Category Archives: UNSUB

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.

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

UNSUB reviews: LitHub, Boston Globe, Journal-Sentinel, and more

LitHub headline

UNSUB will be published June 27th. Reviews are coming in, so I want to round some of them up. (YES, read the book!)

In LitHub, Lisa Levy has a wonderful essay about UNSUB and Karen Dionne’s new novel, The Marsh King’s Daughter: The Daughters of Crime Fiction Are Getting Tough on Bad Dads.

“Unsub is a really frightening book, in large part because of Gardiner’s deft use of close third-person narration. It put me in mind—though the subjects could not be further apart—of the work of Henry James.”

I will take that. All day, every day.

More reviews:

“An adrenaline-fueled rush… Shades of “Silence of the Lambs’’ and the Zodiac Killer.” — Boston Globe (Hot for a Summer Read?)

“I love a good serial killer novel, and Gardiner has written one of the most accomplished ones I’ve read in a while. Gardiner has created the perfect balance of vulnerability and violence in her main characters, all of whom are damaged in their own ways. When the killer becomes a “hot knife through the center of (Caitlin’s) head,” “Unsub” will already have a cold grip on your heart.” — Carole Barrowman, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel (Paging Through Mysteries: 5 thrilling choices for summer reading)

“Scary-good… Meg Gardiner knows how to get readers’ hearts pumping, and she brings plenty of thrills with this one. UNSUB is a first-rate crime thriller that’s well-written and carefully plotted. Just when readers think they’ve zeroed in on the killer, Gardiner delivers one devilish twist after another.” — The Real Book Spy

“Bring on the nightmares.” — PureWow (7 Books We Can’t Wait to Read in June)

And the Vallejo Times Herald talked to me about writing the novel: Author of new Zodiac-inspired novel and planned TV series, holds Bay Area events.

And a reminder: You can preorder the novel today!

Barnes & Noble | Indiebound | Amazon | iBooks

Book People | Murder by the Book

Writing writing writing… and UNSUB is coming

UNSUB-review-NetGalley

My new thriller, UNSUB, will be published June 27th. This week I’m getting ready — planning my travel for the book tour, writing articles, doing interviews, and honing my ninja skills to a high level. As you do.

I’m also working on the sequel to this novel. So I’ve been editing a fight scene. Which means I asked the Husband to teach me how to take down a knife-wielding home invader, using only a leather belt and some momentum. As you do. Unlike a few years ago, this time I managed to act out the fictional fight without scaring the neighbors or my children. That’s a win.

And after going for my husband with a wrench (standing in for the knife), I feel confident that in real life he would have disarmed me and laid me out flat in less than a second. I’m glad I have him in the house. And I re-confirmed my decision never to take up home burglary.

The fight scene I wrote today will be published in 2018. In the meanwhile, you can preorder UNSUB.

Barnes & Noble | Indiebound | Amazon | iBooks

Book People | Murder by the Book