Writing outlines: Do what works for you

I was recently asked a question about outlining a novel:

“I’m now working on an extensive outline in hopes that doing so will better help me see a novel through to the end. It sounds like doing so made all the difference for you. I am wondering if you could respond and further explain your outlining and writing process and maybe even include some images from the Unsub outline. Do you plot down to the chapter and scene level or is it more of the acts of the story and major plot points? Do you sketch these out on a pad or are you strictly working on Word files? I’d love to see what that actually looks like when done by a pro.”

Here’s the gist of how I responded:

When it comes to outlining stories: Do whatever works. Over the years I’ve found it most helpful to write an outline that’s like a story summary—it will include the beginning, major turning points, and ending. That’s what works for me. The more I can come to understand the characters before I dive into a first draft, and ramp up their motivations and conflicts, the better grasp on the story I’ll have—and the more ideas for how to develop the plot to a slam-bang ending.

I don’t format the outline with Roman numerals or anything that stringent—I write it up as if I’m telling the gist of the story to a friend. I’ll include a quick precis of major scenes, and emphasize the twists and turns in the plot, with particular emphasis on the protagonist and antagonist.

That’s just me. Whatever helps pull ideas from the air (or the unconscious)!

Crafting a novel is a discipline that simply takes time and practice. We all careen along the trail, hoping there will be a brass band at the finish line.

__________

I promised the querier that I would expand on these thoughts in a blog post. So: 

Over time, I’ve come to outline my novels in greater detail and at greater length. For example, for The Shadow Tracer, I wrote a two-page outline. Here’s a screen shot.

Shadow Tracer excerptI hadn’t read that outline for several years. When I did, I was struck to see that it’s mostly summary and backstory.

Actually, I was taken aback. I mean, the outline continues: “Sarah has a desperate secret. Zoe was placed in her care by her dying sister, Beth, who sacrificed her own life to protect her. Beth had unwittingly been put in danger by Zoe’s dad. He was a good-hearted young man who’d fled a nightmarish upbringing.” And it goes on like that for several more paragraphs. It’s almost all setup. The outline doesn’t even reveal the ending.

Since then, I’ve come to understand that getting the central conflict on the page, and explaining it in terms of the push-and-pull between the hero and antagonist, are incredibly helpful. What matters is to tell the story in the outline with as much drive and verve as possible. So now when I outline, I write the summary the way I write the book: I dive straight in. The action comes first; any explanation or backstory comes later. What counts is to dig into the heart of the characters’ emotional lives and excavate what’s at stake in the story.

So I’ve moved toward writing what are essentially story treatments for the novel. These are longer documents that include some mini-scenes and bring the story more immediately to life.

Here’s the opening of the UNSUB outline.

UNSUB excerpt

The UNSUB outline runs to almost twenty pages. Writing it took me months. And months, and more months. But when I finished it, I knew who the characters were. I knew what they meant to each other. And what they would do to each other. The UNSUB outline put all the elements of the plot on the page, with every major twist and turn, from beginning to end. And, importantly, it did so while delving into the emotional connections between the characters, and highlighting every major conflict, surprise, and revelation in the story.

Because of that, it took much less time to write the first draft of the book than to write the outline. And that first draft didn’t meander or require extensive cutting. When it came to plot and character development, I’d done the heavy lifting already.

Your mileage may vary. You may decide not to outline a single word of a story or novel. But if you get nothing else from this blog post, take this away: Even after writing thirteen novels, I’m still learning how to do it better.

New: Order signed, personalized books

1121 UNSUB

Thanks to Austin’s terrific independent bookstore, BookPeople, readers can now order signed, personalized copies of my books.

Yep — if you order one of my novels from BookPeople (or all of ’em, because, come on) — you can now get a copy that not only features my signature, but one that includes a personal message.

Just order online. The bookstore will ship the copies to you. A pretty good deal.

Here’s how:

Order signed books by Meg Gardiner.

What are you waiting for?

UNSUB book tour wrap-up

UNSUB Chauffeur

The UNSUB book tour spanned several weeks, seven thousand miles, and was accomplished via car, plane, subway, phone, and foot. It included radio interviews, book signings, talks, podcasts, and seminars. And a 100-mile drive through a crazy thunderstorm to Houston. It even featured a driver who greeted me at the Oakland airport, wearing the appropriate chauffeur’s hat and sign. Of course, it helped that she was my daughter.

In all, it was productive, invigorating, and uplifting.

SiriusXMI got to talk to readers across the United States, and do events with wonderful writers including Jeff Abbott and Spencer Quinn. I got to meet one of my literary idols, Don Winslow, who has been incredibly supportive of my work. Don shared an evening with me at Barnes & Noble in Dallas, and the event was as fun and inspiring as I could have hoped for.

