What Lies Ahead

by Zoë Sharp

This week, besides getting some much needed construction work done on the garage – smashing out old window frames out with a brick bolster and a lump hammer is so therapeutic – I’ve been Outlining.

Producing an outline for a book not yet written is a contentious point with writers. Some people sneer at the very idea that you can plan a book in any kind of detail before you start. It ruins the spontaneity, they reckon, makes it dull and staid. After all, what’s the point of writing the book if you already know everything that happens?

Well, I’m one of these people for whom knowing the end of the story doesn’t spoil it for me. In fact, I often enjoy a book or a movie more the second time around, when I’m not worrying about what comes next and I can simply enjoy the ride.

And agents and publishers these days like to have an idea of what they’re getting, in advance. Beyond anything else, the basic synopsis gives them – and therefore me – a good idea of whether the underlying idea appeals to them or not. If it doesn’t, then I’m fighting a losing battle before I put the first word on screen.

With the latest Charlie Fox novel delivered, I’m in the thumb-twiddling and nail-biting period, so the best way to distract myself is to plan the next one. Obviously, in a series there are a lot of factors that are carried over from the last book. Particularly in a series where the main character develops from book to book, rather than remaining static. Up to now, I’ve tried very hard to keep each story independent – so the books can be read out of sequence without problem.

But, inevitably, this has had to change. This time, there is a lot of carry-over from the events of the last book. And by that I don’t mean I left the main plot hanging. There was a satisfactory resolution on that front, but it was the personal story line that’s ongoing. And in the next one, Charlie’s life has been turned even further upside down. She will question all her beliefs in order to follow a course of action that could be her downfall on every level.

Producing a coherent outline is a headache. As is always the case about now, I drag out the outline from the last book to try and work out how on earth I put this thing together before. Trust me, it gets no easier.

The old outline is usually looking a bit grubby and sorry for itself by now, having been dragged everywhere with me like a child’s tatty comfort blanket. It has been much pawed over and scribbled on by the time it was put away, and it is now covered in pencil corrections and amendments and … probably bears very little resemblance to the finished book. The main plot points usually stay the same, though, and while the details may change, it at least gives me the basic story arc, and tells me at any given point how far through the story I ought to be, as certain key elements fall into place. It helps me keep track of the pace.

Once my basic idea has formed out of the ether, the first thing I always write is the imaginary jacket copy. I pick up the book in my mind, turn it over and read the back of the jacket. Does the idea grab me? I mean, really grab me? It better had, because I’m going to have to spend months immersed in it. When I go back through my files, this is exactly what I put together for THIRD STRIKE, before I began to write the book:

‘I was running when I saw my father kill himself. Not that he jumped off a tall building or stepped in front of a truck but – professionally, personally – what I watched him do was suicide.’

The last person that ex-Special Forces soldier turned bodyguard, Charlie Fox, ever expected to self-destruct was her own father, an eminent consultant surgeon. But when Charlie unexpectedly sees him admitting to gross professional misconduct on a New York news programme, she can’t just stand by and watch his downfall.

That’s not easy when Richard Foxcroft, always cold towards his daughter, rejects her help at every turn. The good doctor has never made any secret of his disapproval of Charlie’s choice of career or her relationship with her boss, Sean Meyer. And now, just as Charlie and Sean are settling in to their new life in the States, Foxcroft seems determined to go down in a blazing lack of glory, taking his daughter and everyone she cares about down with him.

But those behind Foxcroft’s fall from grace have not bargained on Charlie’s own ruthless streak. A deadly professional who’s always struggled to keep her killer instinct under control, this time she has very personal reasons for wanting to neutralise the threat to her reluctant principal.

And when the threads of the conspiracy reach deep into a global corporation with almost unlimited resources, the battle is going to be bitter and bloody …

Now, in that case, I already had my opening lines as well. The whole thing is less than 250 words. And, as a bonus, it more or less follows the finished book!

After that initial half-page, I start to put together my back story. Very few books start at the absolute beginning of the story, and because Charlie Fox is working in close protection, there has to be a threat of some kind to the client before she’s brought in. I need to know what it is, and more or less everything that’s happened up to the point at which she – and the reader – join the tale.

This is where a first-person narrative is both a blessing and a curse. A lot of the back story will take place off camera. If Charlie wasn’t actually there, she has to find out this information somehow, in such a way that it doesn’t put the reader – or the writer, for that matter – to sleep in the process. But at the moment all I want to know is what happened before, in broad strokes. Trying to work out exactly how Charlie fits into all this would clog me up and slow me down. Detail comes later.

