Outlining a book

I always outline when I’m writing nonfiction. It just seems to make sense. The editor tells you what the publication is looking for. They spell it out in your “letter of agreement.” You do the reporting, then sit down and organize the facts exactly the way everyone has told you they want it. In this respect, writing nonfiction is a little like elementary school. They hit you with facts, you spit them right back. 

Journalist Jon Franklin wrote an amazing book called "Writing For Story" that describes a powerful method for outlining short articles and nonfiction stories for maximum dramatic effect. He says that writers who try to write a complex story without outlining will inevitably reach a point where they begin "spaghettiing" — churning out copy that doesn’t have a strong focus.

I agree. Nailing down an outline before you write a nonfiction article usually results in writing only one or two drafts.

But all this goes out the window when I’m writing fiction. When I do fiction, I just start writing scenes I feel compelled to write now. And I keep numerous files with scraps, ideas, etc., of other scenes I know I’ll need in the future.

I once saw P.D. James talk about a similar method in a BBC interview. If she felt like writing a “bit of action” today, she bloody well would. That was a revelation to me. I had never known that you could do a book that way. I had assumed I should start at the beginning, write all of the way through in sequence, and start over with revisions. That’s what I’d done with everything I’d ever written.

Lawrence Block says outlining is nice, but don’t ever fool yourself that you have your entire book figured out. That’s an illusion. Better ideas will come along as you write and you need to be open to incorporating them. (By the way, I suspect that those who honed their craft prior to the age of computers learned to compose much more finished drafts than we do today.)

Today, I write as quickly and as far as I can in my piecemeal mode until I start to get irritated. That’s my spaghetti point. That’s when I know it’s time to see if everything I’ve written can be plotted on an outline, and if I can discern a coherent structure in it all. By then, I know a lot about the characters, their world, the story, and where I want to go. I start moving the scenes around in Scrivener, and it actually becomes fun, thinking of all the different ways I could build tension if I move this here or there.

Write first, then outline seems to be my current modus operandi. Wash the clothes, then hang them out to dry. An analogue to this might well be David Lynch’s index-card approach to making a film, only not nearly as crazy or as brilliant.

What do you do?