perhaps strive is too hard a word. Actually, it’s pretty easy. After all, they are part who we are anyway.

    OUTLINING. Yes! With the exception of short stories, I always outline. I even outline screenplays. I have to. It took me three years to write my first novel (Scarecrow Gods), which was published in 2005. It took me three months to write my last novel (Empire of Salt). Both novels are about the same length and have multiple plot lines with a menagerie of characters. But with Scarecrow, I didn’t use an outline until I was more than halfway through it and totally stuck. Now, after six novels I have a lot more confidence that keeps me going in the dark hours of the writer’s soul. I also have greater output. Once the novel is plotted, the only thing left to me is to figure out the characterization. This I do by writing, and am often surprised by the results. A character might start one way, but end up being completely different. It’s funny that I have such firm control over plot, but my characters can get away from me.

    I also outline because I don’t write novels on spec anymore. The publishers I work with require a chapter outline as part of the pitch. It makes it difficult sometimes, but if the pitch is accepted, then I already have a running start with an outline.

    -Weston Ochse (pronounced ‘oaks’)

  10. Those of us who have posted so far all seem to outline in one form or another. I think I can tell you the extreme. That’s in the book by Sid Craft (Croft) about screenplays. I wrote one and my agent said it was so bad that I should go back to writing novels. I took his advice. Anyway, in the “how to” book, he recommended that for all major characters, the writer should write a complete bio of those characters, complete with where he/she grew up, high school days, parents, favorite foods, old girl/boy friends, prior jobs, recreational activities…you name it. His argument was that the writer needed to do this so the writer could understand how the character would react as events unfolded. In my mind, that was outlining to the extreme and really serves no useful purpose. I didn’t do it. Who knows, maybe that’s why my screenplay wasn’t any good (And, by the way, I still think it was quite good but my vote didn’t count).

    I’d like to see some other writers who sit down with and idea and just start writing chime in on this discussion. I know at Thrillerfest last summer Harlan Coben said that was his style. Harlan, are you out there?

  11. Larry,

    I know a lot of writers who create complete and complex biographies of their characters. I don’t do that. I do a sketch of each of the major characters, hair color, height, weight, etc. But that’s as far as it goes. The characters sort of create themselves as I write.

    For instance, in Empire of Salt, I have a girl who was transplanted from a bad part of L.A. to the Salton Sea, to live with her aunt and uncle. She has no friends to speak of and there’s nothing to do. But as I was describing her room, I found myself completely covering her walls and ceiling with pictures of places and people, celebrities and animals, etc, until it was as if her room was wall-papered in pop culture. She talks to these pictures when she’s lonely. They become her friends. We learn about the character through her interaction with these pictures. For those she doesn’t recognize, she makes up entire pasts for them. Readers talk about this to me at signings and readings all the time. They clearly dig it as much as I do. But between you and me and everyone reading this, I don’t think I would have been able to do it had I been corralled by a complete character encyclopedia.


  12. I do minor biographies on my characters for each novel. But I write a series, so some of the same characters come back in each story. I keep an Excel file, in which I track all characters, adding to it as I write each new book. I keep track of physical descriptions, personal details, addresses, etc. It saves me lot of time searching through files.

  13. I do intensive backstory on all my characters before I plot the story. When I figure out their motivations, I can see more clearly where conflicts will arise and what the intersecting points will be.

  14. I like L. J.’s approach, particularly with a series. And, obviously, there’s something to be said for the screenplay book I read since if works for Pamela. I haven’t done as Pamela suggests, but I will say that I have thought through (gotta make sure those two words are spelled correctly) my characters and certainly understand what makes them tick (and what ticks them off). In my current novel-under-construction I have five major characters and I’ve thought about them enough that I found it only necessary to write a few sentences about them in my outline/proposal. At this point, they’re living, breathing people, at least in my mind.

  15. As long as the characters are fleshed out in your mind, that’s all you need. Oftentimes what we commit to in writing, such as outlines and character biographies, will morph or be discarded as our story develops on the page. I’m always flexible and open to better ideas.

  16. I never outline. Never write biographies for my characters, many times I don’t even know how my book’s going to end. I treat each novel I write as a book I read and enjoyed years ago. I remember bits of the plot, some neat sections or lines, I understand how the characters worked and while I don’t know everything that happend, I recall how the book made me feel. Then I try to write that book so I get the same feeling and thoughts. I don’t like outlines and detailed plans because I like to see where my story takes me. And in my upcoming novel, Fall From Grace, I thought I had the ending figured out, thought I knew who the bad guy was. But when I started writing those final scenes, a new idea popped into my head and it was great. How my main character reacted to this new relevation was fresh and really surprised me. So no planning for me, and oddly enough, my training is in journalism as well.

