Questions from the Tour: Outlining, Part One

by Jeff Abbott on August 4, 2008

One of the fascinating things about touring is the questions that people ask at signings (or on the plane, if we talk and I tell them I’m an author on book tour). A lot of these have to do with getting published, but more have to do with the writing process itself. I thought I’d address some of those more common process questions this week.
Today’s question: do you outline your novels? Do you know how the book will end when you start writing?
And frustratingly, my answer is yes and no. I’m at a point in my career where I can sell a book based on a short proposal. So, yes, I have to have an idea of how the book starts and how it ends–that’s in the proposal. I know what I want the emotional payoff at the end of the book to be for the hero and for the reader.
But the spine of the book as I start is a list of scenes that hit on the moments of biggest change or emotional impact for the characters (not just the hero, but for the villain as well). I may not know all the middle of the book, but in having set up the dramatic question in the book’s beginning (what does the hero want and what are the obstacles in his way?), I have an idea of what those moments of impact might be for the hero and for other characters.
Note this is entirely my own way of approaching the idea, albeit one supported by both my US and UK editors. They love that I do this. I mentioned this approach while on an author panel recently and my fellow authors expressed shock that this is my approach (and one, a good friend, said, “That would just result in so much bull**** from me.” She doesn’t outline at all.) That’s cool. Everyone should do what works for them.
Armed with those scenes in mind, I start to write. I may have fleshed out the idea in a further outline, I may not have; it just depends on how I feel, if I want to have a stronger sense of structure or if I want to be more free-flowing. I stay open to new ideas and scenes that may shape the book in a stronger direction.
And then, about halfway through that first draft, I may flesh out a deeper outline. At that point, the characters have spent enough time on the stage for me to know them better, for the stronger ones to assert themselves in new and interesting ways to me, for them to drive the story. Now I want to be sure that everything in the story–EVERYTHING–supports the climax of the book. Makes it powerful and inevitable. So I may flesh out an outline that puts every scene in more detail, to be sure that I’m resolving subplots, wrapping up story threads, moving characters along an arc of change, all toward the climax.
I actually enjoy outlining at this point. If I try to do it at the very beginning of the book, I tend to grow impatient. I feel it’s much more beneficial (at least for me) to let the characters strut on stage, show themselves through their actions, and then use that as inspiration to finish the book. For me, it’s a good balance: staying open to new possibilities by not “over-outlining” and yet taking the building blocks of the first half of the story to make sure the whole building (of the book) will stand when I’m done.
Tomorrow, I’ll take more about outlining in terms of creating characters and then later this week about what outlining methods and tools I find helpful.

    { 1 comment… read it below or add one }

    Meg Gardiner August 6, 2008 at 9:56 am

    Takes notes… what does hero want?… villain too!… OBSTACLES… climax INEVITABLE… hits self over head with notebook to drive it into brain how basic this advice is.
    Thanks for the refresher.

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