Lately I have had several people ask about my outlining process, so I thought I’d jot a quick post about it. First, the caveat: Anything I say about process is what works for me. NEVER assume it will work–or should work–for you. Process is highly idiosyncratic; ask a hundred writers how they write, get a hundred different answers. The only reason it’s ever useful to even ask us is because you might find a nugget of something you can apply to your own way of working. If you don’t, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with you. (I know this sounds very governessy, but I’ve been on too many panels and watched too many people flinch when they listen to how the rest of us do it. I’ve seen the frantic scribbling into notebooks and the abject look of horror which means, “OH, GOD I DON’T DO IT THAT WAY. AM I WRONG?” And if you think I’m projecting, that’s literally what I’ve been asked. I hate the idea that anyone would put themselves through it, so I’m going to keep hollering. YOU DO YOU.)
There are two kinds of outlining for me. First, there’s the overview of a book when I’m first conceiving it in order to write a synopsis. I’d never do a formal synopsis, but they don’t pay me without one. Publishers like a general idea of what you’re going to do–and you usually have a LOT of freedom to deviate during the actual writing–but it needs to be on paper. Fine. I churn out a 5-7 page outline against my will and once it’s approved, I start writing the book.
At some point, possibly during the writing but most likely during revision, something will stop working. Now, mystery structure is, IMO, the easiest because it’s very logical. You have an end result, so you work backwards. How was this murderer exposed? Well, this clue must have been unearthed. How was it found and by whom? Why were they looking? Each of these is a step backwards. At the same time, you know where you began and how you had to proceed during the set up. (These characters must be brought together. How does that happen? How is the crime revealed? What is driving the investigation?) So, you’re walking backwards from Z-Y-X at the same time you’re walking forwards from A-B-C. Eventually, you meet in the middle. That’s the sweet spot when you realize it’s all hanging together.
But sometimes it takes work to make that middle happen. This is where the outlining comes in. I have two methods for brainstorming the outline. The first is rough and deliberately casual. I use huge pads of newsprint and felt-tip markers to make mind maps. (Not Sharpies here because they bleed through newsprint. I use bright packs of skinny markers and I throw out the colors I don’t like.) I may put the victim in the middle and map out everyone else’s relationship to this character. Or, I might use the sleuth as the spoke in the wheel. Recently, I used the instigator of the investigation because I was trying to get clear on his relationship with the suspects. Whichever area is murky is the area you need to explore through the map.
I should probably mention here that one of my worst habits is realizing I have a missing piece of the puzzle–backstory, motivation, etc.–and then waving an airy hand and saying, “Oh, I’m sure it’s fine.” IT IS NEVER FINE. That realization is the poky pointy finger urging me to dive deep and FIX THIS. Sometimes I do, sometimes I wait until my editor makes me because I’m too busy fixing everything else and this particular issue slides by. But at some point, that murky area will become the focus of a map and I will have to work it out.
Part 2 next Wednesday!