Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Outlines, Writer's Block, and Motivation

There are a few universal truths for writers.
  1. There's always something else to do other than write.
  2. Forcing yourself to write is easier said than done.
  3. Writing is easier if you have a game plan.

Writers are motivated by different things, but motivation often isn't enough to get the words down on paper. Every writer struggles with the blank page, at some point in their life. Doubt creeps in, the words just don't come, there are other things that need to get done, the deadline is looming, the story doesn't work, so why bother.

If you never played the game of baseball before, and you were put onto the field without knowing what the heck you were doing, it doesn't matter how much determination or enthusiasm or talent you have; you won't do well.

It's the same thing with writing. Knowing what you're doing is just as important as doing in. And the easiest way to know what you're doing is to come up with a plan.

For novels, the plan I use is an outline.

When you have a multi-book deal, you'll need to turn in outlines. It's specified in your contract. Money is portioned out to you in lump sums. You get paid upon signing the contract, upon turning in an outline, and upon turning in the next book. And your editor must approve the outline before you begin working on the book.

This is only the case for Book #2 and beyond. Your first book doesn't require an outline. No one will ask for one--not editors, not agents.

But an outline is still a useful tool to help you finish Book #1. First of all, it helps you know where the story is going, so you don't run into dead ends or run out of steam. It can help you find the slow spots in your narrative, it's much easier to add scenes and characters to an outline than a novel-in-progress, and it helps you focus on the craft of the story, as opposed to the art of writing.

An outline is also extremely helpful when it comes to motivation. Once the story is down on paper (in outline form) all you need to do is add the bells and whistles; the action, dscription, and dialog. You don't need to worry about what happens next because you already know. That frees up your mind to create characters and settings and scenes without having to wonder if the book is working, or if there's enough conflict.

I've never really understood writer's block, because I've never had it. I know it is part psychological and part motivational, sort of like being on that baseball field, knowing you have to perform, but not knowing how to get the job done.

Here's the thing; if you already have a template, you don't need motivation, and you don't get blocked. It's like painting by numbers.

What is an outline does is offer you a template. You simply need to fill in the color.

My outlines are very detailed. They run between 30 and 40 pages. I go chapter by chapter, and list who is in each scene, what information needs to be revealed, and what the conflict is.

I write outlines in present tense, and give each chapter a paragraph or two. If you're interested, here's the outline for BLOODY MARY as a download.

Q: How long does it take to write an outline?

A: Outlines are hard. They require a lot of thought, because you're plotting the entire book--every scene, every twist, every dramatic moment. It usually takes me a solid week of 8 hour days to knock out a forty page outline. But once I do it, writing the book is easy, because I already got all of the hard stuff out of the way.

Q: Do you use action or dialog in the outline?

A: Sometimes. It's sort of like describing a movie to your friends. Sometimes you quote dialog. Sometimes you mime some action. But the thrust of it is "What Happens Next?"

Q: Do you ever deviate from the outline?

A: All the time. A book is organic, and can change dramatically. Don't be afraid of that. An outline is a basic frame, but it's pliable. It's much easier to take a book in a different direction if you know your ultimate destination, and an outline helps remind you of that. It also keeps you focused, and allows you to bang out a few pages of manuscript even when the muse isn't around.

Q: Will your editor get angry if the book changes from outline to finished novel, especially since she had to approve of the outline?

A: Not as long as you're keeping the essence of the material.

Q: How detailed do you have to get?

A: The more detailed the outline, the easier it is to write the book. Some authors turn in a ten page outline, which is fine. But they usually do more sweating when the deadline looms closer.

Q: Isn't it harder to write a good outline than it is to write a good book?

A: No. The outline doesn't have to be perfect. When you turn it in, you aren't expected to make your editor laugh, or move her to tears. You're just showing her blueprints of your boat, and she's just checking to make sure it will float when built.

Q: Are there any good books on outlining?

A: Probably. I've never looked. I think most writers know about dramatic structure. In my books, I try to keep raising the stakes, constantly introduce conflict (both internal and external) , and make sure the chapters end on a high note so the reader wants to keep reading. Each scene has to have a point, a reason for existing. It has to fufill some kind of purpose--reveal clues, enhance character, add suspense, raise tension, ratched up the conflict. If a scene does several of these things, it's a really good scene. This is much easier to spot in an outline than in a book.

Q: Should I outline?

A: If you ever sign a multi book deal, you'll be required to outline, so you might as well start now. But don't worry about turning in an outline for a first novel---the agent and editor wants to see a finished book, not an outline.


Anonymous said...