I got to visit the Sirius XM studios in New York City, where I recorded a segment for Entertainment Weekly’s radio show, Off The Books, with its host, Tina Jordan. I got to speak on a panel at Thrillerfest with writers I worship, including the great Walter Mosley. What a privilege.

Thanks to the Husband for going on a road trip with me across Texas and Oklahoma. And thanks to everyone who came to my events: my bridesmaids, friends from England, dedicated mystery readers, fellow writers, former federal agents, cousins, and the Husband’s college roommate… even though he attempted to confess to being the Zodiac killer. (Fat chance, Pete — Ted Cruz is higher on my suspect list than you are.)

NMM@TBSThanks especially to the booksellers — from Austin, Houston, Phoenix, Orinda, San Francisco, Dallas, Oklahoma City, Manhattan, and Brooklyn — who welcomed me and opened their doors to help launch UNSUB.

Thanks once more to the readers of Oklahoma, who have again made both UNSUB and China Lake Top Ten sellers this week. This native daughter of Oklahoma is elated.

Thanks to the Daughter and Son-in-Law for driving me around the Bay Area and being my People for a day. Thanks to the Sons for hanging with their mom in New York City, and for taking me to the Every Time I Die / Taking Back Sunday concert at Webster Hall. To quote my son after the concert: “Nobody can believe you actually came. Literally not one person I know can believe you came to this concert.” Mom for the win!

So, to conclude my UNSUB summer tour, have some celebratory music and stage confetti. Here’s Taking Back Sunday opening their show with “Tidal Wave.”

UNSUB reviews: Boston Globe, Providence Journal & Oklahoma bestseller list

UNSUB_OK_Bestseller

I’ve been up and down I-35 to Dallas and Oklahoma City, back to Austin, and off to New York City. Doing the UNSUB book tour, teaching at Thrillerfest, and hanging out with my kids. I’ll have a tour roundup soon, but for now, here’s the latest news about the novel.

First: Have I told you how much I love Oklahoma? My home state has come through in a stunning and exciting way this week. UNSUB is Oklahoma’s Number 1 fiction bestseller. And China Lake is Number 5. Thank you to everybody in the state! (And thanks to Joe Hight of Edmond’s Best of Books, for the photo.)

Second: While I was on the road I got a couple of gratifying reviews of the novel.

“Gardiner’s heebie-jeebies-inducing thriller, which CBS is adapting as a television series, shimmers with Hitchcockian elements.” — Boston Globe

“In the deft grasp of Meg Gardiner all that’s old feels new again and especially terrifying in “Unsub” (Dutton, $27, 384 pages) which introduces us to new (potential) series hero Caitlin Hendix. Gardiner makes Caitlin’s debut a stunner, pitting the novice detective against a Hannibal Lecter-like monster whose taunts nearly destroyed her father… This is psychological suspense of the highest order, as Gardiner elevates herself to the level of Jeffery Deaver, Thomas Harris and Lawrence Sanders.” — Jon Land, Providence Journal

I will take those reviews all day, every day.

UNSUB Book Tour — Tonight: Dallas

Winslow&Gardiner_LincolnPark

Today the UNSUB book tour hits the road again. Tonight I’ll be in Dallas, speaking and signing at Barnes & Noble, Lincoln Park.

But wait, there’s more! I’m privileged to be sharing the evening with Don Winslow, whose epic New York crime novel The Force is one of this year’s biggest books. Don has been a huge supporter of my work (check out the quote on the cover of UNSUB) and I’m beyond excited that I’ll be able to get my copy of The Force signed by him.

So if you’re in North Texas, come on down. Hope to see all y’all!

Don Winslow and Meg Gardiner
Wednesday, July 5th
7 p.m.
Barnes & Noble, Lincoln Park
7700 West Northwest Hwy. Ste. 300
Dallas, TX 75225
214-739-1124

UNSUB: Out today

1121 UNSUB

It’s here. My new thriller, UNSUB, is published today.

It’s been a long time coming, and I’m beyond thrilled that the novel is finally out. My thanks go to my publisher, Dutton (look at that beautiful book. Look!) to my husband, Paul Shreve, who put up with me while I was writing, and rewriting, and editing, and biting my nails and tossing and turning and rewriting some more, and being asked to act out fight scenes for the book; to my agent, Shane Salerno, who believed in this project from the beginning and has shepherded it to fruition; to everybody at The Story Factory; and to my relatives and friends and everyone who answered research questions — about law enforcement, literature, Arabian horses, you name it.

The novel, like all my novels, is a thriller, and I hope you’ll read it and enjoy the ride. Here are some reviews:

“Gardiner’s novel breathes new life into the sub-genre with her mastery of police procedure; with superb characterizations of her heroine, the heroine’s father and the killer; and with enough twists and turns to leave fans of TV’s “Scandal and “How to Get Away With Murder” short of breath.

