Monday, April 18, 2011

On Writing, Part III — To Outline or Not Outline

Before you write that first crime fiction novel consider a few things. What follows is the third in a series of short articles about what you might want to consider as you put pen to paper or fingers on the keyboard.

A lady came to one of my book signings. She stood in front of me at the table with a serious look on her face. She asked, “Do you outline your novel before you write it?” I told her I never do an outline, which was mostly true. She shook her head and said that she couldn’t possibly enjoy anything I wrote and walked out.

That wasn’t the first time the subject came up. A writer with whom I sometimes did readings and signings not only wrote an outline; but before the outline he wrote a multi-page treatment. He was (and is) a fine, award-winning mystery writer whom I respect. I began to wonder if I was somehow cheating the reader or myself by not always knowing exactly what’s happening next with my own books as I wrote them.

As time went on, I learned that I wasn’t alone in my failure to outline. Among the many who do not use the outline technique are Elmore Leonard, Michael Connelly and Stephen King. On the other hand, there are those who do outline, who must outline. These, I’ve read, include such successful authors as Louise Penny, John Lescroart and John Grisham. Scott Turow, to be completely different, does an outline during his second or third draft.

Using an outline might keep you from going up any blind alleys. Not using one might allow you to find a street you didn’t know existed. I do use a brief outline sometimes when I know what’s happening in the next few pages and I’m afraid I’ll forget what I was thinking. But that is more of a bridge than an outline. The real point of this is that different people write in different ways. Find out how you are most comfortable and most creative. I’d be suspicious of advice that put too many rules down that do not take into account the individual who will need to abide by them. If you’re not sure of the best approach for you, try both. If you choose one, it doesn’t mean you can’t change your mind later. For me, writing by the seat of my pants makes me want to sit down and write to see what will happen next and at some point discover who killed the victim found dead in Chapter One.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Ron, I also use the "fly by the seat of the pants" method. I've never outlined on any of my books, other than to do a short synopsis in order to sell it. Once I've signed the contract I started writing the book. The characters and I all find out what's going to happen at the same time.