Outliners, blank-pagers, and the challenge of series writing

Jan Vermeer

As a writer, are you an outliner or a blank pager? This is one of those perennial questions that comes up time and again at writers’ conferences, and I’ve heard countless twists on the topic, but never have I heard of a spreadsheet system as elaborate as what Donna Andrews described at the Empire State Book Festival.

Donna has just released Swan for the Money, twelfth in a series of mysteries featuring amateur sleuth Meg Langslow, and she was part of a panel titled “Laugh or I’ll Kill You – Humor in Mysteries.” The topic was a tricky one – asking authors to describe how funny they are is a challenging proposition, and the three authors, all from St. Martin’s Press, took turns assuring each other and the audience how hilarious their colleagues truly were.

Things got more interesting during the Q&A when someone posed a question about working methods and Donna described her spreadsheet. She aims for a manuscript of 80,000 words, then breaks the project down into specific word counts pegged to specific dates and deadlines. She incorporates the plot outline into the spreadsheet as well, so on any given day, she knows exactly where in the story she’s supposed to be and whether she has any catching up to do to meet her self-imposed schedule.

Personally, I’m more partial to Rosemary Harris’s approach. She’s just published Dead Head, the third in her “Dirty Business” gardening series, and she outlines as she goes along. “My synopsis is more like an elevator speech,” she says.

Jane Cleland, author of the series featuring antiques dealer Josie Prescott, falls somewhere between these two extremes. She writes from a detailed synopsis – around 20 pages, although she says her editors would prefer a shorter synopsis of 10 to 12 pages. Her publishing career with St. Martin’s falls between the other two authors as well – her newly released Silent Auction is fifth in a series.

I can’t help wondering how much these authors’ approaches are influenced by the demands of cranking out a book a year under contract with a specific publisher. It’s a challenge I’d dearly love to have, but it’s got to be daunting. Rosemary’s series is the newest, so perhaps she’s still in the early years of inspiration where her characters are concerned, whereas when you reach the twelfth book in a series, a spreadsheet may well be critical in maintaining your momentum.

But I’m just projecting here – the question of how it feels to come up with a book a year in an ongoing series is a topic for a whole different panel. And what author would dare tell the truth if she’s no longer enchanted with the series she’s committed to? I’ve heard Sue Grafton speak, most recently last year at the Edgar Symposium, and I haven’t caught her saying, “I’m sick to death of Kinsey Millhone and I can’t wait to get to the end of the &*(^% alphabet.” That wouldn’t do much for sales!

This train of thought is fueled by two books I’ve just finished, both by well-regarded and gifted authors of popular series. (I won’t disclose their names, because I don’t believe in dissing people online, but they’re not people I’ve mentioned in this post.) Both had minimal plot lines that didn’t hold my interest as much as earlier books in the series, and both were padded with repetition and extraneous detail. I can easily imagine the authors slogging their way through spread sheets, trying bravely to come up with the requisite number of words to meet a deadline.

Still, I’d love the luxury of producing a series on schedule, and I’m hoping to make that happen with the folks at Compassionate Care, the home health care agency in Kooperskill, New York, that’s featured in Eldercide. But till I get that elusive agent and publishing contract, Claire Lindstrom, Paula Rhodes and the rest of my cast of characters will have to put up with my blank-page approach to literary inspiration.

What about you? Are you an outliner or a blank-pager, or do you fall somewhere in the middle? Please leave your comments, and if there’s enough interest, perhaps we can have an extra day devoted to your contributions on the subject.

5 thoughts on “Outliners, blank-pagers, and the challenge of series writing

  1. Oh, I’m a blank page kinda gal. With my memoir, I had my journals to refer to, but this fiction writing–it’s a whole different world. I am working on allowing it to emerge as it wants to emerge, rather than forcing a story with plot outlined. We’ll see…

    • Karen, I believe you’re going about it the right way. Your memoir has a strong narrative flow, and I imagine your fiction will evolve the same way. As I said somewhere, maybe on your blog, the memoir kept me reading the way an engrossing novel would. So keep the faith!

  2. I think that if I were not such a blank pager, then my novels would not go through 13 + drafts and even become other books entirely, before my agent gets a chance to read!

    The pull of the story drags me through. I write to find out what happens on the next page. And I figure that if I’m compelled, maybe one day my readers will be.

    • Thirteen drafts! I’d never have the patience to do that – what does your agent think about it? I’d love to know more about your publishing history.

      My own novels come from a combination of the blank page and outline approach. Jenny, “the pull of the story drags me through” is a terrific way to put it, as is the rest of your quote.

      I begin outlining once I’m into the book as a way of tracking where I’m going, the timeline of the plot and where characters are at any given time. But come to think of it, that’s a subject for another post. Hmmm . . .

  3. Pantser here (AKA Blank Page). My first drafts are my very detailed outlines! I don’t know how to do it any other way. On the other hand, I wouldn’t recommend my process to anyone. It’s sort of stressful and at times painful.

    My first book hits the stores on June 1 and I am just now learning about all the things that come with getting published. I have tremendous respect for people who manage to write a title a year in a series. I don’t think I could do it.

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