How an Unconventional Outline Became My Novel

I have never been comfortable or skilled making an outline. I’ve never known how to do it right. From the first time the concept was introduced in school — in what grade I can’t even remember, with their Roman numerals and capital and lower case letters — outlines seemed more like math to me than not math, which I did not find helpful for writing. I was always more concerned with doing a good job for the outline’s sake than I was with successfully learning to utilize a tool that was supposed to help me scaffold and complete a larger project, like a paper or report.

Read on for a closer look.

So these two pages of notes and scrawled diagrams are as close as I’ve ever come to drafting a plan that helped develop and drive a project — writing my first novel — into existence.

In July 2013 I was at the Tin House Writers Workshop at Reed College. At the beginning of that year, I’d applied to Karen Shephard’s novel workshop; my first time enrolling for that form after three previous Tin House short story workshops. But shortly after being accepted, my agent negotiated my book deal with Little, Brown and I started working in earnest on the novel that I expected to have complete in a year.

I wanted to work with Karen, but I wasn’t sure my fledgling, vulnerable book would benefit from the tremendous feedback I knew it would receive. While I valued the potential input of an accomplished novelist and eleven fellow writers, I could easily imagine getting off course in the workshop environment, taking detours from my own plans and ideas and leaving the workshop with questions, doubts, and a book still to write.

The proposal and early pages had generated enthusiasm and investment from my editor, a tremendous motivation, and although my hope and dedication were sound, my confidence — never having written a novel — was too suggestible. Whether I used people’s feedback or not — it’s always the writer’s choice to take away what they wish from their readers — I feared that I wouldn’t be able to write with the same pristine ambition. I wouldn’t be able to unknow those other opinions; I would be rationalizing and defending, even to myself, the decisions I was making.

When I met Karen that July, and explained my circumstances, she was generous, understanding and a pleasure to talk with throughout the week. Ultimately, I chose to withdraw from the workshop and audit the conference. I attended all the lectures and panels and readings, but instead of being in a workshop class from 10:00 to 12:30, I sat at a table under the trees outside the student union and wrote. It was a lovely place to work. And at some early point during that week, maybe it was the first morning, on Monday, or maybe it was the next day, my thoughts about the characters and their unique challenges and the effects of those challenges on the other characters were all coming so quickly I had to get them down, and the two sides of this paper was the result.

This paper ended up being the roadmap — the closest thing to an outline I could come up with — I followed during the writing of the entire book over the next twelve months. Most of what came to me on that July day is in the book — unchanged — but I did rename some characters. The names Patrick and Roddy appear in a few places, and I later replaced those respectively with Andrew (McGeary) and Frank (Keegan), Gannon’s father.

That same week, during the student participants’ readings, I read a five-minute portion of the chapter when Audrey and Garrett go to buy the suit. It was one of the earliest chapters I wrote and it helped form and inform these characters and much of what else happens in the book. I was thrilled when people came up to me afterward and told me how much they’d liked my reading and that they looked forward to the book. Now they can find out the rest of the story.