This was a panel at the Tony Hillerman Conference, featuring Anne Hillerman, CB McKenzie, Sara Hoklotubbe, and John Sandford.
Q: Do you outline or wing it?
John: There’s no right way to do it. I actually do both. I do not outline for the first 75-80 thousand words. As I’m struggling through the story, a lot of weird stuff comes up, and can add a funky quality to the work. Then, when I need the velocity to pick up, I outline to the end. Outlining makes your prose tighter and faster.
Sara: I wrote a synopsis, started on an outline, kept changing it so much that I finally threw it away. I do have a large whiteboard that I keep everything on: each character, how old they are, etc.
CB: It depends on what you’re doing. Different works require different approaches. I outline for a plot-driven novel, but if a character goes off in a new direction, I’ll follow the character.
Anne: My whole writing background has been nonfiction. You don’t really outline, but you know what you have to include in each section. I got a few scenes down, and realized that I needed some structure. I’ve tried to be more organized with my second book.
Q: How do you keep from getting lost if you’re not outlining?
Anne: Thank goodness for “find and replace!” I can go back and take out all those lovely descriptions and whatever wasn’t part of the story.
CB: If you’re writing a certain type of story, the story itself will keep you on track. Make your story compelling enough. If you’re failing to do that, you’re failing at the novel.
Sara: When I write, it’s like watching a movie in my head. I’ve been called a perfectionist. I revise as I go along.
John: I work much the same. I’ve been doing this long enough to have an instinct for what’s good. The most important chapters are the first and the last. Remember that you don’t have to write the entire story at once: you can go back and fix stuff.
Anne: One reason it took me three years to write Spider Woman’s Daughter was that I’m also a perfectionist. I finally realized I was just treading water, and I’d have to move forward and revise later.
CB: That’s where an outline can help you; they give you a practical way to move on.
Thanks for the great advice, guys!