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My desk, during galley-proofing stage.

To Outline or Not to Outline?

The text of my February 2009 “Writing Tips” newsletter. If you’d like to subscribe, click here.

Okay, you’ve finally decided to sit down and write a thriller. As Robert Redford asked in the last line of The Candidate: “Now what?”

Outline or not?

This is the question I get most of all, whether by e-mail or at conferences: Do you outline or not?

It’s a good and important question, and here’s the thing: There’s no Right Answer. All of us writers make up our own rules as we go along. There’s no one way to do it.

Ask Harlan Coben, and he’ll tell you no way, he doesn’t outline, but he does know the ending before he starts. He says, “It’s like driving from New Jersey to California. I may go Route 60, I may go via the Straits of Magellan or stop over in Tokyo . . . but I’ll end up in California.”

Ask John Grisham, and he’ll tell you he can’t write a novel without doing an outline first. He does a 50-page outline with a paragraph or two about each chapter, setting out the major events and plot points. He spends more time on the outline than on the writing. Robert Ludlum once told me the same thing — his outlines were often as long as 100 or 150 pages!

I once got into a public dispute with my friend Lee Child — well, it being Lee Child, it was cordial and amicable and polite, of course — who said he never outlines, and I should try it his way.

So I did. I mean, I’m a top ten New York Times bestseller (polite cough into fist), but Lee’s had repeated #1’s, so he must know what he’s doing, right?

I tried it his way with my last book, POWER PLAY. No outline. I just brazened my way through it.

And I’m here to tell you that writing without an outline is like doing a high-wire act without a net. Some people can do it, but wouldn’t you really rather have a net? I would. POWER PLAY wound up taking me several months longer than usual, simply because I wasted a lot of time on plot and on characters that I ended up cutting out.

My feeling is that writing without an outline is one of those “Don’t try this at home, kids” things. It’s okay if you’re a professional, or if you’re a “literary novelist,” not trying to write a thriller.

Thrillers have too many moving parts. They’re all about plot. They’re almost always too complex to write without doing some sort of outline in advance.

But the reason that writers like Harlan and Lee don’t outline is that they enjoy the serendipity, the surprises that arise when they’re not constricted by the steel girdle of an outline. And I get that too. Some of the best plot twists in my work have been ones that I didn’t plan on, including the ending to PARANOIA. One of the great pleasures of writing fiction is living in the story so that you “experience” it the way your characters do.

Let’s say, for example, that you’re writing a scene between two characters. You’ve decided in advance, on your outline, that the purpose of this scene is basically to advance the story a beat, to provide a blip of exposition. But while you’re writing it you come up with a much better idea. Such as: one character reveals something unexpected. Or suddenly lunges at the other guy and tries to kill him. That’s just the kind of unpredictable twist you want, because if YOU didn’t expect it, your reader won’t either.

So you don’t want to be hamstrung by your outline. You have to stay open to inspiration, serendipity. You have to let your imagination be free.

Why does not outlining work for Lee, but not for me? I think simply because that’s how he works. He’s used to it, and I’m not. But the truth is, I’m convinced that he actually does outline — in his head. He has a decent handle on where the book is going.

But here’s a bigger point: you can’t reverse engineer based on what bestselling writers do. For one thing, they don’t always tell you everything. For another, they’re often so skilled at their craft that they don’t have a linear understanding of how they do what they do. Lee Child and others don’t need to outline on paper – it’s in their heads. And what works for them isn’t necessarily going to work for you.

So my solution — and the one I’d urge you to try — is to do a very rudimentary outline, with just the basic “beats” (as they say in Hollywood), the basic plot points. Use it as a road map. That way, you know where you’re going everyday. But if you come up with a better idea while you’re writing — if you surprise yourself — that’s fantastic.

To subvert Harlan’s metaphor of driving from New Jersey to California: I’m the kind of guy who likes to Mapquest things out, use Google Maps or a road map. But that doesn’t mean that I won’t let myself take the scenic route. If I’m driving from Boston to Syracuse, and I know how I’m supposed to go, it’s totally fine if I get off the Mass Pike and take the local roads, because sometimes that’s more interesting. I know I’ll get to Syracuse eventually. If I were driving there without a map and I got off the Mass Pike, I don’t think I’d enjoy the detour as much.

To beat this metaphor to death: print out your Mapquest directions for the story. Follow it exactly if you like. Or feel free to get off the highway from time to time. As long as you enjoy the trip, your passengers will too.

Chocolate: No Excuses Necessary

February can be a grim month in New England. Temperatures are low, snow on the ground is filthy, and baseball Opening Day is still two months away.

The one ray of sunshine on the calendar is that holiday in the middle of the month – known as Valentines Day to some, but to us hardcore chocolate lovers, it’s Perfect Alibi Day.

“I’m not buying this for myself,” I can say. “It’s for my wife. No, my daughter. No, my wife and my daughter.” If an extra box of chocolate happens to make its way into my shopping bag, well, so be it.

Like coffee, chocolate is a time-honored literary obsession. Goethe loved his hot chocolate so much that he brought his own supply – complete with brewing pot – on a tour of Switzerland. (He didn’t trust the Swiss to provide him with proper chocolate!) Hemingway’s famous injury, in 1918 – the one that led to his writing A Farewell to Arms – happened when he was delivering chocolate (and cigarettes) to Italian soldiers in the trenches.

