This week I will begin writing Dead Man’s Reach, the fourth book in the Thieftaker Chronicles. For those of you who are fans of the series, don’t panic. Book three, A Plunder of Souls, is not yet out and won’t be for close to a year. Authors are almost always at least a full book ahead of the publication schedule. On the other hand, if you haven’t yet read book two, Thieves’ Quarry, all I can say is what the hell are you waiting for…?
I spent part of last week outlining the book, and thought that I would return to the subject of outlines and pantsing, since it is something that still comes up quite a bit on this site and also in panels. I know that we talk about there being no single right way to do any of this, and I still believe that. But in this case I am going to argue pretty forcefully in favor of outlining.
A bit about the book first: More than any other book in the series, the timeline of my narrative in this story is bound to historical events. Dead Man’s Reach takes place at the time of the Boston Massacre. Most people don’t know this, but while the shootings on March 5, 1770 may well be the most infamous event of the pre-Revolutionary period, they were preceded by a series of violent confrontations, and were the culmination of two weeks of conflict and tragedy. In my book, which may be the most ambitious novel I’ve ever conceived, my hero, Ethan Kaille, is present at nearly every event. Making this timeline work without allowing it to feel contrived takes some serious planning.
This is one reason why for this book, more than any other, the outline is crucial. There is no way I can make the story work if I’m winging it as I go. Pantsing would not work. Which raises the obvious point:
“So outlining is important for a project that is tied so closely to predetermined events that occur at specific times on given days. But my book doesn’t have that, so why shouldn’t I just keep on pantsing?”
Because plotting and pacing should always be thought out with care. Narratives that meander, even a little bit, will be less likely to draw the interest of an agent, more difficult to sell to an editor, and more likely to frustrate your eventual readers. Books that aren’t planned are also more difficult to write.
“Not if that’s the way you always work!”
Yes, even if that’s the way you always work. I have done both. I started out as a dedicated outliner. For a time I gave up on outlining and worked as a pantser. Now I am outlining again, and I know my books are easier to write — far, far easier — when I work this way. How? Here’s an example: In the past, I always ran into a creative wall at a certain point in writing a book, usually when I was about sixty per cent done. Suddenly my plot wouldn’t make sense anymore, and I would have no idea how to get from where I was to the place where I knew I needed to be by the end of the book. That has not happened with any of the Thieftaker books. Not one of them. I have also found that the better my outline, the more likely I am to hit my word count goal for the project. It’s easier for me to write to a certain length when I know how I’m going to get there.
The fact is, I have been more conscientious about outlining all of the Thieftaker books than I was with any of my previous work. Again, this is due in part to the very nature of the series. The books are historicals, and so I am constantly blending my fictional narratives with real world events. That takes planning. They are also mysteries, and mysteries need to be plotted carefully, so that clues are doled out in the correct order at suitable intervals. But just because the Thieftaker books, by their very nature, require a certain level of planning, does not mean that I can’t draw lessons from the process of writing them. It is no coincidence that these books, as a series, represent the best work I have ever done. I would argue that the structure imposed upon my writing by the nature of the stories has contributed to the quality of the finished products.
“But I write organically. I can’t deal with that kind of structure.”
Sorry, but I don’t buy that. First of all, I write organically, too. When I say that I outline, that doesn’t mean I know every single thing that is going to happen on each and every page. My outlines are rough; they consist of maybe three sentences for each chapter of four to five thousand words. There is plenty of room there for me to let my characters roam and surprise me, to allow myself to create organically and in the moment. To my mind, the dichotomy between “writing organically” and “outlining” is utterly false. One can do both; I know, because these days I do both with every book I write. In fact, I would argue that when you know where your going, it’s easier to write organically. It’s like driving with a road map: When you know the main route, it’s easier to take those scenic detours. Or it’s like cooking with a recipe: When you know the basics of making a dish, it’s easier to take chances and add in personal touches. Pick your metaphor.
“All right then, how do I start outlining?”
The first thing I would suggest is that you simply write out your key plot points, even if you have to do it bullet form. I did this with Dead Man’s Reach (and with the other Thieftaker books) when I pitched them to Tor. I used my brief synopsis of each plot as the basis for an outline. I assigned each plot point to a chapter, and pretty much had my outline written. With this key caveat: My outline for the new book is not quite complete. The Thieftaker books usually wind up being twenty-four or twenty-five chapters long. The current outline for book four only has twenty chapters. That’s all right. All books change as we write them. Because, as I said, the process remains organic even when we have an outline in place. At some point I will find that some part of my narrative I thought I could write in two chapters actually requires three. Or an important subplot that I hadn’t thought of previously will develop as I write. The book will evolve, grow, mature. And I will probably need to reconstruct my outline two or three times. I’m fine with that. It’s how I know that I have a living, breathing story to tell.
This is a long post already (I probably should have outlined it . . .) So let’s stop there and talk about this stuff. If you outline, what do you think you gain from that structure? If you don’t, what’s stopping you?David B. Coe http://www.DavidBCoe.com http://www.dbjackson-author.com http://magicalwords.net