Thanks Joe, another great post, that more than answered my question. Perfect timing too, as I'm about to do my first real outline.

:) Pam

Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting the outline. Very insightful. Great info as always.

Anonymous said...

I've started writing outlines several times for a book I want to write and kept getting hung up with one character that I wanted to start the plot but didn't really feel like including the rest of the way. I forced myself to sit down and deal with him, and now I think I'm ready to give an outline another try. Thanks for posting yours. Seeing something done from start to finish is very rare and very insightful.


Stacey Cochran said...

Hey Joe,

Thanks for this post. This was extremely helpful to see and read about, and I saved a copy of the Bloody Mary outline on my computer.

I wonder if you have to have an outline for a series if you already have the series completed.

I have two series, the first of which has three completed novels. The second series - a suspense novel series - has two completed novels thusfar.

If the novels are done, would you still have to turn in an outline?


Keziah Hill said...

Thanks Joe. This is very helpful.

JA Konrath said...


You still need to turn in an outline if you have books done in the series, because you DO NOT want to tell your editor the books are already done.

Publishers get nervous if an author has a lot of unsold novels in the file cabinet. Your best approach is to say, "I Have a new novel, and I think this would make a good series." Then they buy it, you turn in an outline for Book #2 (even though you've already written #2) and then turn in the book on the due date.

They want things slow and steady usually---though Allison Brennan might have better advice on this topic, since she has 3 books in a series released in a short amount of time, THE PREY, THE HUNT, and THE KILL.

Anonymous said...

Good point, J.A., about keeping the number of books you have in the queue to yourself.

I think what they like to hear is, "I have a completed manuscript." If pressed, "I'm working on the next one."

That shows you're not a one-trick pony, and "working on" can mean anything from just starting to just finishing.

Unknown said...

Joe, you are the freakin' man! Thank you for not only explaining an interesting aspect of novel construction, but actually offering a real-life example of an outline for one of your books. You should win an award for this blog, man. You go where many writers fear to tread, and you enlighten us all. Thanks.

Unknown said...

Did you outline this post?

PS: THANKS SO MUCH for giving the Bloody Mary outline. I'll be taking notes from that.

Finally, to others on the board (not JA, as he doesnt believe in SASEs)

I'm about to query agents via snailmail... is it standard to include one of those big envelopes with the query un-folded inside along with a SASE? Or should I take a regular envelope, and fold and fill with query and SASE?



Jude Hardin said...

Thanks Joe. This was the first time I've ever been able to read an outline that actually preceded a published novel, so it's kind of like a magician revealing the secret to one of his tricks. Not that it takes any of the magic away; it gives us magician wannabes an extra rabbit in our hats.

Excellent post.

JA Konrath said...


For SASEs, mail the first 3 chapters or the manuscript flat, first class or priority mail, in a 9 x 12" envelope. Include a business sized SASE with a single first class stamp on it, for them to reply.

There's no need to include a stamped and folded up 9 x 12" envelope in the submission... agents don't need to return your sample chapters--they'll know to recycle them. (and don't say, "If you don't like the chapters, feel free to recycle them" because that is pessimistic and defeatist.)

If an agent requests the full, send them the entire manuscript, inclusing the first three chapters, and remind them in the query that they requested it, and put REQUESTED MATERIAL on the box.

DON'T use registered mail for either the query or the full manuscript. Use Delivery confirmation (no signature) if you want to make sure it was received.

JA Konrath said...

I meant to say, "the first three chapters or the first fifty pages". Whichever is less. Make sure it ends at an appropriate stopping point, however.

Lynn Raye Harris said...

I am constantly amazed at how giving writers are to each other. I love being a part of the writing community. It doesn't matter whether we write romance or mystery or SF or what. Writers tend to pay it forward. I know there are writers who don't, who can't be bothered, but I don't think they are the majority.

So, thanks a lot for this post and, even better, for the outline that shows what you're talking about. I tend to be a seat of the pants writer. I always start and abandon outlines. But I've never before had a detailed example to study. And this totally helps.

Thanks, Joe. You're too cool. :)

Jeff said...

This is great advice for a novice writer like myself. Thanks for taking time out of your writing to help. :)

Mindy Tarquini said...



*shuts up and goes to work.*

Lauren Baratz-Logsted said...

Joe, you're a model of what a writer should be as a human being.

Rob Gregory Browne said...

Hmm. I think I need to take a closer look at my contract. Nobody ever said anything about outlines. I hate those things...

JD Rhoades said...

You don't need to worry about what happens next because you already know.