In fact, I don’t know why chocolate hasn’t gotten more attention in books written for adults. There’s Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate, of course, and Joanne Harris’s wonderful Chocolat – but the best books about chocolate are targeted at young adults and children. Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War (though, strictly speaking, that book might just as easily be The Wrapping Paper War or The Gourmet Popcorn War). Blood and Chocolate, Annette Curtis Klause’s vivid teenage werewolf novel. In J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels, if you’ve had contact with the soul-sucking Dementors, the best first aid is eating large quantities of chocolate.

And of course, the original and the best children’s novel inspired by chocolate is Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, by Roald Dahl.

Dahl’s story about the origin of his classic children’s story is actually a great lesson about finding inspiration in anything that excites you. As a boy, Dahl attended a prestigious British public school with a sadistic headmaster. The one ray of light in the schoolboys’ life was monthly deliveries from the Cadbury chocolate factory, which wanted the boys to evaluate new products for them. It had never occurred to the young Dahl that someone might have the job of inventing chocolates; he fantasized about having this job himself, and coming up with his own inventions. Years later, this childhood fantasy became the basis for Willy Wonka’s amazing chocolate factory. (Factoid 1: Roald Dahl despised the original movie, which starred Gene Wilder; Factoid 2: Quaker Oats financed the original movie as one of the very first major tie-in campaigns, to help them roll out their proposed Wonka Bar … but they could never get the formula right, and the product was abandoned.)

I justify my own chocolate habit by calling it research. Did you know, for example, that while cacao is native to Central and South America, three-quarters of the world’s supply is now grown in Africa – where much of it, sadly, is harvested by child labor? Have you ever thought about the implications of African conflicts for the world’s chocolate supply? Can you imagine a situation in which someone might be willing to kill to keep the lines of distribution open?

Sure. I’d kill for chocolate. The stuff contains theobromine, which releases endorphins and serotonin, which cheers us up. It’s got phenylethylamine, too, the chemical secreted in the brain when we fall in love. Studies in serious medical journals like Nature and the Journal of the American Medical Association assert that dark chocolate has all sorts of health benefits: it contains antioxidants (polyphenols) and flavonoids, which reduce the risk of coronary artery blockages. It lowers blood pressure. And after all, milk chocolate was co-created by a German pharmacist (well, pharmacist’s assistant), Henri (ne Heinrich) Nestlé, who made his fortune from inventing the world’s first infant formula.

Okay, okay. This is all rationalization. Except for the mood part. That’s real.

A long time ago I discovered the chocolates of Robert Linxe at La Maison du Chocolat in Paris, and was so blown away I decided to bring a small box of the stuff (it ain’t cheap) to dinner at my French editor’s house. So I picked out several types of chocolates in the glass case and asked them to box them up.

Problem was, my French was lousy, particularly numbers. When I gave the clerk my order she lit up and called several of her colleagues over, and everything in the shop came to a halt. They invited me to have a cup of hot chocolate while they assembled my order. They gave me a complimentary assortment of their amazing chocolates and a big tasse of the best hot chocolate I’d ever had in my life — thick and velvety and rich and barely sweet.

I should have known why they were being so nice. I’d gotten the numbers wrong — somehow confused grams with kilograms or something — but when I saw the massive box I was too embarrassed to say anything. When I saw the bill, I was speechless. And when I brought it to my French editor’s house, he must have been a little embarrassed at my extravagance: he immediately trundled it away so that none of his other dinner guests could see it. My wife, when she finally got over the shock of how much I’d spent, began to joke that the next time I went to La Maison du Chocolat they’d probably have a bust of me, carved out of the finest dark chocolate.

Unfortunately, the hot chocolate at La Maison has gone downhill since then — a casualty, I suspect, of too much expansion; they’ve now got boutiques in New York and London and Tokyo and all over Paris. When I was in Paris on tour this past fall I took some friends to their boutique in the Carrousel du Louvre and told them the hot chocolate there would change their lives. Feh. It was fine. Better than Swiss Miss. But nowhere near the way it used to be. Now my French gourmand friends tell me the best hot chocolate can be found at Angelia on the rue de Rivoli. I can’t vouch for that — never had it — but the best I’ve ever had since then, in fact, was in Harvard Square, Cambridge, at L.A. Burdick’s. (Any other tips are welcome!)

One last thing about chocolate. When was the last time you had a Hershey’s milk chocolate bar? I used to love them as a kid. But when I had one last Halloween I was amazed at how skimpy it was — paper-thin, way thinner than it once was, sealed in plastic instead of that great foil and paper sleeve. And it barely tastes of chocolate at all — though that may not have changed.

My tastes have changed. I’ve been spoiled by all the great chocolate you can get here — Scharffen Berger, Valrhona, Callebaut, Lindt . . . Even mass-market Dove, which you can get in any CVS, is infinitely better than Hershey’s milk chocolate. (And by the way, so is Cadbury’s Dairy Milk, but not the stuff made in the U.S. –which is manufactured by Hershey! — only the bars made in the U.K.)

And speaking of U.K. chocolate: my favorite candy bar (as opposed to chocolate bar) is Kit Kat. But British Kit Kats are noticeably better than American. Maybe that’s because our Kit Kats are made by Hershey’s (sorry to trash Hershey’s again!), and theirs are made by Nestlé. Or maybe it’s simply that the Brits invented it (introduced in 1935 as “Rowntree’s Chocolate Crisp”) — and maybe they’re keeping their top-echelon manufacturing secrets for their own.

Which gives me a plot idea, of course. Plant Adam Cassidy, from Paranoia, in Nestlé headquarters in Vevey, Switzerland, see . . . Corporate espionage plus chocolate: — what’s not to love?


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