April 20 – 26: “Do you plot, plan, and outline?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5Do you plot, plan, and outline? Or, do you just go where your characters lead you? This week, ITW Members Bruce Desilva, Jean Heller, Mark Petry, Simon Wood, H. W. “Buzz” Bernard, Vincent Zandri, Colin Campbell, Graham Smith, Gary Haynes, Brian Pinkerton, Kevin Egan, J. L. Merrow, Alex Dolan and Ellen Kirschman will discuss why some authors are plotters and others are pantsers.


hellerMost of Jean Heller’s career was as an investigative and projects reporter and editor in New York City, Washington, D.C. and St. Petersburg Florida. Her career as a novelist began in the 1990s with the publication of the thrillers, “Maximum Impact” and “Handyman” by St. Martin’s Press. Then life intervened and postponed her new book, “The Someday File,” to publication in late 2014. Jean has won the Worth Bingham Prize, the Polk Award, and is an eight-time Pulitzer Prize nominee.


Snake Pass by Colin CampbellEx Army, retired cop and former Scenes Of Crime Officer, Colin Campbell is the author of British crime novels, Blue Knight White Cross, and Northern Ex, and US thrillers Jamaica Plain, Montecito Heights, Adobe Flats and Snake Pass. His Jim Grant thrillers bring a rogue Yorkshire cop to America where culture clash and violence ensue.



Snatched from Home by Graham SmithGraham Smith is married with a young son. A time served joiner he has built bridges, houses and slated roofs to make ends meet. He now manages a busy hotel and wedding venue near Gretna Green, Scotland. An avid fan of crime fiction since being given one of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five books at the age of eight, he has also been a reviewer and interviewer for well-respected website Crimesquad.com for over five years.


Secert Service Color FinalMark Petry is a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin. He writes mystery and suspense thrillers. He’s all about the surprise ending. In his first novel, Class Dismissed, you had to wait till the last 2 pages to find out what really happened. In his latest, Secret Service, you’ll find out some secrets earlier on, but not all.



The One That Got Away by Simon WoodSimon Wood is a California transplant from England. He’s a former competitive racecar driver, a licensed pilot, an endurance cyclist and an occasional PI. He shares his world with his American wife, Julie. Their lives are dominated by a longhaired dachshund and four cats. He’s the Anthony Award winning author of Working Stiffs, Accidents Waiting to Happen, Paying the Piper, Terminated, Asking For Trouble, We All Fall Down and the Aidy Westlake series. His next thriller is THE ONE THAT GOT AWAY due out March ’15. He also writes horror under the pen name of Simon Janus.

The Missing Piece by Kevin EganKevin Egan is the author of seven novels, including his forthcoming The Missing Piece and Midnight, a Kirkus Best Book of 2013. He works in the iconic New York County Courthouse, which serves as the setting and inspiration for The Missing Piece. His short fiction has appeared in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, Rosebud, and The Westchester Review. He graduated with a B.A. in English from Cornell University.


State of Attack by Gary HaynesGary Haynes is the best-selling author of STATE OF HONOUR. STATE OF ATTACK is published by Harlequin (HarperCollins) on 7 February 2015. His books are described as: “Awesome adventures with countless twists and turns. Plots that seem as if they are lifted from today’s news on the threat of terrorism.” Gary “walked on the wild side” before deciding to study law at Warwick University and complete his postgraduate training at the College of Law. Gary writes cinematic-style, intelligent, fast-paced, action-packed espionage/political/military thrillers. He is writing a series of novels based on his main character, Tom Dupree, a special agent in the US Bureau of Diplomatic Security.

The Euthanist cover_smallAlex Dolan was raised in Boston, lived in New York City, and currently resides in the San Francisco Bay Area. In addition to writing for several publications, he has recorded four music albums, and has a master’s degree in strategic communications from Columbia University. The Euthanist is his first novel.


Blizzard by H. W. BernardH. W. “Buzz” Bernard is a best-selling, award-winning novelist.  His debut novel, Eyewall, was a number-one best seller in Amazon’s Kindle store.  Two subsequent novels, Plague and Supercell, were winners of the EPIC eBook Award, suspense/thriller category.  His fourth novel, Blizzard, was released in February.  He’s at work on novel number five, Tsunami (working title), which is set in the Pacific Northwest.  Buzz is a native Oregonian, but now calls Georgia home.


scourge-bigBruce DeSilva grew up in a parochial little Massachusetts mill town where metaphors, assonance, and irony were in short supply. Nevertheless, his crime fiction has won the Edgar and Macavity Awards; has been listed as a finalist for the Shamus, Anthony, and Barry Awards; and has been published in ten foreign languages. His short stories have appeared in Akashic Press’s award-winning noir anthologies. He has reviewed books for The New York Times Sunday Book Review and Publishers Weekly, and his reviews for The Associated Press appear in hundreds of newspapers and websites. Previously, he was a journalist for forty years, editing stories that won nearly every major journalism prize. He and his wife, the poet Patricia Smith, live in New Jersey with two enormous dogs named Brady and Rondo.

