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Laurie Stevens Asks Do You Outline?

Laurie Stevens is the author of the award-winning Gabriel McRay series of thrillers. You can find out more about her here, see her books here and read her last post here.

As a writer, I’m often asked, “How do you write? What’s your process?” Before I joined writer’s groups, I didn’t even think about it. I only wanted to tell a good story. Because not all authors are born with a super sense of confidence, I thought, Gosh, how do I write? What if it’s the wrong way?

So, I embarked on a journey to learn about how different writers write. I found out that Jeffery Deaver spends eight months outlining and researching his books. His outline for The Never Game was 150 pages long! He starts out with post-it notes on a bulletin board and moves them around until he has all the scenes and chapters figured out. Then Jeffery transfers all of that information to a computer doc to create the outline. He then adjusts it over the next seven or eight months. Once he has the outline complete, he can write the book in less than two months.  

Excuse me while I slap my hand to my forehead… To me, outlining to that extent seems like some sort of punishment.

During this journey to learn a more effective way to write, I was advised to break my novel down into scenes and put every scene on a separate index card. Each card should contain at least one of the following criteria: Action, Romance, Information, Sympathy, or Emotion. If it doesn’t contain at least one of these, you should throw out the scene. This approach is good. All of those elements are vitally important to the integrity and movement of a story. I, however, found myself cheating. I would rationalize that some part of the scene might contain one of those elements, and I’d leave the scene intact. I spent more time biting my fingernails and weighing each scene than writing the book. Eventually, I lost track of the plot altogether.  I ended up with a dining room table covered in index cards and didn’t have a clue as to what to do with them. 

My agent rejected the book. Nice. Glad I spent all that time writing the index cards. I should have made a quilt out of them. 

My mind obviously doesn’t work this way. I decided I would dare to return to my original process. I’ve always been good at seeing the forest through the trees in most given situations. I would have to trust in that ability. 

I would have to believe that, no matter how intricate the scenes, I had the capability to “see” the entire story from a birds-eye view.

With that in mind, here’s my approach: 

  1. I write a brief outline: three paragraphs describing the beginning, middle, and end. This gives me the idea of what direction to take and where I’ll need to end up. I keep it very fluid, because we authors know that books often take on a life of their own.
  2. I begin my research. Research provides me not only material, but also with incentive because I discover many new ideas to insert into the project. I love research.  If you ever get blocked, just research the subject about which you’re writing, and I bet you you’ll find something that will ignite you again. I write my research onto a Google doc, so I can access it anywhere from any device. I use the “notes” section in my phone to record ideas and sudden inspirations. Since I don’t know when either will hit, having a phone handy with which to record them pays off. 
  3. The actual writing of the novel begins with random scenes, the ones that most excite me or are big plot points. Sometimes, I’ll write only the dialogue or a brief description of the scene just to get it out. As the plot materializes on paper, I’ll start fleshing those scenes out. Some I’ll delete. After that, I’ll layer in the threads of the sub-plots and the quirks and idiosyncrasies of the characters. The true polish and more “flowery” prose comes during the rewrites.

I enjoy this way of writing. If doubt creeps in, and massive outlines come to mind, I remember another writing process that I learned about: Ray Bradbury’s. He believed that all first drafts “must be impulsive.”

To quote author Sam Weller, who wrote The Bradbury Chronicles: The Life of Ray Bradbury, “He (Bradbury) believed that the subconscious is smarter than the conscious, so get out of its way. This is how he wrote a draft of Fahrenheit 451 in nine days. First drafts must be intuitive, great blurts of creative expression. It’s only after the first fast draft that we should then bring in our other-half, our intellectual self, and begin the tough work of conscious rewriting.”

Thank you, Sam. Thank you, Ray. That’s more in line with how I approach my novel writing. The upshot is, our writing process is beautifully unique to each of us. The endgame is to deliver a good story. How about you? How do you tackle the process of writing?

Laurie Stevens

Laurie Stevens is the author of the Gabriel McRay thriller series. Laurie lives in the setting of her books, the hills outside of Los Angeles with her husband, two snakes, and a cat. You can find out more about her on her website, lauriestevensbooks.com, or follow her on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram

This Post Has 14 Comments

  1. Laurie Buchanan

    Laurie — The photograph with the l-o-n-g table of handwritten index cards scares the bajeebers out of me!

    1. Laurie Price

      I kept it there for a while feeling an odd sense of triumph.

  2. saralynrichard

    Very interesting post. Goes to show there’s more than one way to skin a cat—and, speaking of cats, your cat-and-lion photo is perfect!

    1. Laurie

      Always a good one to look at when in the throes of self-doubt

  3. marilynlevinson

    a great post. I find I’m becoming more of a pantser as I write more books. So far, I’ve never been able to write a scene out of order.

  4. Avanti Centrae

    Thanks for the interesting info. I thought I was a big outliner with 3-4 pages! Our writing processes do seem to be as unique as our fingerprints.

  5. Sheila Lowe

    Remember the saying: there are three rules to writing, but nobody knows what they are. Bottom line, everyone has their own process and we should all do what works for us. I tried not outlining once and that was a hot mess. But for me, it’s a fluid process. I write a paragraph on index cards for each proposed scene, but I rarely look at those cards ever again.

    1. Valerie Biel

      How have I not heard that one before??? (The three rules of writing … but nobody knows what they are.) Love it. 🙂

  6. Great post, Laurie! I’ve written with and without outlines. Each book is different, and I learn something new each time I write one. I’ve attended the Jeff Deaver workshop and wondered how in the world he can do it his way! 🙂

  7. Given that I’m moderating a panel with Mr. Deaver in less than two weeks, I’m going to have to avoid asking him why he doesn’t just write the freaking book. if it works for him, great. But I’d never get anything written if I did that. That being said, I’ll generally pants the first few chapters, but by then I need to keep track of what’s going on, so I’ll do my outlines.

  8. Sharon Lynn

    I love outlines! The idea of going on impulse is what scares me. That said, I rarely stick to the outline, but it is always there to support me like a friend.

  9. Laurie Stevens

    Great comments-I love how everyone does it differently. We are not machines but organic creative beings and this just goes to prove it

  10. Tracey Phillips

    You know, I just about threw up in my mouth at your description of Deaver’s process. No offense to the great author intended. Not an outliner! I’m much more of a pantser too, like you I try to get a bird’s eye view and zoom in on what needs to be said. The deep notes I make at the beginning ate more about character and backstory. Pantsers unite! lol!

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