Having got my back story and decided my jumping-off point for the book, I write down the main structure points. An attack on the principal. An ambush on the road. A meeting. A double-cross. A confrontation between the characters. I start off with the whole thing as bare-bones as I can get away with, and then I go over it, again and again, adding a little more detail with each layer, as the twists and turns make themselves apparent.

This is where having my back story to hand is so useful, as I can put the two side-by-side and see where Charlie’s story intersects with the back story, to make sense of the course of events. Ever watched an old James Bond film and wondered how the villain’s identically dressed henchmen always seemed to turn up in the right place at the right time to pursue 007? If anyone asks me the same question, I should be able to answer it from the back story. (And, if I can’t, I need to find that answer, pdq.)

And, with apologies to all the techie crowd out there, I do this on paper in pencil. Usually on a fold-over clipboard so I can use it in the car or wherever, and always have a flat surface to write on. The clipboard also doubles as a handy laptop tray, to stop me cooking my legs if I’m working on screen for any length of time.

The hardest part of plotting, as always for me, is the misdirection, where Charlie has to believe something other than the truth is going on, and someone other than the culprit is responsible. This usually occurs to me as I’m layering it in. Anything happening behind the scenes, I put in brackets in my outline, as an aside to myself, just so I know what’s really going on.

Having got my basic outline, I then do my cast list. Some will be continuing characters, but a lot will be new people, and at this stage I only need a brief idea of who they are. They will introduce themselves to me more fully as I go along. I’ve tried doing full biographies for characters before I start, and it just doesn’t work for me. I need to ‘meet’ them, in person, in context, before I really know who they are.

For the last few books I have had the privilege of adding in the character of someone who has bid at a charity auction for the right to be included. In SECOND SHOT this was Frances L Neagley, who became a Boston Private Investigator. In THIRD STRIKE, it was Terry O’Loughlin – a Texas lawyer for a pharmaceutical giant. In the latest book, FOURTH DAY, the winner particularly wanted her name used in such a way that possibly only she would recognise it. And in the new book I have not one, but two characters to incorporate – a mother and daughter. Fortunately, before I started outlining I had vague plans for a father and daughter as central characters, but a mother and daughter works even better.

Unless they’re auction bidders, finding names for new characters can be a bit of a chore. Fortunately, I can always call on various random name generator sites, including this one, which will allow you to be more specific, asking for names suitable for a hillbilly, a rapper, or a goth, as well as specifying country of origin.

At this stage, this is just a rough idea of who I need to people my world, trying to make sure all of them don’t have names beginning with the same letter, or ending with a similar sound, which can lead to confusion. I went to a writing group meeting last week and someone read out a story in which all the main characters had names beginning with ‘B’, a fact which she hadn’t noticed before bringing the story to the group.

What I try not to plan in detail is the reactions of the characters to the events of the book. That I like to leave as a more organic process, arising naturally out of the circumstances in which they find themselves. Dusty’s excellent blog from yesterday (see below) explained all the main archetypes and the cliché pitfalls that dot our path. Although there may only be a limited number of plots and – it would seem – a certain number of character types, it’s the way you as a writer choose to combine these, in your voice, that makes your story unique.

Of course, a lot will change by the time the book is finished, but for me it’s like going on a car journey at night. I know roughly the direction I’m travelling in. I know where to turn and which signs to follow. And I know where I ultimately want to end up. But as I drive fast into the darkness, a lot of the detail of the landscape and the road ahead is hidden, and I can only see with any clarity the area directly in front of the headlights.

With an outline, I have my road map and I do a little rolling detail outline as I go along, so I know the immediate future, the immediate path ahead, but occasionally obstacles and obstructions and detours crop up that you don’t expect, and then you – and your characters – have to react as best they can and hope you don’t crash.

So, where do you stand on the whole outline or not-outline issue. If you’re an outliner, how does your method of putting the whole thing together vary from mine? And, if you’re not an outliner, how do you set about getting into a new book?

This week’s Word of the Week is Juggernaut. With an initial capital, this means a very large lorry, but it also means any relentless destroying force or object of devotion or sacrifice; an incarnation of Vishna, whose idol at Puri is traditionally drawn on a processional chariot, beneath which devotees were once believed to throw and crush themselves. Also Jugannath, from Jagannatha, lord of the world.

And finally, as the only Brit member of the ‘Rati crew, I feel I ought to mention the fourth anniversary on Tuesday of the London bus and Underground bombings, which took place on July 7th 2005. They have just erected a memorial to the dead in Hyde Park in London – a collection of columns to represent the fallen, standing tall.




