Writing fiction

Do you (chalk) outline?

I am often asked how I plan my books.  Do you outline, people ask, or do you free write?

Image(cartoon retrieved from bizarro.com, Dan Piraro, 2007)

Some writers say they like to let the story develop organically, but I don’t know how to write a traditional mystery without a certain amount of planning.  Readers of traditional mysteries want to match wits with the author.  If the story’s going to work, I need to know, in advance, which are the important clues, and which the red herrings. I need you to be surprised by the ending, but also to recognize that the clues were there if only you were paying attention.  So I don’t write an outline, but I do a certain amount of planning.

Writing, for me, is a delicate balance between the planned and the unplanned.  I won’t start a manuscript until I have a feel for the story arc, both the main plotline and at least some of the sub-plots.  But I work out much of the story on post-it notes.  The notes pile up on my desk, reminding me of where I’ve been and where I’m going.  I mean, they really pile up, sheets of paper, with ten words or twenty or a hundred, dozens of them.  As the manuscript develops, I add to my notes, filling in the details, clarifying motivations, alerting myself to critical decision points.  But as I travel down that path, things happen which I do not fully anticipate.  A character that I initially perceived to be a bit player asserts his place in the story.  An event that I didn’t see coming explodes on the pages of the story.  But these unplanned elements must fit within the broader story arc or I don’t have a story.  An unplanned scene may reveal a side of the character I had not previously recognized, but it must ring true or I’m just being self-indulgent.

I often compare writing a mystery novel to taking a cross-country road trip.  Before you start the trip, you establish an itinerary.  You know where the trip will start and where it will end.  You make plans to cover a certain amount of territory each day, to make certain stops along the way.  You plan layovers in certain cities, to see the tourist attractions, or to visit family and friends.  But you make changes en route.  Something catches your eye.  Something strikes your fancy.  You make side trips on the spur of the moment.  Your car breaks down.

After  each of these diversions, you find your way back to your planned route.  You rejoin your trip itinerary.  Otherwise you get lost in the heartlands, traveling in circles.  There’s a satisfying feeling of completion, when you arrive, finally, at your destination.  But some of your favorite memories are of those unplanned moments.

Do you outline or do you free write?


5 thoughts on “Do you (chalk) outline?

  1. i love hearing about the writing process for you. the poem bits i do are similar, but in much smaller way. but, my pieces are inspired by something in my own life. and yours? how did you come to want to do, this craft?


      1. i was going to ask about Cassie, (someone in your family/friends, your inner reporter, etc.) but thought i should leave the question more open-ended. 🙂


  2. I enjoyed reading about your process. Very interesting. It makes perfect sense to have a sense if the story & know what clues will be there. Perhaps someday I’ll write a book & figure out a process. Peace always


  3. My journeys are, as you know, a blend of pre-arranged stops and serendipity. Without leaving room for the latter, I’d have never had a marvelous meander through Princeton University, or a day walking the eastern half of Block Island. The few stories I’ve written all have gone the same way- I have a basic premise, with beginning, middle and end mapped out- then the characters take over, and do what they will.


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