Everything Burns by Vincent ZandriVincent Zandri is the NEW YORK TIMES and USA TODAY bestselling author of more than 16 novels including THE INNOCENT, GODCHILD, THE REMAINS, MOONLIGHT RISES, and the forthcoming, EVERYTHING BURNS. He is also the author of numerous Amazon bestselling digital shorts, PATHOLOGICAL, TRUE STORIES and MOONLIGHT MAFIA among them. Harlan Coben has described THE INNOCENT (formerly As Catch Can) as “…gritty, fast-paced, lyrical and haunting,” while the New York Post called it “Sensational…Masterful…Brilliant!” A freelance photo-journalist and the author of the popular “lit blog,” The Vincent Zandri Vox, Zandri has written for Living Ready Magazine, RT, New York Newsday, Hudson Valley Magazine, The Times Union (Albany), Game & Fish Magazine, and many more. He is a resident of both New York and Florence, Italy.

Anatomy of Evil by Brian PinkertonBrian Pinkerton tells stories to frighten, amuse and intrigue. His novels include Anatomy of Evil, Killer’s Diary, Abducted, Vengeance, Bender, Rough Cut and How I Started the Apocalypse. Select titles have also been released as audio books and in foreign languages. Brian’s short stories have appeared in Chicago Blues, PULP! and The Horror Zine.


Heat Trap by J. L. MerrowJ. L. Merrow is that rare beast, an English person who refuses to drink tea. She read Natural Sciences at Cambridge, where she learned many things, chief amongst which was that she never wanted to see the inside of a lab ever again. Her one regret is that she never mastered the ability of punting one-handed whilst holding a glass of champagne. She writes across genres, with a preference for contemporary gay romance and the paranormal, and is frequently accused of humor. Her novella Muscling Through was a 2013 EPIC Award finalist, and her novel Slam! won the 2013 Rainbow Award for Best LGBT Romantic Comedy.

BuringBen_WebThumb-330Ellen Kirschman is an award-winning public safety psychologist. She is the author of the best-selling I Love a Cop: What Police Families Need to Know, I Love a Fire Fighter: What the Family Needs to Know, and co- author of the forthcoming book, Counseling Cops: What Clinicians Need to Know. A pioneer in the field of police psychology, her workshops and seminars have taken her to twenty-two states and four countries. She is a lead clinician at the West Coast Post Trauma Retreat for first responders with post traumatic stress injuries and a member of the Police Psychology Sub-section of the International Association of Police Chiefs, the Society for Police and Criminal Psychology, and the International Association of Women in Policing. Burying Ben, her first novel, is drawn from her years of experience working side by side with officers on the street and listening to their secrets in the confines of her consulting room. While Ellen loves cops, she is married to a remodeling contractor. She and her husband live in the San Francisco Bay Area.

  1. When it comes to outlining a novel, it didn’t take me long to learn my lesson.

    I had heard about the importance of creating a thorough outline before the actual writing started. So my outline for my first book, MAXIMUM IMPACT, wound up at nearly 300 pages. Before you laugh me out of the room, understand the outline included character profiles, so it wasn’t quite as bad as it sounds.

    Yeah, right.

    The outline gave me the confidence that I knew how the story would develop. The problem became, once I had the outline, I got very rigid about following it, and the outline morphed into a rut. My story and my characters wanted to take off in some interesting directions I hadn’t taken into consideration. I wouldn’t permit the deviations, and I lost a lot of great material.

    I almost lost the book, too. About two-thirds of the way through, I thought I had written myself into a fatal corner. I decided to put the manuscript away and forget about it. Nice try. Too bad.

    More than a year later, I had an urge to read what I’d written. I remembered those diversions I had shunned, and I realized if I’d gone with my right-brain instincts, I wouldn’t have found myself in that buzz-killing corner in the first place. So I started again, and St. Martin’s Press liked the results enough to give me a healthy advance and publish the work.

    These days, I limit myself to one-page outlines, though I do permit them to be single-spaced. I know where the story is going to start and how it’s going to end. I have a general idea how I’m going to get from here to there, and then I let the story and the characters find their way, with just a little guidance from me.

    It’s a lot more fun than writing in a rut.

