Shop Talk: Patience and Trust vs Outline

Once upon a time, at the very beginning of my writing career, I would spend several months outlining a book before I began to write, and then revise the outline as I moved along. The revisions were not simply a matter of ensuring that the outline reflected the text, but involved soul searching and arguing with myself. By the time I completed and submitted The King’s Bishop I was questioning the utility of this process. I did not return to the outline once I’d submitted the manuscript to my publishers (I was being edited simultaneously by my editors in the US and the UK); I could not see what I gained by the continual outline revisions.

On my fifth book I tried a new approach: I set up a situation that my sleuth, Owen Archer, was ordered to investigate, decided the historical background of the moment, something that might tie into the mystery, and started writing. When my editors’ comments came back I realized I needed an extra step—creating a timeline to track what happens when. With the sixth book I felt comfortable with this system.

This is not to say I don’t have running files of background—what is really happening that my sleuth will only gradually discover. But these are what I think of as cumulative files–I don’t bother revising what I had, I simply add a fresh description at the top as I revise my thinking.

For me, writing is discovery. My characters, their interactions with others, seemingly casual comments that take on meaning, how a scene unfolds, all of these reveal to me what’s going on. My new symbol for this is the strawberry begonia, or mother of thousands, growing in the courtyard outside my office. I planted it last autumn and after biting my nails in agony about whether it was dying all winter it’s perked up and sent out runners all around the flower bed along which new plants are rooting and taking off, while the mother plant herself is growing and blossoming. As I watered it–them? or is it a collective?–I saw the similarity to how I write a book. So not only am I bonded with my new favorite plant by my method, I find it so much more fun than writing to an outline and then arguing with it.

But it takes patience, a LOT of revising and just plain rewriting, and, the big one, trust in myself, that I will find the way and this will all work out. Do I write myself into corners? All the time. But I did that with the outlines as well, because of the dynamic nature of the stories.

Let me repeat the payoff—it’s fun! When I open the file I am eager to see what happens today.

Case in point. In the Owen Archer I’m currently writing the heart of the tale is the Merchet marriage and whether it can weather Bess’s discoveries about Tom’s life before they met. I knew it began with Bess’s distress over Tom’s disappearance, but I did not have a clear idea what had happened. That developed as I wrote. Nor did I know what Bess would discover about his past. I’ve only just found out this past week, three month into writing. How could I reach this point, more than 100 pages into the book, without knowing why he disappeared and what he’d been hiding from Bess? Well, Tom hadn’t yet revealed himself to me. But I trusted that he would, and his story is much more interesting than the vague one in the back of my mind early on because of a cluster of scenes I wrote a few weeks ago. By this past week I had a clear picture of two of the characters involved and how they interacted. Then it all came together. Do I need to back up and revise some scenes? Yes. Does that bother me? Not at all. It feels organic now, and that’s because it’s all flowing from the story I put in motion in early March.

My method is my method. I would never impose it on anyone else. Over the years I’ve found what’s comfortable for me, what keeps me excited about writing.

2 Comments on “Shop Talk: Patience and Trust vs Outline

  1. So happy to read that you are writing another Owen Archer book…having just read all of the series finishing with A Fox in the Fold, I was a bit sad to be “done”. Looking forward to your next tale. Interesting how your writing flows!


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