I've heard a variety of opinions from popular authors regarding outlines. Some writers swear by them, while others say they don't like constricting their narrative with a pre-set plan. You strike me as an outline guy, but I wanted to ask anyway: What are your thoughts on outlines? And have they changed at all over time? –BRIAN
Yeah, I’m an outline guy. You’re right. But I came to this realization the hard way. I’ve tried it a bunch of other ways – no outline at all, a skeletal outline, an immensely detailed outline. . . It took me a while to work out my system. But here’s the important thing: you do what works for you. That’s the cool thing about writing: you make your own rules. I know and admire authors who don't outline at all — Lee Child and Harlan Coben, for instance — but I’ve learned it's not the way I write. I experimented with writing Power Play without an outline, and it took me twice as long as it should have, because I didn't give myself a map.
That said, I know some authors who write outlines that are almost novella-length; Jeffery Deaver, I think, starts with an outline that might be close to 100 pages long. Robert Ludlum used to write outlines that were easily 150 pages. That's not me, either. That saps the writing process of all the fun of discovery and spontaneity. So I compromise: I lay out a sequence of events — the "beats" of the novel — and I'll make lists of character names and descriptions and even scenes and scraps of dialogue that I want to incorporate. It's not especially detailed, and it does change along the way when new and better ideas present themselves, but it gives me the feeling that I'm working with a net.
Here’s how I think of it, since I’m a techie guy: it’s the difference between driving with a GPS and driving with directions you’ve downloaded from Google Maps. If you drive from Boston MA to Syracuse NY using a GPS, it’ll drive you crazy, having that voice tell you “in three tenths of a mile right turn on I-90…” You can’t listen to music, you can’t be in your own head, you’re always aware of that control-freak voice telling you what to do. No fun. But if you drive without any directions at all, you’ll end up in Tulsa. (Not that there’s anything wrong with Tulsa.) So I print out my directions on Google Maps; that way I have the directions, I know the route, and it allows me to take the more scenic route at times.
Hi Joe, I'm a very young writer (still at school) and was just wondering how you would go about researching your books? If you were to write a book set in a country that you dont live in, how would you go about finding out more about their culture, accents, etc? –MEL
Visiting in person is always the best way, but the Internet is a pretty decent second best. YouTube lets you hear accents and even languages from all over the world, and Google Earth gives you not only satellite views but sometimes street-level views of neighborhoods all over the planet. Search for blogs from the region you're writing about, and look for biographies and memoirs of people from there; memoirs, in particular, often give details of everyday life that history books omit.
Hi Joe! Great question from Mel, let me do a follow-up -- how would you then integrate that information in a way that was smooth and believable, and check to make sure it was represented accurately? –LITTLEFLUFFYCAT
Nothing is more jarring than a book that shoves in all kinds of details in order to show off the author's research. One way to test yourself, if you're not sure whether you've got too much information or not enough, is to rewrite a sequence as if it were set in your own neighborhood. What would you need to tell a stranger about your own neighborhood in order to establish that sense of place? Street names, landmarks, characteristic noises or smells — but just enough, not too much. In Boston, for example, a giant Citgo sign looms over Kenmore Square, and you can see it for almost a mile in any direction. It's not far from my own office, and when I see it, it tells me I'm home. Look for signifiers like that, but don't distract your reader with unnecessary details. Here’s my rule: research should be like the tip of an iceberg – no more than 10% should show.
I'd like to ask you to describe both positive & negative experiences that you may have had using these social media. You are very engaged with your fans, especially on twitter, and I'm wondering if at times it can be overwhelming or even "frightening?" –MERLECHLOE
I love new technology, and I love all the new means of communication we have now – e-mail, Twitter, Facebook, etc. – but at the same time I hate them, because they split your attention, divert your focus. The immediate gratification you get from e-mail can ruin your concentration. I find Twitter to be an especially amazing and powerful way to connect with my readers in a way that I’ve never done before: it’s immediate, intimate, informal – and, yes, totally overwhelming at times. I've met literally thousands of new friends and readers through Twitter, and I love interacting with them. But it can take over. I can tell myself I'm taking a quick break from writing just to check in with my readers, and before I know it, half the day is gone. There's always one more message to respond to, one more question to answer, one more great piece of information to follow up on. It's a little like research, in that way. I've had to ration myself, especially lately, while I'm finishing the next book, and at times I even have to go cold turkey. I still haven’t figured out how to balance Twitter with my writing life.
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Joe writes about how he gets a book started and how he got his first book published! Follow Joe on Twitter @joefinder or visit his website.