  2. When writing a thriller, I usually envision what the plot revolves around. Coming up with the story line for The African Contract, an article about the Republic of South Africa having the Bomb back in the sixties came to mind. The government was convinced by Western Powers to dismantle them. What if one of those Bombs got misplaced, I thought? Then in my mind a general plot line began to evolve.
    From that point I brought in the main set of characters in the Hayden Stone series. What would they do when confronted with terrorists’ intent on laying their hands on that weapon? That was my outline: in my head.
    As far as preparing a detailed written outline, no, I can’t do that. I think up a beginning chapter and then let my characters get to work. One thing, I prepare is I call my running synopsis. Prior to working on a new chapter, I’ll set out what I want accomplished in that section and who will do it and how. This document is also helpful for me when my agent and publisher ask for a formal synopsis.
    Once I write down the kernel of the next chapter or scene(s), I take a long walk, or work out in the gym, and run the scenes through my mind visually as if watching a film. Then I go home, sit at the computer, and write.

  3. I don’t plot or plan too much in advance other than in my head. I have a system where I do a weird kind of reverse plotting. Whenever I start a novel, I know nothing more than the setting, main characters, the crime and what the resolution should be. From this point I jump in and start writing. Sometimes I’ll know a couple of waypoints I want to insert and at other times I won’t have any idea. What I never know is how the hero solves the crime or thwarts the evil doer. Thankfully it has always came to me as I’m writing, but I’m forever fearful of the day when I paint myself into an inescapable corner and have to scrap a large part of the story.
    However, after I complete each new chapter I write a single paragraph synopsis of it outlining key details I may need to remember later along in the novel. This proves invaluable when I come to edit the novel as a whole and is a great aid when writing the dreaded synopsis.
    I’ve found as I get nearer the end of the novel, I will pre-plan the next couple of chapters with a single line depicting the elements I want to happen. These plans are then used or ignored according to where the story takes itself. The best analogy I can think of is that it’s like driving a long way at night. I know where I’m going to finish the journey but can only ever see what the headlights show me.
    I love having the freedom this method provides me and my characters. None of us are comfortable being tied down and I’ve had characters totally change the direction a story is going despite being dead from the first paragraph.

  4. I’m a confirmed pantser. I know outlining works for some, but for me, it’s not only incredibly hard, it also kills all the joy of writing. While I do enjoy the bit at the end of a novel when I (finally!) know exactly what’s happening and I’m just filling in the gaps, I couldn’t write a whole book like that. Part of the fun, for me, is landing my characters in extraordinary situations and seeing how they’ll react. Or getting two of them talking, and seeing where the conversation leads them.

    When I start writing a novel I’ll usually have a beginning, sometimes an end, and always one or two scenes along the way. So I write those, and then see where it all goes. 🙂

    One thing I have learned along the way is to write the synopsis before I finish the novel. Usually around 2/3 to ¾ of the way along, I’ll find it all getting a bit unwieldy in my head, and if I sit down and force myself to write a synopsis of the work so far, it really helps me work out which direction I need to be going in, and to tighten up the bits that go off at a tangent.

  5. Do you plot, plan, outline? Or, do you just go where your characters lead you? Why?…

    …Seems like a straightforward set of questions, doesn’t it. But in truth, the answer’s not so simple. On more than one occasion, I’ve overheard established authors referring to their novels as “their babies.” That said, if I were to use the baby analogy to answer the question of are you a Plotter or a By-the-seat-of-your-pants author, I might say, Like my three kids, two of them were planned out ahead of time, from conception, to gestation, to setting up the nursery, to birth, to diaper service, to weekly babysitting, and everything else required of the first full year of a little baby’s life. It took a lot of thought, time and effort, but in the end, planning things out made for a smooth and happy experience.

    The second child required a bit less planning, but still, we made sure to plan ahead to a degree where we were confident that all would turn out smoothly. But by the time we got to the last kid, well, we weren’t even sure we could get pregnant, so we just sort of winged it. When we found out we were pregnant we just sort of went with the flow, allowing things to happen naturally. After all, we’d been through it twice before and realized that sometimes over-planning can take the fun and spontaneity out of the process. After all, life is a process of discovery if nothing else. So should writing a novel.

    Okay, perhaps I’m pushing the baby metaphor to the breaking point here, but by now I’m sure my motive is obvious. When I was younger and just out of writing school in the late 1990s, I didn’t have the confidence or to be perfectly frank, the skills required to write a novel by the seat of my pants. Even if my characters were strong, their voices already speaking to me, I needed to plan out every plot point, from inciting incident to first conflict, to conflict resolution, to the epilogue. Not only did creating a clear plan help me construct and flesh out my novel, it also allowed me to go on the next morning without being stuck.

