Ask Me Anything: How completely do I outline — and rewrite?

More of your questions, and my answers.

Jack Hrusoff asks:

Do you commence a book with a complete outline before writing, or begin and then work toward the arcs and denouement?

Before I write the first word of chapter one, I spend a significant chunk of time — months, usually — brainstorming, spitballing, and then outlining the novel I’m going to write. I don’t outline in Roman Numerals, a la school reports, but I write a condensed look at the entire story: beginning, inciting incident, major turning points, climax and denouement. The outline can be anywhere from 2500-8000 words.

I do this because I learned from painful experience that when I wing it, writing by the seat of my pants, I flail and wander and end up in a thicket someplace far off the track, with no idea where to go next. I may invent a bunch of vivid scenes, and interesting characters, but the story stalls. It’s a waste of time and effort for me simply to put fingers to keyboard and see what happens.

Writing an outline forces me to think deeply about the characters and story before I sit down to draft it. It allows me to set up everything that needs to pay off for the story to satisfy readers. And it saves me months when I write the first draft.

Christa asks:

Do you engage in a complete rewrite process, and if so, how much changes between your first and second drafts, or do you edit as you go along?

Rewrite? Oh, yeah. After I spend all that time writing the outline, I pour a vat of coffee, turn up the Foo Fighters, and sit myself down to bang out the rough draft. And I do mean rough.

Purposely, I don’t edit during the first draft. Some writers do, but I find it slows me down too much. I want to get the story on paper. All of it. Because once it’s there, I can improve it. I can’t improve a book that exists only in my head.

Because I don’t edit as I go, when I reach the end I have a ton of work to do. I tend to write the first draft too long — it’s fluffy, puffy, vague, and both too melodramatic and too bland. The rewrite takes a couple of months and significantly tightens and strengthens the story. The characters come more fully to life. The dialogue is better. Weak scenes get cut. New scenes get written. The conflict between protagonist and antagonist becomes both more explicit and more subtly developed.

And then I’ll get comments from my agent and editor, and I’ll edit it another time. Then I’ll get more comments, and edit again. And then I’ll polish it. If I could, I’d continue editing once it’s published, by sneaking around bookstores with a Sharpie, crossing out clumsy wording and improving the dialogue.

I estimate that between the first draft and final polish, a third to a half of the text gets changed.

When they say “writing process,” they really mean it’s a process. A long one.

But worth it.

9 responses to “Ask Me Anything: How completely do I outline — and rewrite?

  1. Follow-up questions.

    How long from outline to final product sent to polish? And one more. Before you became a master writer, how long did it take you from first draft to polished product on book number one?


  2. I love hearing that you want to keep editing, even the final product sitting on store shelves! I have attempted to write short stories (no interest in my own novel but I like writing short stories) but I am so anal! I change and change and change and even when I think it’s done, I see more to change. I am just never satisfied.

    Thank you for such open answers.

    • You’re welcome. If something’s going to be published, at some point you have to accept that the perfect is the enemy of the good, and let it go. Otherwise, the edits become eternal, like picking at a scab.

  3. Dana Scabs Jean

    Uh oh.

  4. Ms. Gardner, when you hear things “go bump” in the night, what is it? And does “it” find its way into your novels? Sorry about all of the Its.

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