The result is an intelligent, sharply written, compelling page-turner that is satisfying on every level.

Best of all, the novel ends with a cliff-hanger reminiscent of an early Godzilla movie — the one in which the monster was finally vanquished, the hero was being cheered and the scene suddenly shifted to an underwater chamber where a huge egg was about to hatch. You knew, then, that there had to be a sequel.” — Bruce DeSilva, Associated Press

“Caitlin shines as a strong lead, a fine addition to Meg Gardiner’s pantheon of powerful female protagonists… Meg Gardiner writes thrillers, pure and simple; if you like the genre, you’ll adore her latest. Gruesome murders, creative killers, heart-pounding chase sequences, and poisonous explosions together check off many of my summer-read boxes. Realistic characters, quirky interactions, beautiful language and careful plotting elevate this one to a classic-thriller-in-the-making, perfect for these paranoid times.” — Molly Odintz, MysteryPeople

UNSUB is one of Barnes & Noble’s Top Books of the Month.

And here are some articles and interviews about the book:

Zodiac killer spurs thriller writer Meg Gardiner — San Francisco Examiner

‘UNSUB,’ A Conversation with Meg Gardiner — Mark Rubinstein, Huffington Post

Q&A: Meg Gardiner’s new thriller was inspired by the Zodiac Killer — Houston Chronicle

Action & Emotion: Jeff Abbott interviews Meg Gardiner — Los Angeles Review of Books

Go Down to the Basement: MysteryPeople Q&A with Meg Gardiner

And don’t forget: you can now find the novel at libraries and at all these bookstores:

Barnes & Noble | Indiebound | Amazon | iBooks

Book People | Murder by the Book

How do authors get readers to cheer for the bad guy?

I was searching the blog archives this morning and found a comment on a post from waaaay back that I never answered. The post is “My Breaking Bad injury, or why good writing is dangerous.” The comment is from loyal blog reader Dana Jean:

Maybe you can answer this for me. I can’t STAND Skyler. I just loathe her, but why? She has every right to be pissed. She has every right to feel betrayed and hurt. But, when she starts with that face she gets and that attitude, I really want to smack her.

Walt is a bad guy. He did wrong things for the right reasons — at first. And even when he continues to do very bad things, I see his reasoning behind it. I supported Dexter too.

How are these authors making me cheer for the bad guy?

How indeed? What tricksy methods to writers use to get viewers, and readers, to cheer for villains and anti-heroes? Here are some reasons why we cheer for the bad guys:

They’re well-rounded. We see the entirety of their lives. And we see their lives from a compassionate perspective. Walter White starts from the most sympathetic position possible. He’s a brilliant, dedicated teacher, whose knowledge and passion for science are ignored by his students. To pay the bills, he has to work a humiliating second job at a car wash. He’s a devoted husband to his pregnant wife and father to his teenage son, who has a disability. And then he learns he has terminal cancer.

They have laudable motivations. Walter White starts cooking meth to provide for his family after he’s gone. He knows it’s illegal. It’s not a good thing to do. It puts him in danger. But time is running out, and he’s desperate. And the fact that he does something so dangerous actually makes Walt more sympathetic, at least at first.

They’re powerful. We like to read about (or watch) powerful people. We admire their power. We treat it — and them — with respect. Power helps them get things done. Think of The Godfather. Don Corleone is a mobster, but he can make miracles happen (it seems) for the helpless people who petition him for aid. In Breaking Bad, Walt starts out powerless, and we want him to gain agency, and respect, and independence, and revenge… and, yes, power.

Of course, power doesn’t solve Walt’s problems. By the time he says one of television’s all-time greatest lines to Skyler (“I am the one who knocks”), he’s far down the road to corruption. But we’re along for the ride with him.

The other guys are worse. Skillful writers make their bad guys look good by comparison. Who is Walter White up against? Tuco and Tio Salamanca. The cousins. Uncle Jack and his neo-Nazis. People who are remorseless and disgusting. Walt has to become tough to deal with them. We want to see him stand up and defeat these guys.

By comparison to Walt, Skyler can seem petty. Ungrateful, even. (Isn’t he doing all this for her?) She finds herself powerless, but the way she tries to strike back at Walt and get out from under the situation make us think poorly of her. (For example, at her wits’ end trying to get Walter to move out of the house, she sleeps with her boss, then tells Walt — in the kitchen at home, at dinnertime, as crudely as possible.) And, at heart, Walt is the anti-hero of the story. Skyler becomes an antagonist. She would stop him. And, thanks to the skill of the writers and Bryan Cranston’s brilliant portrayal, we don’t want that to happen.

Sorry it took me three-and-a-half years to answer your question, Dana Jean.