    As time went on however, and I became more comfortable with the novel process, I found that I was able to write a full length, 60K word piece of work by outlining only a few chapters at a time. I found that by planning anything beyond that would take away from my protagonist’s ability to make it up as he or she went along. Because life is a lot like that isn’t it? Often times, we find ourselves adapting to unforeseen circumstances regardless of how much we attempt to stay in control. You know someone sideswipes your new car at the intersection, or you find that your wife’s been cheating on you…Life isn’t perfectly scripted by any sense of the word. This new method of semi-outlining allowed the novel to develop organically as opposed to one that’s built by connecting the dots.

    These days, after writing 17 novels, all of which are in print, I have enough confidence to sit down at my laptop with just a shred of an idea and in turn, build a novel out of it. That’s not to say I don’t spent time jotting down notes, or little bits of story outline, or even a page-length character synopsis or two. But what I don’t require anymore is a detailed outline. In fact, I purposely avoid it. With experience comes confidence. With confidence comes the freedom to allow your story…your baby…to take itself where it will.

  6. I’m a plotter—and proud of it. It may have something to do with my engineering background. Although I’m creating a story, I’m constructing something that needs to be structurally sound—or the reader won’t believe it. And it pays to outline. After all, I’m trying to marshal 80-100,000 words and various plotlines and that’s a lot to think about. For me, I like to know that I’ve thought the story through. I don’t have to button down every detail but I want to know the general direction of the story. Outlining for me is like Google maps. I know all the turns I’m going to take but I won’t know what the traffic conditions, weather and speed will be until I get there. The way I outline is to create a spreadsheet color-coded by character POV, main plot & subplot. No heavy description. Just bullet points on what takes place during each particular scene. Now I know you’re laughing at me, but I find the exercise very useful for organizing my thoughts and a nice guide as I write the story. I think outlining is vitally important to first time writers. It helps prevent false starts and messy quagmires that can take months to resolve, but more importantly it helps writers understand the structure and architecture that goes into a novel, because once you understand how a thriller is put together, then you’re aware of how you can break the conventions.

      1. Next stop…world domination.

        With out thinking ahead mentality, we will survive the zombie apocalypse/alien invasion/global weather disaster/and other Hollywood movie scenarios…

    1. I’m not laughing, I’m holding my head. I hate spreadsheets. So many tiny boxes. Makes me dizzy thinking about them. On the other hand, you are a bee keeper and a spreadsheet bears some resemblance to your beehives, all those little holes filled with honey. All those little cells filled with notes. :>)

    2. Simon–you’re probably the antithesis to one of my fellow novelists who claims plotting (or outlining) robs him of his “creative juices.” He defines his characters, then just plunges into his story. That wouldn’t work for me or you, but as I said in my post, there’s no right or wrong way of approaching this.

      1. I’ve never bought that argument. When I’m outlining I’m being creative. I’m going through all the mechanics of making the story work. Also the outline is a framework and not the finished product. I still have to write it. The outline helps me work out the kinks…

    3. I’m a pantser and while I go where the notion takes me, I’ve always wondered if plotters allow themselves to colour outside the lines. You talk of bullet points rather than pages, Simon so I’m guessing you allow yourself a certain amount of leeway. Do you ever find the characters take over and steer you away from your plot?

      1. Graham,

        The bullet point approach gives me a direction but not the detail. So there’s plenty of scope to colour outside the lines or rewrite the outline. Things that work on the spreadsheet may not gel so well when I write the book. So I’m happy to go whether the story takes me but my spreadsheet is my guide not my bible.

        1. Graham—I think you make a good point. I don’t think that having an outline stops me from coloring outside the lines. I often change the structure of that outline, sometimes changing characters or taking the story into new territory. But for me, making major changes to story structure or characters is much easier if I’m working from a master plan. It also helps me by making me aware of the bigger picture when I make these changes.

  7. When I started writing I had an excellent and well-respected literary agent but my first novel remains unpublished. So for this blog post I thought I’d concentrate on overcoming the one factor that I believe prevented me from securing a publishing contract back then. Here’s the culprit: a lack of structural planning. Or, simply put, not having a plot before you start writing your novel.

    When I began to write my first (unpublished) novel I had a basic idea in mind. I had read a book and a particular fact fascinated me. I saw this as the kernel from which my novel would grow. Unfortunately, when I began writing I soon found myself going off in all directions like the branches of a tree. I had no focus and spent hundreds of hours trying to figure out the plot. As a result, the plot was pretty lame, I have to say.

    The remedy for this is to plan out your novel as best you can before you start writing it. I used to do a lot of mountaineering, but the thought of going into the wilderness without a map and a clear indication of where I was going and how I’d get there would have been unthinkable. I soon found out that it’s the same with writing a novel.