  17. My first agent, Al Zuckerman of Writers House, insisted on outlines, which he liked to read early in the process. So I got in the mode of doing them. And I like it. I feel like my stories can be more complex if I map out all the interconnections. I’m also a bit of a control freak. 🙂

  18. I started out writing roleplaying games and moved on from there to writing over a dozen tie-in novels based on games. At the insistence of my editors, who rightfully wanted to know what they would get from me, I wrote outlines for every one of those. When it came time to write original novels, I stuck to the system that had worked so well for me for so long.


    I don’t let the outline constrain me like a straitjacket. Instead I treat it as a road map on which I’ve traced the route I plan to travel from the journey’s start to its end. Like most journeys, though, some of the best parts are the ones that don’t show up on any map, so I allow myself the freedom to deviate from my plan whenever a better direction comes along.

    Once I get over that initial thrill of letting the story draw me along rather than me having to drive it toward its destination, I usually find that I’m perpendicular from my original path. At that point, I sit down and re-outline the book again, starting from my new location. Sometimes I point myself back toward my original destination, but other times I head off toward a new goal. By the time I finish a book, I might have gone through this three or four times, but it’s always worth it.

  19. Matt.

    You wrote Roleplaying Games? Cool.

    Outlines don’t constrain me either. They are tools to help me corral ideas. The end of my first draft is generally only about 70% loyal to the outline and I’m just fine with that. By the end of the second draft, it’s about 50% loyal.

    I don’t re-outline, but maybe I should.

    1. Yeah, I wrote many RPGs and supplements over the years for just about every major publisher. It’s a fun field but doesn’t pay particularly well. I’m moving into writing for computer games instead, which is more lucrative but gives far less creative freedom.

      For me, re-outlining keeps me on pace and ensures that I don’t meander too far away from the main plot. Some writers enjoy the freedom to go where their whims take them, but I find I write faster with a goal in mind.

  20. With my background as a psychologist, my main interest is not in what a character does, but why. I have each of my characters write a letter telling me what they fear the most, and what secret the world doesn’t know about them. When I know those things about a character, I know how he or she would react in a situation when decisions have to be made and the stakes are high. That also keeps my writing close to the bone. If I find myself stumped and unable to go on, I know I’ve forced my characters to do something that isn’t true to their personalities. When that happens, I go to the outline and look at the last scenes I wrote and ask myself what’s phony about them. I can always find the answer in the outline, but if I went to the writing itself I might fall in love with my own words and not see how dishonest they are.

  21. I start with a broad idea and just write, once I have done about 5000 words I send it out for feedback and the polish it up. Sometimes though I end up with lots of scenes I just do not use. I also try to develop my characters thoroughly before I write so I know who they are and how they would act.

  22. I like Blaize’s idea of havinhg characters write her a letter, particularly the part about describing a secret the world doesn’t know about them. Very cool! I think I’ll give it a try.

    Thanks to Wayne and Jodie for discussing how ‘non-outliners” do it. I admire those that can do it, but, personally, I feel like I would be stepping off a cliff into a dark abyss and hoping there’s a safety net down there somewhere.

  23. Larry, I like the idea stepping of off that cliff into the dark abyss. The thing is, there’s always a safety net, because you can always go back and rewrite/edit/scrap everything. That might be the dirty little secret of non-outlining or (as I do) minimally outlining – you will probably have to do more extensive rewriting than the outliners.

    I’ve had instances where I had to go through my entire manuscript, changing sequences, revising scenes, etc. because I added or greatly changed a character. Show me someone who can sit down and write a book with no outline, and do virtually no rewriting, and I’ll show you a genius. Or a really bad book.

    The thing is, at least for me, I tend to get bogged down and lose creativity the deeper I get into my outline, which is one reason why I stopped a little over halfway through my outline of FINAL VECTOR. On balance, it probably takes a longer time, and is more overall work, to write a book the way I do it, but it makes the most sense for me…

  24. Even with extensive outlining, I’ve still had to go back in and rewrite a thread because I changed my mind or discovered it didn’t work well. I’m not sure who said it first, but “writing is rewriting.”

  25. When I was writing my first novel THE INSIDER, I used the “groping in the dark” approach to plotting. I knew generally how I wanted the story to end, but I usually only knew the specifics of the next two or three chapters. It wasn’t particularly efficient, but that was okay at the time because I was still teaching myself how to write a novel. Rewriting and rewriting my first manuscript was going to be part of my learning process in any event.

