To Outline or Not

Whenever I’m speaking to a group of beginning novelists, the question I’m most often asked is “Before you start writing, do you prepare an outline?”

My answer is always, “Yes and no.”

The “yes” comes from the fact that, yes, I do prepare a detailed outline for my entire book before writing the first word. Mystery novels and thrillers depend heavily on clues, so the writer has to know in advance who the killer is, why he killed the victim, and what clues he left during the commission of the crime so that the detective can figure out whodunit. The writer also has to know how many other suspects are going to pop up, and which red herrings – from mere lies to bloody clothes – those suspects will furnish.

The “no” part of my answer is because after Chapter Three (or sometimes Chapter Two), I begin to ignore that outline.

Here’s why.

First comes the idea for a book, the original driving force. For instance, my ideas often arrive when I’m in the shower, walking through the park, or reading the newspaper. In the case of my first published mystery, the idea came to me when I was covering an art show for my newspaper and saw some purposely mislabeled paintings. I remarked to my husband, who was also attending the show, “Someone should kill that crooked gallery owner.” He answered, “Sounds like a good plot for a mystery.”

Thus “Desert Noir,” a mystery novel about the killing of a Scottsdale art dealer, was born.

Having read dozens of writers’ magazine articles about the value of outlines, I went home and began banging one out. Step by step, chapter after chapter, over the course of a week I wrote the skeleton of the novel – the who, what, where, when, and why of the murder. By the time I finished writing a twenty-five chapter outline, I knew exactly who had murdered the gallery owner, where the crime took place, exactly how she was killed, when, and why she had to die. I had also conjured up five other characters with equally good reasons for committing the crime. Their motives ranged all the way from blackmail to domestic violence to revenge.

This is how the first chapter’s outline looked (times, places, and names in caps).

Chapter 1, pages 1-20. THURSDAY. MAIN STREET, SCOTTSDALE AZ. While in her MAIN STREET APARTMENT, private investigator LENA JONES hears screaming coming from the art gallery across the street, runs into THE WESTERN HEART GALLERY, finds body of her friend CLARICE  KOBE, who has been beaten to death. LENA immediately suspects JAY KOBE, Clarice’s abusive husband, of the crime. Next day the scene moves to DESERT INVESTIGATIONS (Lena’s detective agency) where I introduce JIMMY SISIWAN, Lena’s Pima Indian business partner. Also intro HAL McKINNON, Jay’s attorney, who tells Lena that Jay, who has already been arrested, was elsewhere during the commission of the crime. He asks Lena  to look into the case. She doesn’t like the idea of working for her friend’s alleged killer, but tells McKinnon she’ll talk to Jay, but makes no promise she’ll take him on as a client.

I continued this type of chapter outline all the way through the final chapter. Then, fully armed with plot, characters, and motive, I began the actual writing. Then somewhere during the writing of Chapter Three, I started ignoring the outline. This explains the “no” part of my answer to beginning novelists.

Now, why did I drop my outline?

By the time I’d made it to Chapter Three, my book had veered off into unplanned territory, one far superior to my tight, consciously-plotted outline. The desert and Indian reservations around the Scottsdale area became characters in and of themselves, making the summer’s intense heat impact much of the action. Also, new characters – human ones – I’d never originally planned, had popped up. These characters gave the book a depth that surprised me.

Stephen King once said, “If the writer isn’t surprised, how can he surprise his readers?”

King’s observation is accurate. All my new ideas had come as a surprise, and with them, I’d discovered a new reason Clarice Kobe had to be killed. These changes were so superior to my original plot that I realized the person I’d planned to kill her, couldn’t possibly have done it. His motive was too obvious, too clichéd. But one of those new characters stepped forward as the killer, with a motive so startling it took my breath away.

The writer had been surprised by her own book.

At that point, I began writing without my outline, or, as Stephen King would say, “writing without a safety net.” In other words, I was writing from my creative, unconscious mind, not my conscious, logical mind. As a result, “Desert Noir” grew more organic, less murder-by-rote. This rapidly-changing, unplanned, un-outlined book was fresher and more original than the one I’d envisioned at the start. And my new suspects were far more interesting than the straw men I’d earlier created.

But this revelation didn’t arrive without problems. Now that I had a new killer, what should happen to the clues I’d so laboriously planted? The answer turned out to be easy. I kept those clues because they functioned as red herrings. Several months later, after finishing my first draft, I went back and “salted” some real clues into the manuscript, along with even more red herrings that would have my readers charging off in the wrong direction.

Today, as I find myself working on Chapter Two of my twelfth mystery novel, I am still writing from the outline I made a month ago, knowing full well I’ll soon begin ignoring it. So why put myself through all that outline grief in the first place?

Because my outline is my security blanket, that’s why. It gives my writing schedule a shape, a goal (Ah, yes, today I’ll write the scene where Lena interviews the delivery boy from a Chinese restaurant – and I’ll drop a real clue, although Lena is unaware of it at the time!). This security blanket also wards off an attack of writer’s block, assuring me that if my imagination ever fails, I can go back to my original outline and simply write what’s already there. So far, that hasn’t happened, though, because I enjoy being surprised.

Writing without a safety net has shown me that my unconscious is a better writer than the “awake” me.