    There’s a wide spectrum of thought on structural planning, everything from a page to a hundred pages. One successful author plans out every paragraph. Well, I’m somewhere in the middle. I do a summary for each chapter. Being a thriller writer, my chapters are short and punchy, and the overall summary is about 10,000 words. This means that for a novel of 100,000 words with 100 chapters, each chapter summary is on average 100 words. Some are no more than a couple of lines, but if the muse takes me, I can write half the length of the actual chapter during this process.

    The more you do at this stage the less you have to do when you write the book. You can concentrate on getting a scene right rather than trying to figure out how it will fit into the plot. This doesn’t mean that you have to slavishly continue on the planned route as you are in the writing process, but it does mean that you only take little detours rather than full 180 degree turns. And when you do decide to go off-road, you’ll find that you will do so with confidence, because you are still within sight of the main highway.

    So my advice is to plan your novel before you begin to write it. It will improve your plot simply by keeping each chapter cohesive and relevant.

  8. I wish I were one of those writers who could just start typing and go with wherever the moment takes me, but it usually winds up an unfocused mess.

    I’ve developed a process that’s helped me. It’s methodical, and possibly way too anal for some writers, but with the hope that it might offer some structure and process for those who want it, I’ll outline it briefly.

    (1) Premise. I’ll usually come up with some kind of premise that intrigues me. In the case of the book I’m about to release (The Euthanist), I had an interest in people that work in end-of life care and the right-to-die movement. I wondered what someone might be like who chose that line of work. The story germinated from this basic interest in the subject matter.

    (2) Characters. Before I started on the first draft, I wanted to get to know what kind of people would be part of the story. I did create a story outline that helped give me a rough idea of what characters I might need, but I spent months developing biographies on each of my lead characters before I ever started with the manuscript. For each character, I answered the following questions (this is not my questionnaire either—it’s Frankensteined from several different sources). You might decide you don’t need this, or that this is way too formulaic for your approach to writing. Everything is valid here. But here’s what my own questionnaire looked like:

    • Name
    • What does character want (what do they care about)?
    • What is getting in the way?
    • What must they change to be happy?
    • Basics (sex, race, age, height, build)
    • Appearance
    • Where do they live?
    • Occupation
    • Manner
    • Attitudes (outlook, prejudices)
    • Speech Patterns, Mannerisms
    • Abilities
    • Most embarrassing moment
    • Greatest achievement
    • Greatest disappointment
    • Most proud of
    • Most ashamed of
    • What makes them feel safe?
    • What terrifies them?
    • Biggest secret
    • Goals for the future
    • What do they not like about themselves?
    • Greatest strength
    • Greatest weakness
    • How do they feel when entering a room full of strangers?
    • What do they admire most in other people?
    • What do they like least in other people?
    • Who are they attracted to?

    (3) Plot. Once I have a sense of who my characters are, I’ll keep refining the plot outline. Essentially, I stole my method from the screenwriting technique of outlining a beat sheet. That way, I can outline the basic elements of action in a one-page bulleted list. In each chapter, I know what I need to cover. If I know what the overall story is, and know in advance something isn’t working, I can overhaul that one-sheet of bullets instead of having to overhaul a 300-page manuscript.

    All of this probably takes me three months to do it thoughtfully. If I were Joyce Carol Oates, this would probably take me six hours, but I move at my own pace. Then I start the draft. Of course, I’ll deviate from this outline a number of times as I get a better feel for how the characters interact, and what the story really needs. Sometimes I need to change characters, and sometimes I need to change plot. Nothing is fixed in the outline process. However, it’s a lot easier for me to modify the outline than to change a thirty-page chapter once I realize that I need to change something. For me, it comes down to managing my time. The more I outline and prepare in advance, the less time I have to spend making major changes to my manuscript during the editing process.

  9. On a related note, I have a question for the group—how many drafts did do you through to get to the published version of the book (I think I ended up at around five by the time it hit my agent, and six more minor drafts before publication).

    Does anyone think that outlining and prep helped cut down on your revision and rewrite time?

    1. Answer to your question: YES. It’s difficult not to have a publication deadline in mind — but just hold the thought. What’s more important — finishing by a self-imposed deadline, or writing the best book you can and checking it dozens of times for accuracy and creating a “clean document” when you finish. It takes me about 18-24 months to research, organize [outline], write, and have the mss critiqued and proofread. And design a cover. My novels tend to be 250 pages – 320. Not terribly long, but that seems to be the length that my novels seek and find. Hope this helps.

    2. Actually, Alex, the first book I wrote, the one where I had an outline and character development descriptive of nearly 300 pages, was the book I had the most trouble writing. As I said at the outset, trying to follow a detailed outline too rigidly left me in an uninteresting rut. It wasn’t until I decided to ignore the outline that the manuscript flourished.

