Are You a Closet Outliner?

Other than fully outlining one book in 2006, I generally start with an idea, make some notes, and start writing what I think will be opening scenes. Then I pause and make more notes, eventually creating a chapter summaries document. As the name implies, I use it to track what I’ve done and plan future developments.

It might be better if I fully outlined at least the murder and how it is solved. I simply have trouble keeping my fingers off the keyboard.

As I finish one project I thumb through notebooks to see what else has been in my brain. I lose thoughts unless I write on a card and staple it to a notebook page or write thoughts directly in the book. Usually I can decipher what I meant. Sometimes not.

As I shipped the Unscheduled Murder Trip to the proofeader, I began the note review. What I look for are the half-baked (excuse me, half-developed) ideas that I jotted so I didn’t lose them. Because I also make notes on books underway, I see I’m more of an outliner than I think I am.

It’s About the Villain

Four basic points are always in my lists.

  • Who would have a reason to kill the victim?
  • How did they get to him/her?
  • What are the consequences if the killer is not caught?
  • Who besides the murderer comes under suspicion and isn’t the culprit? (The red herring thought process.)

What’s most striking (even to me) is none of these points relates to the protagonists and how they solve the crime. Of course I have notes about this, but they are not in the core list. Why? Because any mystery starts with the killer/kidnapper/ embezzler’s motive.

In a thriller, readers may know the motive up front because the author puts readers in the minds of the perpetrator and the hero (who sometimes seems to have almost superhero talents). Much in these books deals with how close the villain comes to blowing up a damn (or whatever) before s/he is stopped. I read many thrillers and love them. 

However, my own writing tends toward solving the puzzle — it’s only possible when the sleuth can unravel the culprit’s motives. But that comes near the end. In one memorable (to me) thought process, I changed the killer after I finished the first draft. The new murderer had a stronger motive. It’s one of my best books, but I don’t recommend the process.

The Full List Questions

The combined sleuth/killer list is, in my mind, the order of the action (though not usually the order of the book).

  • Who would have a reason to kill the victim?
  • How did they get to him/her?
  • How is the sleuth drawn into the crime-solving?
  • Why is it so important to the sleuth to identify the killer/kidnapper, etc.?
  • What are the consequences if the killer is not caught?
  • Who besides the murderer comes under suspicion and how are they absolved? 
  • What resources or assets does the sleuth have that others (perhaps law enforcement) does not have?
  • How is the sleuth’s life changed by having been involved?

The crime and its resolution have to matter to amateur crime-solvers. Otherwise, they’re simply busybodies or folks with too much time on their hands.

There has to be a reason the sleuths can solve the crimes when professionals can’t. The killer may discount their abilities and thus reveal something that sends the sleuth down a path. Maybe they have tremendous resources and can buy a $1,200 airline ticket and hop on a plane to keep an eye on the bad guys.

Another option is to do something illegal (hack a computer, bug a phone) that police can’t do without a warrant — or at all. However, the reader has to feel sympathy with the sleuth’s methods. I stopped reading one series because I thought the sleuth’s actions (in the last book I read) were as unacceptable as the criminal’s.

Your Questions May be Different

All the ads for fad diets say something like “results may differ for individual participants.” Same goes for how you develop a book. Any approach works, as long as it’s a conscious endeavor.

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