26 thoughts on “What Lies Ahead

  1. JD Rhoades

    Great post, Zoe. Outlining has always been like pulling teeth for me, and, as I’ve noted before, the finished product often bears little or no relation to the outline. But I think I’ll try your method next time.

  2. R.J. Mangahas

    Timely post Z. I was actually just talking about outlining with a writer friend of mine. She is a rather meticulous outliner, every detail down before she starts. I, on the other hand, have a VERY basic outline of a few plot points then just make the rest up as I go along. I also like the jacket copy outline. However, it bears very little resemblance to to where my WIP is now.

  3. Dana King

    Thanks for this. My outlining procedure is quite similar to yours. I’ve been told by quite a few people Irespect that i should try writing something by the seat of my pants. I tried it on my WIP and walked myself into such a swamp I had to back away, do a outline, and write several chapters that should have been included in the original. My stories are too linear if I don’t outline. This can work in flash or a short, but not in a novel.

    It’s nice to see someone prove the basic technique I use can be very successful. Now I just have to work on holding up my end. šŸ˜‰

  4. toni mcgee causey

    My process is somewhere in the middle between what you do with Charlie and pure "winging it." I have two giant white boards (4′ x 8′) on easels in my office which serve as my ‘structure’ boards. I do a rough timeline across the top and jot notes beneath as to what has to have happened by that point. This encapsulates my pinch points, turning points and major arcs. Random detailed subplot information spills over onto the second one and it’ll look a bit like a psychotic Rorschach test when I’m done.

    I’ve been using Scrivener lately to plunk outline-ish materials in some semblance of order. I originally started using this as a gathering place for all my online research materials, especially since it lets me select something and turn it into a keyword across all of the file folders and I can scribble notes in the margin that will remind me of something for the document later on. (I used to do this with a notebook like you, ZoĆ«, but I’d lose information buried deep in the notebook because I didn’t want to wade through everything to find that nugget of necessary information.)

    Still use the notebook at times when I’m working out the emotional ramifications and motives and goals. I think better in longhand for that sort of thing.

  5. Louise Ure

    I’m one of those folks who always considered outlining to be detrimental to my creative processes, ZoĆ«, but I like your description of it.

    One question, though: Which version do you turn into your publisher as the outline? The 250-jacket copy version? More details like the action points or character descriptions?

  6. KC

    Fantastic! Thanks so much for sharing your process! It seems like in every interview and blog post I’ve read lately, the author is a pantser. I’ve even started questioning my own approach, as a result. But I simply can’t start a novel without knowing where the story is going: protag, villain, secondary characters, and all the turning points. And like you, I also write the jacket copy to see how I feel about the overall story.

  7. Zoƫ Sharp

    Hi Dusty

    I know a lot of writers feel the same way as you do about outlining, and I sympathise. I did wonder about a halfway house stage, though – where I write the backstory part, but then put the character down and wing it from there.

    (Sorry for the erratic answering today – I’m off down country with a talk to the Chiltern Writers’ Group tonight and then a photoshoot in London tomorrow!)

  8. Zoƫ Sharp

    Hi RJ

    I can’t wait to read this book of yours … ;-]

    Every writer goes about the process in a different way. I know extremely successful authors who plot meticulously and in great detail – PD James and Jeff Deaver to name but two. Others prefer the wing-it method.

    I like to go back to my brief jacket outline while I’m writing, because that, more than anything, gives me the feel and the tone of the book, and when I compare it to what I’m actually writing, I can see if I’m starting to go off track or not.

  9. Zoƫ Sharp

    Hi Dana

    Don’t let anyone tell you how to go about your own writing process – you are unique!

    I, too, would write myself into a swamp if I didn’t have a rough idea of where I was going. Yes, it changes, but at least at the point of that change I can look at my outline and see if I can still get to where I originally wanted to go, from where I am now. Otherwise, I’d fall flat on my face on a regular basis ;-]

  10. Zoƫ Sharp

    Hi Toni

    " it’ll look a bit like a psychotic Rorschach test when I’m done."

    LOL. Let’s see a shrink make sense of that. In fact, I wonder what a shrink would make of any of our random plottings …

    Sounds frighteningly organised, though. And space-hungry!

    I, too, like to use my ‘neck-top’ computer – notebook and pencil ;-]

  11. Zoƫ Sharp

    Hi Louise

    Initially, I just turn in the short outline. That’s enough to get a reaction of sorts. Then I work the whole thing out and have just dumped about 9 pages on my agent’s editor. I’ll have a meeting with her at Harrogate in a couple of weeks to get a reaction.