      But having said that, I found that when I was part way through the manuscript and began to wonder how to get from point L to point M, I began writing test scenes, and I kept writing them until I got one that worked. Unfortunately for my very patient editor, she recognized why my manuscript was 800 pages long and recommended that I kill all those test scene that left the story just spinning its wheels without going anywhere.

      I’ve gotten a little wiser since then.

    3. Hi Alex

      It’s kind of hard to answer your question, because I edit as I go – and yes, I’m aware this flies in the face of oft-given advice to just get the first draft down and then edit it, but that’s not the way I can do it! That’s editing for plot points/emotional arc, by the way, though, not word massaging.

      For me, going back to stuff I’ve already written serves a similar sort of purpose as a plotter’s outline, in getting the story straight in my head.

      At the end of the book, though, I’ll always print it all out and edit the whole thing, which is when I pay most attention to the actual writing. So I’d guess each scene has around 3 passes before I send it in to my publisher.

  10. I do it all — before beginning to write. First, i do a lot of research [books, newspapers, movies, internet]. As i research/read my plot and characters get clearer. I start with a beginning and ending in my head so I have some idea what I need to research.
    Second, I list my characters and their role in the story. I know what they look like, how they talk, and who I’ll kill and keep. I often write a short “visual picture” of the character.
    Third, I plot the story in outline format. I usually get about 1/2 to 2/3’s of the way through — then i’m so excited to begin writing i stop and begin writing. When i reach the mid-point I finish up with a very brief outline — under chapter headings. Then i put the finished project in front of my very very good critique group — sometimes twice for each novel. Then a proofreader. there you have it! I’m an Indie writer — so I have the cover designed while the mss is being proofread. I’ve also worked on that way in advance and have it formatted in my mind. I’m very “hands on.” Love the writer’s life!

  11. I start with the ending. Then I think of a beginning worthy of that ending. As for what happens along the way, I don’t plan too much. So do I outline? Not really. One thing I will do is establish all my characters first. I will list them out, each with their own biography of quirks, talents and roles in the story. Then I just sit down and go. That all being said, I will keep track of ideas that the story inspires me to add and will jot down where I think they should fit in later in the story. Sometimes I have to go back and reorder some events. I’ve tried outlining but sometimes it’s harder than writing the novel itself. You can’t “think” a novel, sometimes you just have to write it. Of course I will admit doing it this way comes with some very thorough rewrites. So either way you go, outline or not, be prepared to put in the work.

  12. Wow! it’s only Sunday night and I’ve already learned a lot from my fellow writers. I started out writing non-fiction. I switched to fiction because I thought it would be easier and because I was delusional. Non-fiction requires organizing material in a logical fashion. Fiction involves luring the reader into the fictional dream and keeping her there, turning pages, until the end. While my non-fiction is, I hope, engaging and readable, you can read a chapter, take a vacation, come home, and pick the book up again without losing the thread. With good fiction, you cancel your vacation. I turned to writing mysteries because I wanted to explore contemporary issues in police psychology using the vehicle of fiction. You may not know this, but police officers are twice as likely to kill themselves as they are to be killed in the line of duty. As a psychologist, I always wondered how I would feel if my client committed suicide. That was the premise around which I built Burying Ben. All I knew was that 1) my protagonist, Dr. Dot Meyerhoff, was a police psychologist, younger and thinner than I am, 2) a cop would kill himself and leave a note blaming Dot and 3) Dot would uncover the real reasons for his death and exonerate herself in the process. That was it – a premise more than a plot. It wasn’t until the end and the 18th revision, that I figured it out. I promised myself that I would at least know who did what to whom and why for my next book, The Right Wrong Thing, that is due out in October. The results were noticeable. This book, which looks at remorse and PTSD in a cop who kills an innocent teenager, wrote more quickly and easily. Do I now have a viable strategy for my current work-in-progress about the emotional strain of investigating Internet crimes against children? No such luck. What I have is a skeletal plot. What I don’t have yet is an in-depth grasp of my characters. Without that the plot lacks spark and plausibility. The lesson I’m learning? Every book writes differently. There is no single formula, although there are days I would donate a usable part of my body in exchange for one. A little planning goes a long way, but it doesn’t carry the entire load.

  13. Creating the story architecture is fun for me. When I draft a new book, I heavily plot, plan and outline. My writing time is limited and I dread writing into dead ends. I love intricate plotting, weaving the narrative threads together, composing the rhythm of the pacing and setting up dramatic payoffs. I map everything out in advance. It might be calculated, but for me the spontaneity and surprises come from how the characters react to the harrowing situations I throw them into.