    I think that from now on, though, I’m going to outline rather fly by the seat of my pants. However, you still have leave room for spontaneity and allow the characters the room to breathe and change the course of the story. I always think of writing a thriller as a little like playing both sides of a chess game — from chapter to chapter you’re constantly looking for ways to surprise yourself. And if you can surprise yourself, then you will most likely surprise the reader, too.

  26. Blaize – love your approach. Fascinating to see how different professional practices influence our writing styles. I worked as a strategic services consultant for Accenture, so I do lots of flow charts and grids. But before I start, I always do deep backstory on my characters.

  27. It’s always fascinating to me to see how no two people write the same way, but we all end up with a story with a plot that hangs together and characters that come to life on the page. Well, usually we do. I’ve certainly done my share of novels that just never rose to the occasion, and I imagine every other published author has a few unpublishable manuscripts in the back of their closets. Whether we outline or write by the seat of our pants, the bottom line is that somewhere in our minds we have a vision that we’re trying to meet. The longer we work at this craft, the closer we come to realizing the vision we have for each story. But with each success, our vision gets bigger so we keep pushing ourselves. That’s why I love what we do so much. We have the only profession in the world that allows us to leapfrog from success to success, no matter how small the increments are.

  28. Since most of us seem to outline in one way or another, let’s try a little experiment. Suppose you didn’t outline, what would you start with? A character? If so, do you need some idea about both a protagonist and an antagonist; or is one enough? A small kerrnel of a plot? The climax? The location? Or maybe just staring at a blank computer screen until the muse speaks? Thoughts, anyone?

  29. Larry, your question reminded me of the way one of my Dixie Hemingway mysteries began. I woke up one morning with the sentence “Christmas was coming, and I had killed a man” running through my head. I had no idea where the words came from, but they became the first sentence in the book. I noodled around with the idea of what it would mean to a woman to be confronted with the season of peace after she’d just killed somebody, and a plot of a story rolled out one step at a time. No planning, no outline, just following ideas. But I’m an experienced novelist with a lot of my own works and a lot of ghost-written works that keep me disciplined. If I had less experience, I’d probably wander off the path if I tried to write a novel without any more plan than that.

  30. This really is fascinating. I love conversations about process. It always amazes me that there are so many avenues to success. That there isn’t one way makes me happy. No one wants to be a Stepford writer. We all want to be ourselves and find our own path.

    It occurs to me that most of what we’re talking about is plotting and outlining for the author’s benefit. Outlines are great tools for editors too, especially those to whom you are pitching. All my paperback novels have been sold based on a pitch comprised of three chapters and an outline. The outline shows the prospective editor several things. It shows that the author has a firm plan. It details the events which are to unfold. It also demonstrates pacing and the interaction of characters with the plot. And of course, it shows how the book will end.

    Interestingly enough, this week I’ve been in contact with a British publisher. They’ve had a pitch of mine for awhile – three chapters and an outline. Monday they responed that they liked it, but had some issues with the outline. The outline demonstrated everything it needed to in this case, but also provided them with a talking point which to address their concerns. I worked through their concerns and submitted a new outline yesterday.

    This morning I was offered a mass market paperback contract. My agent is working out the finishing details. If anything, this good news tale is a demonstration of the benefits of outlining because I can say with absolute certainty that my pitch would not have been accepted with out it.


  31. Larry, I like your experiment and Blaize’s first-entence-experience.
    While brainstorming about my new book, I “found” one thrilling line of dialogue, which might become the first sentence of the novel. Unfortunately I don’t yet know the character speaking these words.
    What shall I do? Create the character first or jump directly into the story “just following ideas” as Blaize did?
    I remember Larry’s words: “I like the idea stepping of off that cliff into the dark abyss. The thing is, there’s always a safety net, because you can always go back and rewrite/edit/scrap everything.”
    Well, I think I will jump this time …

  32. Congratulations, Weston. Clearly, an outline can serve multiple purposes. I have a very good agent who makes me re-write my outline (he calls it a proposal) too many times to count. However, he has forgotten more about the publishing industry than I’ll ever know. With my current novel, my outline finally passed muster with him (Hooray!). That alone was a two month process. Now he has sent it and the first six chapters to my editor.. I actually hope my editor and publisher offer criticism, ideas and suggestions. That would mean they are somewhat “invested” in the book, and I certainly don’t mind making changes early on. Better now than when the book is finished.

    Now to answer my own question, I think I would start with a well thought-out protagonist and some idea about the climax. Then I would see what road the protagonist would take to arrive at the climax and, of course, what characters and obstacles he would meet along the way.

  33. Good idea about starting with a climax, Larry. Sometimes the best way to go forward is to start at the end and ask yourself what would have had to happen for things to end up that way. Working backward from the ending, or just from a major turning point, helps you make sure each scene smoothly results from the previous scene and causes the next scene.

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