13 April 2013

Flying Blind or Outlined?

by John M. Floyd

I've always enjoyed hearing writers talk about the process of writing. Everyone seems to have different ways of getting ideas, describing settings, using dialogue, developing characters and plots, even rewriting and marketing.

Last week at this blog, Rob Lopresti posted what I thought was a fascinating column about the way he constructs a short story. He first writes the parts that are the most important and enjoyable (to him), and fills in the other parts later. I also read with interest the comment by our new colleague Terence Faherty, which mentioned his preference for outlining. And although I'd never thought about it before, I realized then that I use a combination of those two techniques. I always do an outline and I also always write my favorite parts first--the opening and the ending, usually, and a few scenes in the middle--and, as Rob said, build a bridge between the islands. Rob and Terry both turn out great stories, so I feel I'm doing at least a few things right. (I also like to use lists similar to those that R.T. Lawton talked about in his column yesterday--devious minds do indeed think alike.)

The question of whether to outline or to fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants has always been interesting to me both as a writer and a teacher. In my fiction-writing courses my students are usually divided equally, on that subject. Some are outliners and some are freewheelers, and I never ever try to steer them away from their chosen path--mainly because I don't think it's chosen at all; I think our brains are just wired either one way or the other. Some folks need to begin with a blank slate and let their creativity run wild, and others need to have that preconceived structure firmly in mind before they start writing.

Thinking inside the box

I've always said, at this blog and at Criminal Brief, that I'm an outliner. Not because I want to be--I actually admire those who can start from scratch and see their story develop as they go, never knowing what's around the next corner. I'm an outliner only because I wouldn't be able to do it any other way.

I often hear writer friends say they outline their novels but not their short stories, because the stories are, well, short. I maintain that if you're an outliner you're an outliner, period. The difference is, the outline for a novel is almost always written out, whereas the outline for a short story might be solely in your head. My short stories are always outlined that way--I map out the plot in my mind, all the way through to the ending, for several days or even several weeks before I begin writing. The plot might change as the actual writing is done, and usually does, but that unwritten layout of the story is always in place beforehand. It's just the way I have to do it.

Unplugging the GPS

As an outliner and primarily a "genre" writer, I was surprised to learn that many of my favorite genre authors (Stephen King, Elmore Leonard, and others) have stated that they never outline their work before they start writing. King has said he enjoys not knowing what will happen before it flows from his pen or keyboard, and Leonard has said the same. I respect their views, but I suspect that they do in fact outline to some degree. After writing so many successful novels and stories, I imagine they have a pretty good idea of what the storyline will be and how it will flow, when they start out. After a while, that kind of thing becomes second nature. If you've hiked the same woods over and over for many years you probably don't need a map anymore, and--as I believe Loren Estleman once said--if you've built a thousand houses, number 1001 can probably be finished without your having to rely on a blueprint.

Authors can sometimes go to extremes as well, where outlining is concerned. I once heard a famous writer say his novel outlines sometimes run two hundred pages or more. To me, that doesn't sound like an outline at all; it sounds like a first draft. And the late Robert B. Parker said he liked to compromise, and do a pseudo-outline, maybe of certain parts of the novel. Whatever the case, I'm a believer in doing what works for the individual writer, however different and/or crazy that might be. Forgive the cliche, but if it ain't broke don't fix it.

Holding the course

A quick word about one of the biggest criticisms of outlining. Many think that once a writer knows what happens in his story, his interest in the story flies right out the window, and he loses the incentive to keep writing it. I don't feel that way. Knowing my ending ahead of time ensures that I won't put anything in the story that doesn't point toward that ending. I'm also one of those odd folks who truly enjoy the process of rewriting and polishing a story, so it doesn't bother me to put up the framework first and then hammer merrily away at a half-finished structure.

Besides, I didn't major in writing in college. I majored in engineering. How could I not want to plan my stories out beforehand?


This has been asked before, but now that we have new SleuthSayers in the fold, and hopefully new readers as well, I'll ask it again: if you're a writer, are you an outliner or a blank-pager? And why do you like your side of that fence?