  14. Looks like I’m a bit late to the party, but here are my opening thoughts:
    A few years before died, the great Elmore Leonard strolled into the Mysterious Bookshop in Manhattan for a book signing, dropped into an easy chair, and told the crowd, “Something terrible has happened. I’m only half-way through my next novel, and my main character just got shot dead!”
    I understood what he meant. It’s the sort of surprise that can happen to a writer who doesn’t create an outline first. A writer like Leonard; and a writer like me. There is, of course, no right way to write a novel. The late Robert B. Parker began each Spenser novel by jotting a brief plot outline, never more than two or three pages. James Ellroy creates detailed outlines for his noir sagas. In fact, he claims that his outlines are sometimes longer than his finished books.
    Me? I begin only with a general idea of what each book with be about and then set my characters in motion to see what they will say and do. I write this way partly because it’s how my mind works, and partly because I figure that if I don’t know what’s going to happen next, my readers probably won’t either.
    The result is a lot of happy surprises. In my first novel, “Rogue Island,” a character who began as a hulking hitman shrank to five-foot-five and developed a bad case of psoriasis. My protagonist’s ex-wife started out as a minor irritant and turned into a vengeful bitch. A fire chief who began as a minor character decided to become a major one. And then he decided he was a she.
    But the main reason I work this way is that discovering the story is what plants my butt in my writing chair every day. If I knew in advance how the story was going to turn out, my passion to write it would disappear.

    1. Bruce, I love your description of your evolving characters. When I first wrote THE SOMEDAY FILE, I was living in Florida, so I set the story there. And the protagonist was a man. Then he became a woman, and I had to completely rewrite the story. Changing the gender of the protagonist involved a heck of a lot more than changing “he said” to “she said.”

      Then I moved to Chicago and decided the story would be much better set here than in Florida. It was a story made for Chicago. So … another complete rewrite, about 100 times more complex than the first. I figure each rewrite had at least seven or eight revisions.

      And for the person who asked me why it took me 10 years to complete the book, now you know.

      1. Ten years to write a novel sounds like a long time; to someone just starting out, it can be discouraging. But the fact is, a lot of successful novelists wrote three or four unsuccessful novels before ever getting published. When young writers ask me how long it took to write my first one, I sheepishly tell them I needed six month and then was published by one of the big six in hardcover. But, I hasten to add, I was not a novice. I’d been writing professionally for 40 years. I just hadn’t been writing novels yet.

  15. I need some type of roadmap to hold onto as I write a novel. But out of my seven novels, I’ve written only one from a fully conceived outline. Midnight was an expansion of my AHMM short story of the same name. It takes place over a period of four days. Each day presents a problem, which the protagonists apparently solve, only to have a more serious problem crop up the next day.

    My other novels, especially my four golf mystery novels, all started with writing a compelling (at least to me) 70 to 100 pages – basically the murder and a good reason for my amateur sleuth to solve it. After that start, what moved me through the rest of the story was the momentum, or “push,” of that opening and the attraction, or “pull,” of an endgame.

    The push came from poring over that first 70-100 pages to understand the characters as I portrayed them, not as I conceived them, and to squeeze every dramatic possibility out of the circumstance I created. The pull came from aiming my writing at a distant target. That target could be a defined scene (like the English drawing-room scene in Local Knowledge) or an image (my protagonist in a canoe shining a flashlight into the pitch dark of a Florida lake and seeing the eyes of twenty alligators reflecting back at him).

    1. Makes good sense, Kevin. Even we seat-of-the-pantsers find that every novel makes different demands on us and requires altering our approach. Dennis Lehane once told me that he wrote his Kinzie and Gennero novels without a plan, but when he wrote “Shutter Island,” he had to create a detailed outline first. It was the only way he could get ahold of the complicated plot.

  16. If you’re a novelist just beginning to learn the craft, and you read through the comments already posted here, you’ll note that the majority of authors develop some sort of outline.  I say “some sort,” because there is no standardized style.  It’s basically whatever the writer feels comfortable with, whatever gets the job done.

    Outline types range from perhaps a single page of scribbled notes to what sounds to me like an excruciatingly detailed delineation: a one- or two-page synopsis for each chapter.  Again, there’s no style guide here, no right or wrong way of doing things.  If it works for you, it’s the the right way.

    What works for me is to get down a couple of pages of thoughts, including major turning points, key scenes and the conclusion–or at least where I’d like to end up.  In my most recent novel, BLIZZARD, I had two alternate endings in mind and really didn’t know which would work best until I got there.

    An outline for me is just a guide.  I know I must get from Point A to Point B, but I don’t know HOW until I start writing.  The characters and circumstances dictate my route.  That, to me, is the fun of crafting fiction.  As Robert Frost said, “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.”

    To draw a military analogy to outlining, I view an outline as a strategic plan, the big picture.  I execute the plan through a series of tactics: my writing.  And like any military plan, it begins to fall apart as soon as soon as I squeeze off the first round, that is, type the first word. 

