Sunday, April 12, 2009

Part 2 - The Outline

Part 2 – The OUTLINE
By Robert W. Walker

The outline is for many far, far harder and more grueling to create than either the book itself or the synopsis and for good reason or reasons. While many authors outline and do so BEFORE the novel is written, many find such a task so off-putting as to lead to putting the entire effort of writing said book aside—often for good.

I make no judgments on those who routinely outline a novel before ever writing a word. I salute such people who have found a comfort zone with this process, but for me and many another author to outline a novel before writing at least several chapters and often at least those crucial first 100 pages, … well … it is just as awful as torture.

I can’t speak to how others organize a novel via an outline before getting the book underway except to say that for most of these “artists” they have struggled with many elements they wish to see in the story in their minds and with notes and perhaps even 3 by 5 cards (which I detest), and sometimes these cards are character cards, plot note cards, setting note cards, dialogue moment cards, thematic cards—to keep track of various threads one “plans” on using in the story.

I submit that for many another “artistic mind” such accounting work is about as torturous as having to do an index for a book—a job for people with another set of brain cells than I possess. I personally believe that many who are wonderful at outlining are also great at keeping their checkbook straight (again something I suck at). I also believe, especially among mystery, suspense, thriller writers who tightly organize a novel this way know the ending and the outcomes and they write to that end (any means to an end).

And there’s nothing wrong with that, but most novels begin with a What IF, a set of circumstances that in chapter one raises 20 questions, far more questions than answers, and the subsequent chapters grow out of what is typically an outrageous and highly dramatic moment seen so clearly in the mind’s eye of the author but he does not have any idea where he will go next until he gets there.

This method I call “Going Where No One Has Gone Before” and this means the story grows and enlarges from the seeds planted in chapter one—organically it has been called. I don’t know the final outcome except a general notion that some will die and some will survive, and it’s nice to know that at least fifty percent and perhaps more authors than that who I have met and talked to about these matters doesn’t know the ending much less the middle and often the next chapter of the work in progress.

Yet the artist who works in this manner, his mind often in a surging fever that looks like a parabola or figure 8 as the author works up to page fifty, rewrites to fifty, goes on to 100, rewrites to 100, goes on, rewrites, goes forth, etc. while not knowing what’s going to happen on the page until it happens—often about who lives and who dies, and absolutely no idea how he will arrive at a satisfactory ending except to GET THERE, knowing that once it is on paper, a product, he can begin to massage and manipulate and make it all work on subsequent rewrites.

In this process rewriting is writing, not to suggest that people who organize better than I and write complete whole outlines are not doing many, many rewrites as well—often to “get the seams” of organized writing out of sight! I see the seas in a Robert Ludlum novel for instance; do you?

Now years ago, I learned that I had to do an Outline for my editor/publisher; that he or she needed it for that all-important editorial and/or marketing and PR or cover art meeting—that outlines and synopsis were used again and again by the person in-house who is trying her level best to present your story in succinct manner to business folks responsible for preparing the complete “package” of your book down to the font they will use on your name—and the size, color and even texture of the title, and how Press Releases will look. If your synopsis is done well, whole sections may go on the back of the actual book!

Now I do outlines but not until I am at least well into the writing first. It may be at the conclusion of Chapter Three or Four or it might be after I complete page 100—at which time I have a far clearer picture of where the story may wind up, where characters might fall or survive, what the ending may look like. The beauty of it is that most editors, once they get the actual pages, seldom to never hold you hostage to your outline, and if they do it is folded in as part of the rewriting process.

This is my method, and it works for me, and I stand by it. In my head, once a story has been told, it can’t help but get old … and if I am doing an extensive outline (or struggling to do so) for a novel I have not yet written a word on, I know I am setting myself up for failure—that my mind and artistic process and imagination demands I outline only after I have literally “lived with” my characters in their time and place on actual pages produced before I can make “predictions” on where the story might go from there. The good news is that if you “think” as I do, you know that it is a viable and a time-honored way to work the novel.

Final word on Outlines is that I got freed up by an editor at Berkley with whom I worked for many years on my Instinct and Edge Series titles, and John used the term when pleading for an outline from me to accompany him into meetings, one he could duplicate for his fellows in New York, that I simply do a “bullet outline.” This is in its simplest terms a paragraph covering plot points for each chapter. I found this approach very helpful and adopted it after I would complete those first 100 pages or at least three chapters to accompany the synopsis and outline in so many efforts to “green light” a project.

As an example, I will put up the bullet outline for DEAD ON. Anyone wishing to see an outline done on another of my titles, please contact me with a query line to that effect. You can find me at or at
Rob Walker

1 comment:

Ben Small said...

Bless you, Robert Walker. I have no idea how you manage to be so many places seemingly at the same time, and always providing such good advice.

Thank you.