How helpful is a detailed outline?

Late last September I arrived in Winnipeg to begin a month’s work there. I had come direct from two weeks in the warmth and bright light of Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Winnipeg was unusually – and disappointingly – wet. I lay in bed listening to CBC Radio 1 – the equivalent of Radio 4 here – and heard an interview with Andrew Pyper from Toronto who was in Winnipeg for a writers’ festival and doing a workshop on novel-writing at the downtown library that morning. It sounded so useful that I pulled on waterproofs, splashed to the bus stop and turned up at the library to pay my $25 and find a good seat. I’d never heard of him, but he’s obviously a well-known Canadian writer and the place was packed. And how useful it was! All the advice and warnings about how to set about writing a novel resonated with my experience, including all the multiple mistakes I’d made first time around

One thing I learned that morning is that I needed to think, think and think again about the focus, the characters, the shape of the plot and write a detailed ‘map’ of your writing journey before starting the first full draft. Part of me had resisted that, too mechanistic, takes too long etc, but when I began the third novel, the work in progress currently, I decided to take this advice and to write the detailed outline patiently before succumbing to the urge to get going on the first draft. As the outline drafts progressed more and more was added, key conversations and events, insights, perhaps the odd phrase. After the 6th draft I thought it was ready and I got started on Chapter 1.

Almost immediately, discontinuities, weak plot points and gaps in the research began to be obvious, so back I went again to the outline, tweaking and adding before going back to the full draft. And so it’s gone on, start with the outline of the chapter, write, tweak the outline, correct some items from earlier chapters, add to the outline further down the track, write again. It’s not an absolute blueprint, but the outline is always there to guide me. I don’t have to carry the map in my head: I have a visible overview of the lie of the land which helps to get me going every morning and keeps me roughly ‘on track’. Different paths and features of the landscape may appear when I get up close, but the big picture is what sustains me through the complexities that almost defeated me on ‘A Good Liar’, Part 1 of the trilogy. Thank you Andrew Pyper. I’m sure your advice has helped to make the first third of ‘Fallout’ (Part 3 of the trilogy) take shape much more smoothly than before.

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