    As necessary, I go back and amend the plan.  I change the outline.  It’s a “living document” that evolves through an iterative process.  The outline guides my writing, but my writing may feed back into changing the outline.  This may happen once or many times over the course of cranking out a manuscript.

    Once, I did try to march off on a literary journey without an outline.  Other people, I knew, had done it successfully.  Why not me?  Well, it turned out I have no sense of literary dead reckoning.  After about a hundred pages (roughly 25,000 words), I found myself hopelessly lost in a jungle of blind trails, dead ends and improbable plot twists. 

    I now am a dedicated outliner.

    1. I plot on index cards. I throw them on the floor, arrange them, re-arrange them, add, subtract and merge. Often, each index card represents a major story development that warrants its own chapter. If I’m juggling many characters and storylines, I make sure that the pacing is balanced so the reader doesn’t lose track of important people and events. My new book ANATOMY OF EVIL features a large cast of characters affected by a powerful storm that corrupts their personalities in different ways. I composed the story beats. I wanted an epic feel in a big setting without losing the measured continuity of character evolution.

  17. My first two novels straddled these two problems. The first might have been called a mess like the earlier commenter said while the second(if I am honest) suffers from too much plot planning. The second sells better, but oddly enough I still like the first one better.
    S. King says in “On Writing” that if he plots too much, knowing where he’s going will take the tension out of his prose. He suggests getting characters into ‘jams’ andd watching as the story gets them out.
    My third book I am shooting for a happy medium. My plot is mind-mapped and I am free to break away from it.

  18. Wow, late to the party. I blame the time difference and a First |aid course.
    I’m a PPO man. Even if it’s only a vague template to hang the story on I outline the entire book. It’s when the first creative urges begin to stir and shape the story. But even during this period you’re always asking yourself, what would the character do next? So I suppose the correct answer is, a bit of both. Once I move from outline to the actual writing though, that’s when the character decides what happens next, or how the outline fleshes out into details. I’ve only once tried the Stephen King and Lee Child approach and it all came crashing down after three chapters. I like the safety net of knowing where I’m going. Of course, mid-course correction happens all the time, when a spark of inspiration shows me something I hadn’t thought of and the whole book turns on its head.

      1. Thanks Ellen. Wasn’t Long Beach a blast? I had more discussions in the corridors and the bar and the book room than actually on panels. Great environment for talking about books. The thing we all love.

  19. I’m not sure if it’s because of this discussion, but this week I’ve experimented with outlining at least some of the chapters in the novella I’m writing. I also wrote what I feel is the ending. And then, during the writing process this morning, boom, I’ve gone an entirely different direction. As much as I want to be a plotter and planner sometimes, I always end up being a pantser…

  20. My friend Timothy Hallinan doesn’t outline in advance, but once he’s four or five chapters into a novel, he creates a reverse outline, briefly sketching what he’s already done so he can keep track. I sometimes do the same thing, although not until I’m at least half-way through a book.

  21. I find that by not outlining, it makes it easier for my characters to take over the novel–as if they have minds of their own. During the 40 years that I worked as a journalist, I often heard writers talk about this phenomena, and it always sounded like mystical hogwash to me. After all, only the writer touches the keyboard. But now that I’m four novels into my career, I know not only that it’s real but also that there’s nothing mystical about it. For example, dialogue in a novel can work very much the same way conversations happen in life. If you and I start to talk, we usually begin with a pretty good idea of what we want to say. But before long, one of us says something we hadn’t planned on, the other reacts to it, and the conversation spins off in a surprising direction. I find that when I write dialogue–especially when I write it really fast–exactly the same thin happens between the characters. When I finish drafting a scene in which I let them take over like this, I then go back through it and inevitably discover that some of it is trash and needs to be cut. But there are also always happy surprises that would never have happened if I’d planned the scene in detail.

    1. Totally apropos of nothing related to this panel, Bruce, I just started reading ROGUE ISLAND after it was recommended by a friend who knows what I like. So far, I am thoroughly enjoying it. I believe you and the author are well-acquainted.

  22. Do any of you use Scrivner to help with plotting? It seems like a great tool to list scenes and then move them around. I’ve used it twice with partial success.

  23. As a wrap up for this discussion, whether you outline first or go with the flow, the flow will inevitably shift in the writing. Sometimes ideas come halfway through and change the direction of everything. Happened to me once, and it caught me completely by surprise.

    1. Those changes are what makes writing fun. At the moment, I’m wrestling with the first draft of a new book and hoping for a pleasant surprise. Stay tuned. This has been an informative discussion. Thanks all.

    2. Colin makes an excellent point. Even if you draft an outline and call it a roadmap, it’s helpful only if you’re willing to go “off-roading.” That’s where the adventure is.

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