Either way, I hope you write a zillion stories and sell every one.


  1. John, I agree with you that there's no "right" way. Personally, I seldom work from an outline for written work but always outline speeches and book talks when preparing them. I do write first and last chapters and fill in what happens in between.

  2. John, I write intuitively or "into the mist," seeing only a little way before me. My bright ideas about what may happen later on are scribbles on Post-its that start out "Maybe..." In my series mysteries, I have to populate the protagonist's world with secondary characters, ie suspects and witnesses. They come onstage and start to speak, and it works for me. The one time I tried to plan them in advance, they came out flat and dead. Same with dialogue. Immediate and intuitive, or it doesn't sparkle. Then there's the matter of my aging memory! I can't keep a middle-of-the-night clever line in my head till morning without writing it down, so how could I possibly plot my stories in my head?

  3. Fran and Liz -- As I said, I admire you for having that skill. If I tried that, I'd be wandering through the weeds forever, trying to find my way out.

    I think it was E.L. Doctorow who said writing is like driving at night--you only see as far as your headlights go, but you can make the whole trip that way. (For me, though, that would take a long time!)

  4. I'm with you, John, but I even outline short stories. I consider it writable(?) if I can come up with a beginning, middle, and end; if I can't, then I know from experience that the idea needs more time on the back burner.

    However, once I get started I may deviate drastically from the original outline. It's kind of like a rugby match (a game my son played in college--too rough for me): the field is the outline, the plot the ball, and the players the characters. I'm the ref! Once the ball is in play I just run along looking for fouls and violations and blowing my whistle.

  5. I agree, David--the finished version is hardly ever the one I started out with, in my head. But I have to have the structure in place before I start, even though I know it'll probably change en route.

    The middle, by the way--outlined or not--is always the hardest for me. I love beginnings and endings.

  6. I'm a driving by the headlights in the fog at night kind of writer. I know what happened, I know (usually) who did it, but getting there is painfully slow, and I never know what's going to jump out from behind the bushes. Basically, beginnings are great, endings are wonderful, and in between lie dragons...

  7. This is beginning to sound like a "guys outline and ladies don't" thing--but I know that's not the case.

    I once heard Tony Hillerman say there's absolutely no need to outline fiction . . . if you know you're going to live a long, long life. For me that makes sense--it'd take me forever to finish a story if I didn't draw myself a map first.

  8. I'm not an outliner. I had to write a report in college and the prof insisted I outline it first. It ended up looking like a filled in outline. I trashed it, wrote another report, then wrote the outline. I got an "A".

    Whatever works.

  9. John, I'm sorry I'm late commenting on yesterday's outlining discussion. I'll try to write about it in a future post, though I'm afraid I'll just be "amening" most of your post, especially the part about the tendency to outline or not being congenital. It may also be tied to how quickly one writes. Writers who fire off first drafts with ease may be less likely to outline.

  10. Thanks for the comments, everyone. Herschel, I like your story about outlining only if the teacher's told you have to. Again, I wish I COULD write effectively without an outline.

    Terry, I suppose I (we) could be wrong about it being congenital, but that does seem to explain why I've never known anyone to change his or her approach; you either outline or you don't. It remains interesting to me that almost every writing group I've ever taught seems to be divided right down the middle on that issue.

  11. i don't outline, but 8 can't start a story or a novel if I don't know how it will end. Well, I sold one story to AHMM that I wrote that way. "Hammer and Dish" began with a vision of the openong scene: a football player sized man being attacked on the street by a midget. I managed to find an ending. But i have on my night table six pages i started that way which went nowhere.

  12. Rob, if I could come up with opening ideas as good as that one, I might not need to outline either.

  13. John, I don't outline. I start with the "where it happened" then as I write, the who and the what and the why sort of show up. But remember I am not nearly as prolific as you are.

  14. Hey Terrie -- If we were doing a poll, sounds as if the outliners would be in the minority. Maybe you "unstructured" folks can give us some lessons . . .


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