Outlining – planning and plotting

23 July 2012

We all do this our own way. There are writers who produce an outline of a book that’s half as long as the book itself. Others sit down with excel open in front of them and plot a spreadsheet with every chapter laid out in advance, and then write a book without deviating one iota from it.

I had thought I was on my own winging it, writing this stuff on the fly. Well, that’s not quite the case. Anyway, not long ago I was asked to speak at a lovely informal do with a bunch of other crimewriters, most of them far more exalted than I am.

The planning question came up for one of the panels before mine and my heart sank as two of the respected authors detailed how they outline their work with everything set out in advance.
I thought I must be a complete amateur, until the third author on that panel, a prolific writer who delivers two books a year to two different publishers and who has a loyal band of readers, admitted that he couldn’t be having with that. I breathed a sigh of relief. It wasn’t just me.

I have tried it. I really have, but have to admit it’s not for me. I’ve written something like four novels so far. Two published, another to be published next year, plus one that went haywire and has had to be put aside until the time can be found to work on it again. Oh, then there’s also the unpublishable first novel tucked away in a folder that should never again see the light of day – although it was an invaluable learning experience – and there’s another half a novel somewhere at the back of my hard drive that I will come back to one day.

My problem was that I plotted in detail, worked out what had to be done, and got on with the job. It’s activity that generates more ideas. Half-way through a great idea would pop up and demand to be used – and once the plans had been deviated from, I began to feel guilty. Surely real writers don’t work like this, I thought?

So that meant going back and drafting another outline, and sure enough, half a dozen chapters later, some plot twist or other would rear its head and the plan was left shattered and burning once again.

So these days the detailed outlines are something I don’t bother with. So far each book I have written has begun with a single incident, normally somewhere in the middle of the book. In one book the crucial incident actually disappeared from the final version. It was hard to chop it out, but it had served its purpose in setting the ball rolling while not actually contributing to the plot itself.

Instead of a detailed outline, now I work with a handful of waypoints, the major turns that I want to happen somewhere in the narrative, but which don’t necessarily include the beginning or the end.

On the other hand, I like to get to know my characters pretty well. Some of them deserve a decent potted biography that works as something to refer back to as the narrative progresses. Plot twists and turns have to fit these people from my head and they shouldn’t be made to do something that’s out of character. If you try and force them into something unnatural, it soon becomes apparent that it’s not working out.

Everyone does it their own way. There are no hard-and-fast rules. If detailed plotting suits you, then fine. Go down that route, but it’s not for me – not right now, at any rate. I find that too much preparation saps the energy and that there is much to be said for letting rip and allowing things sort themselves out.

Not that plotting is to be confused with research – you can’t ask too many questions, but it’s all too easy to become sidetracked by information that may well be interesting but which isn’t of much genuine use. It’s just as easy to get bogged down plotting minute details that may disappear or be replaced as something better jumps unbidden from your imagination.

Depending on the way you work and what works for you, the outline of a novel can be a detailed index of cards, a chart on the wall, or an excel file – or it could be a dozen lines scribbled on the back of an envelope with a pencil. Don’t take anyone’s word for what’s the best way to do things. Everyone works in their own way and has to find that way for themselves.

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