    The backstory part I don’t bother sending. That’s just for my own information, except where parts of it definitely intersect with the story, as told through my main protag’s eyes. It just allows me to answer any questions about what’s going on and then, if it isn’t clear, to reinforce that part of the story.

    Erm, does that help?

  12. Zoƫ Sharp

    Hi KC

    As I said to Dana – you are unique as a writer, and should go about constructing the road map to help you on your journey in whatever way you see fit to best suit your needs. I refuse to believe there is one Right Way to go about it.

    Just go for it!

  13. Rob Gregory Browne

    I don’t outline. But I recently did a detailed outline and proposal for a specific line of books. It was, in many ways, a more difficult task than any of my books.

    I can understand why you’d want to outline. But it just isn’t something I’m interested in doing unless the contract specifically calls for it. It takes enough to get me to write the book. I don’t want to waste all that energy on something that can’t be published.

  14. JT Ellison

    I love your process, ZoĆ«. If you’re going to outline, this is the way to do it. I’m struggling with trying to outline a book now – I’m much more of a pantser, organic and shoot from the hip. It makes the writing process more fun for me. I’m just not good at the outline. I will look at your method here and see if it might work better than what I was trying. Thanks!

  15. toni mcgee causey

    ohdearGod, I wouldn’t want a shrink to see that board. They’d lock me away fore sure.

    I’m just such a visual person, I have to see the story. (This is a tiny room, my office–each one of those boards nearly fills that wall. The room has a desk, an office chair and one over-stuffed chair for visitors. Nothing else.)

    What I love about the boards is they’re also magnetized, so I can print photos or tear out magazine images and stick them up there. There’s a mac program that sort of does this (I cannot recall the name… Curio? maybe?)… but I like that it’s a big board and tangible.

    [I keep it messy on purpose. I once tried to use 3×5 cards, and then it felt constraining, as if they were supposed to line up and behave themselves, and I found the story-telling stagnant. I needed it to be messy–almost like permission to free-associate and brainstorm.]

  16. Zoƫ Sharp

    Hi Rob

    This is why I say that everyone does it their own way. For me, the time spent exploring fictional cul-de-sacs is unproductive, so I like to know where I’m going in advance. I’m fascinated – and slightly in awe – of people who can wing it, but it just doesn’t happen to suit me. Neither way is right or wrong, just different.

    Can I ask, though, how do you manage to get the story coherent first time around with no outline to guide you?

  17. Zoƫ Sharp

    Hi Toni

    I’d just LOVE to see those boards. Can you email a picture? Either that, or we’ll just have to come visit …

    I used to use 3×5 cards, but that didn’t work for me, either. Now I just make scrappy notes on the reverse side of old typescript – helpful and recycling, too!

  18. BCB

    I’m too new at this to have any idea of what works for me on a consistent basis. Right now it’s a messy mix. It’s fascinating to hear what works for others. But I would just like to say, as I ride off on my bicycle into the impending storm, that my budget now officially hates each and every one of you. And your little books too. Ahem.

  19. Zoƫ Sharp

    Hi BCB

    At some point or another during the writing process, every book seems to be a messy mix. And every time I swear I’m going to be more organised next time around. So far, I haven’t been entirely successful. Perhaps I simply don’t have that level of organisation in me. But what I do works – for me. Everyone develops their own method.

    (Not sure from your comment if you are in agreement with your budget …)

  20. BCB

    Oh dear. Nonono. My sense of humour is too dry for my own good. Leads to excessive use of smilies, which I neglected here. It’s just that every time I come over here one of you has yet another new book out or you discuss a book you’ve written I hadn’t known about and I think, "Must. Buy. That." And my budget is up in arms and contacting the bank to see about freezing the checking account. I can’t wait to read the Charlie Fox books! Feeling rather dense for not having discovered them already.

  21. Zoƫ Sharp

    Well, THAT’S a relief … ;-]

    My budget left home some time ago. Actually, it wailed something about Mother being right about me all along and flounced out, trailing a suitcase and muttering about me hearing from its lawyer, I seem to recall.

    And at least when the early Charlie Fox books all come out from Busted Flush next year, your budget may kick and scream a bit, but the new trade paperback versions won’t be as bad as the prices the originals are fetching!

  22. Rob Gregory Browne

    Zoe, I’ve been on vacation, so am coming is WAY late to answer your question — and to be honest, I’m not sure I have an answer.

    My brain just seems to work in a way that allows me to plot as I write without taking many — if any — wrong turns along the way. I rarely have to backtrack or revise. I think the highest number of pages I’ve ever thrown out was about 25-30.

    Again, I’m not sure why. My brain just seems to work that way.


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