Wednesday, October 19, 2011


Yesterday’s Trouble with Tuesday’s blog post began a conversation for novice writers about how to approach writing a first draft of a novel. Scroll down and get caught up on Part One of the discussion I framed: “Outlining: Key to Efficient, Logical Writing or Creative Kiss of Death?” Today’s post looks for clues to answer this question by examining the writer’s known work habits and the type of story to be told.

Work Habits:

Does your mood determine the tasks you are inclined to undertake each day? Preparing a detailed outline in advance of writing a first draft would allow you to write your novel’s scenes out of sequence to suit your moods. Had a romantic evening? Write a seduction scene. Dark thoughts about the boss? Write the fight scene.

Or might you be the steady soul with a focussed, take-charge approach to work? Facing the challenge of that next uncharted chapter may prove not the least bit intimidating for you. One side effect of writing while raising a family, holding down a day job or starting your career as a post-menopausal woman can be remembering . . . that great idea, the perfect plot point, the delicious red herring, the witty repartee. While seat of your pants writers are known to keep notes as they go along, outliners may be able to place such ideas, in advance, building a strong structure for the critical first draft.

Are you able to toss out whole chunks of work to fix a novel’s plot structure? Or does that discourage you from moving forward to complete your manuscript? Are you a ruthless self editor or does making extensive changes feel like you’ve killed your baby?

Are you the sort who feels writing is hard work and you want (or need) to be efficient about it? After all, it’s easier to flesh out an outline while riding a bus, waiting for the end of a laundry cycle or during your coffee break than it is to carve our concentrated writing time.

If you can be disciplined, analytical and dispassionate about your work and not easily discouraged by false starts working free-form may be a good match for your work habits. If however you find freedom, efficiency and confidence within a framework, working from an outline may get you the best results.

The Story:

Your chosen sub-genre of crime fiction may influence the best preparatory method for your novel.

“Who-dunnits” may suit the ‘let’s puzzle this out’ method. Replicating the efforts of the book’s protagonist, the writer starts with a victim and a crime and follows the clues, grills the suspects and waits to see where his/her inquiries lead. Writers using this method rarely know who the criminal is when they start out. A who-dunnit plot may prove circuitous or meander down blind alleys. Writing like this can make the quest feel real to the reader.

Stories of peril that hinge on saving a person, object or nation from a known group of trouble-makers in a compressed period of time may suggest the need for good outlines. Time frames are tight, who is where when can be critical, physical evidence and investigative techniques may be complicated and critical to the plot’s development. This sort of novel’s pacing needs to be quick and crisp. An outline of some detail can keep the writer on track with the requirements of this type of plot.

Do you view your proposed book as stand alone novel or one in a series? If this is the first in a series or a stand alone, you are likely to have many balls in the air — character studies and back stories, settings, time periods, clues, a cast of suspects and criminal evidence. An outline can serve as the sheep dog to your unruly flock of information.

Authors of an existing series can rely upon their extensive knowledge of their core characters which can simplify some of the next novel’s preparation. They can start a new book by simply saying “What if I put my protagonist in this crisis? What will she do?” “Or pit him against this sort of criminal? How will he react — given what I know about his back story?” Allowing the story to unfold in this manner can be a natural and fun experience for the writer. In a character- driven story, writing as if you are hiking along an unknown path can keep your series fresh.

My work-in-progress is a thriller, first in a proposed series. As someone who has been known to prepare colour-coded work charts for a cooperative Christmas baking session, I think I have finally figured out what sort of preparation work will feel natural to me.

What about you? Do you have a better idea (than two days ago) about how you will P-L-o-W-S through writing your first manuscript?

Post your comments to keep this conversation going!

Susan C. Gates makes notes, puzzles through plot ideas, outlines and occasionally writes in Ottawa. A member of Capital Crime Writers, she has published works of short crime fiction. As of today, she is convinced that preparing an outline for her work-in-progress will move it beyond 10,000 words and to the finish line.


  1. I love the sentence, "An outline can serve as the sheep dog to your unruly flock of information." How true. I'm afraid if I ever tackled a novel I'd soon lose track of characters and ideas, which is one reason I write short stories. Not an admirable reason but there it is.

  2. Thanks Sue! Perhaps I should stick with short stories, too. 10,000 words does not a novel make.