The Disorganized Novelist's Guide
This essay originally appeared in Publishers Weekly on June 16, 2017.
A formula for the organizationally challenged novelist
Outlining a novel in the traditional sense is impossible for someone whose car looks like a crime scene and whose kitchen cabinets are home to unnatural hook-ups between pots, pans, and Tupperware.
Like guests arriving before the start of a party, my characters inevitably show up before the plot. Which makes sense because I’m wildly interested in people—who they are, how they got that way, what makes them cringe—and congenitally unable to plan. Unlike some of my writer friends, who approach their opening lines only after constructing complete blueprints of everything between preface and epilogue, I’ve found that there’s more than one way to write a page-turner. A good thing, because the idea of creating a scene-by-scene synopsis makes my teeth hurt. So below is my five-part equation.
In lieu of a standard outline, you need a one-line description of what’s going to happen. That’s it. An elevator pitch. Something that you can refer to when things seem to be getting out of hand. Put it on a sticky note on the top of your computer screen. (The North Star for the muddled.) In the case of my medical thriller, Best Intentions, the pitch was: “A hospital social worker committed to helping others witnesses something terrible and ends up on trial for murder.”
The second part of the formula is having a deep understanding of the characters inhabiting your novel (whom they voted for, what’s inside their purses, what they do when they think they’re alone). That way, when they all board the plane you’re ushering them onto (and the general flight plan incrementally reveals itself), the characters will respond to each other and what you throw at them in ways that not only make sense but also help the narrative along.
Creating these backstories is my favorite part of writing. The first time I remember doing it was in elementary school when I was 10 years old. A man wearing a short-sleeved shirt passed a friend and me, his arms swinging. His elbows had matching frownlike folds. I nudged my friend. “Those are scars from leaning up against a burning radiator,” I told her. “Couldn’t feed himself for months after it happened.”
The third ingredient of my traditional outline alternative is to rely heavily on write-what-you-know (throwing in some write-what-you-worry-about). Leaning on passive research (aka borrowing from your own world) fleshes out characters’ decisions, feelings, and motives and lends credibility to the narrative. Basically anything that you are expert in (television, White House intrigue, carpools) can and should be mined for story.
For Best Intentions, which touches on bad hospital practices, social class, and power, I borrowed some of the alarming observations I collected during my spouse’s long journey from exhausted med student to assistant dean of a medical school (mixed with some of my own observations from doing casework with struggling families). By building upon not-so-fictional details, a fictional story well within the realm of frightening possibility develops.
But beware having too many similarities between loved ones and your characters. In my novel, the protagonist is married to an obstetrician at her hospital; these two share some of the same resume experiences as my husband and me. But to avoid flat, mealy-mouthed personalities on the page, my suggestion would be to include the general essence of family and friends who wander into your laptop but that’s all. Also, when you survive the first holiday get-together after publication without being served legal papers or strychnine-laced mashed potatoes, you’ll appreciate this advice.
The fourth factor of my formula: the big what-if. Here is where you fill the plane with all of your characters—some placidly asleep, others drinking down their panic, two in the restroom for a quick assignation. Add some unexpected dangerous turbulence, and see who makes it.
The final step: Retrofit. Go back to the beginning and lace with subtle clues about the impending disaster.
Eventually, even the hopelessly disorganized, with a little bit of added luck, will arrive at the epilogue.