Unfortunately for me, not knowing what happens next is one of the main thngs that makes writing fun. I had to turn in an outline for the third Keller book, after which I suddenly lost all interest in writing it, because I knew what was going to happen.

I got over it, of course. A contract's a contract. And, eventually, it got fun again. But it was touch and go for a while there.

Mindy Tarquini said...

Thanks, BIll Peschel, Those notes are an excellent resource.

MikeH said...

I was just thinking this morning that having a real-life example of how other writers did things would be a great help. Then I log on and find a download of your real-life outline for your real-life book. Excellent! And Thanks.

As for outlines, even as a pre-published author I never start a project without one. And if you put all the artsy stuff aside, that's what a book is, a project (I'm a project manager by day, in case you haven't caught on to that yet). It's all a matter of deciding it's worth doing, mapping a plan for doing it and then just getting to work.

William G. said...

Joe, thank you. The outline is awesome. Again I'm amazed at your generosity and willingness to share with the writing community. Thanks again, so much. The info in this post is great.

Wesley Smith said...

Not necessarily so. I've had two multi book deals, one for 4 books, one for 3 books. Every single book has been blind.

But doesn't that qualify as an outline?

Jeri said...

Great post, Joe, and eerily timely as always (I just turned in an outline/first chapter yesterday to my publisher). I'll save your outline to read after I've read BLOODY MARY the book.

Requirements vary from house to house, as Alison said. One of my friends sends her editor an outline about this long: "My next book features Character X and Character Y and what happens when they do Z." That's good enough for them. The same writer has another publisher (which we share) that wants 10-20 pages minimum.

Anonymous said...

Joe, what if you don't know what happens next? I wrote my latest novel without having any idea, or hardly any idea. For me, that's what makes it suspenseful; I'm discovering what happens along with the reader. I began each chapter seriously not knowing what was going to happen. I think this is what makes my work fresh and very surprising. And it works. But what do I do about this outline thing if I'm forced to give one before I've started a book? I suppose I could always make one up and change it later on?

Stephen D. Rogers said...

Hey Joe,

Thanks for much for sharing your outline. I was helped after just glancing at it.

One question though: how long does it take you to write the outline versus the novel?


JA Konrath said...

Does outlining stifle creativity?

No. It distills it.

I enjoy writing without an outline, and have done many books without them. I've heard the 'if the writer doesn't know what is going to happen next neither will the reader' arguement many times, and it is flaws.

All stories have dramtic structure, and all writers have an intuitive sense of what needs to happen next. You may think you're surprising yourself, when in fact you're just following basic storytelling guidelines.

An outline actually frees the writer to take more chances without fearing failure. With a solid outline, you'll never write yourself into a corner, or wonder what happens next, leaving to to explore other diverse directions for scenes or characters.

Bottom line: like all things in life, the more you prepare, the better the end result.

Rob Gregory Browne said...

Actually, Joe, with an outline you'll still go through all of those things -- only you'll do it in the outlining phase rather than the writing phase.

Each of us has to find our own way, and if outlining works for someone, then he or she should outline. But for me, I'd just as soon hit those corners and dead ends when I'm actually writing the book.

Otherwise, there's a distance to the writing phase, a been-there-done-that feeling that I'd rather avoid.

Bottom line, for me at least, is that outlining seems like a lot of work -- and once you've finished it, you still don't have the book written.

I've got nothing against hard work. But I'd rather put it into the final product.

That said, I can certainly see the benefits of the process for some writers and won't knock anyone who does it.

There's no wrong way to approach your craft. The end results are all that count.

Bestselling Author, Pontif. said...

I do write outlines, faithfully. I like have the map. Do I often stick to it? No, of course not. Characters take on a life of their own, you get inspired during the process and things change, but I see an outline as a guide. It helps if you have it going in.

Patrick said...


I've been considering an email to you to ask you to post a sample outline for one of your books. I was intrigued with the process you described when you, Bill and I got together for dinner in Richmond during the big tour! More and more, I've been thinking I'd like to give your way a go.

I'm glad I did a search of your blog first and found this post! Thanks for giving us a peek at your outline. I'm definitely thinking this is something I want to try.

A Stop at Willoughby

Unknown said...

Hello. I have such a project in my head and have no idea what to do with it. I have been supporting the troops for four years and have a web site that so many use. I have decided to follow this adventure with a book to help families with all that is necessary for a youngster deploying in the military. I have the thoughts but do not know how to put them in order. my web site is and you can see what I want to do as a continuation in book form so all can have it for years to come. thanks for any help. Margaret