Is Your Outline Killing Your Novel?

Michelle Richmond
Jun 18, 2013 · 4 min read

Sadly, I think a lot of writers have never forgotten the lessons learned in high school: outline, outline, outline. The problem with outlines in fiction is that they destroy the sense of discovery, the endless possibilities of where your novel might go. The outline, so often touted as a necessary first step, just might be your worst enemy.

A novel is a puzzle. Just like a puzzle, you begin with a lot of small pieces. At first glance, it’s difficult to discern their relationship to one another. But you work at it. You try a piece here and a piece there. When you find two pieces that naturally fit, they begin to form a picture. The more pieces you assemble, the clearer the picture becomes.

Almost ten years ago, when I was doing research for my second novel,The Year of Fog, I felt a bit lost in the woods, which is how I always feel when I begin a novel. Lost, and gloriously so. To know where you are going is not the point. If you always know where you’re going, you’re going to miss out on some very good stuff.

As I researched the novel, I wrote up small fragments, one to two pages each, pertaining to the various themes, plot lines, settings, and characters. There was the matter of memory: memory case studies, the science of how memories are recorded and stored, ancient philosophy on the art of remembering, etc. All of these items, I kept together with one paperclip. My work on photography included quotes from Henry Horenstein’s classic text, Black and White Photography, impressions of my own time spent in darkrooms, notes on the Holga camera, etc. Another paperclip. There was the mystery of San Francisco’s outer avenues: another paperclip. And the search for a missing child: yet another.

That’s how The Paperclip Method was born. You may be wondering if the paperclip is metaphorical. It is not. The Paperclip Method requires actual paperclips, not to mention a printer. I firmly believe that in order to construct a book, you need to hold the pieces of it in your hand, not just jiggle them around on a screen.

Eventually, you’ll have several meaty stacks. The first page of any stack has a handwritten identifier. In the case of my most recent novel: coffee, mathematics, Graham Greene, South America. Eventually, all of the stacks go on the dining room floor. The ensuing chaos looks something like this.

The Mind of a Novel: Lots of moving parts

My cat Phoebe loves this part of the process. Sometimes, in the middle of the night, I can hear her moving things around. Seriously. Half of the things that happen in my novels were probably secretly orchestrated by my cat.

Believe it or not, that mess of papers on the floor of my dining room is now in galleys over at Random House. Which is to say that, what looks like nothing does become something, if you just have the patience to see it through. For the longest time, as I was working on that novel, it didn’t look as though it would ever come together. For the longest time, I was ready to give up. But then, in the end, it did come together. The process I’ve grown to trust once again paid off.

So, if your outline is giving you a headache, if your plan has gone all awry, take a step back. Ditch the outline. Write two pages about something that matters to you. Tomorrow, write another two pages. Keep at it. Eventually, you’ll have enough pages to spread out across your dining room floor, or the bedroom floor, or the kitchen table. If your living space is tiny, use the wall. The point is to get the pages into a kind of visual grid, so that the order, eventually, becomes clear. Then you can begin to fill in the gaps, to understand what’s missing, and what is overabundant, and what is brilliant, and what is lame. You’ll be ready to walk out of the forest, with a novel tucked under your arm.

Michelle Richmond is the author of three novels and a story collection. Her new novel and story collection will be published next year. Learn more about The Paperclip Method, or get Michelle’s Weekly Writing & Publishing Tips.

The Caffeinated Writer

Advice on novel writing, publishing, and notes on the writing life

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Notes on novel writing, publishing, and the writing life from New York Times bestselling novelist Michelle Richmond. Write your novel in my Fiction Master Class:

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The Caffeinated Writer

Notes on novel writing, publishing, and the writing life from New York Times bestselling novelist Michelle Richmond. Write your novel in my Fiction Master Class: