Book Outlines and a Jacket Art Competition

First off, Ranting Dragon — — is putting on its first ever “Cover Battle,” choosing the best book jacket art of 2012.  The jacket art for Thieftaker (by the wonderful Chris McGrath) is in the running, and has already made it through Round One.  Vote here in Round Two!  Thank you!

Yesterday, I finished the preliminary outline for City of Shades, the third Thieftaker book, which I recently contracted with Tor (along with book 4, Dead Man’s Reach).  Preliminary because ALL my outlines are preliminary.  My books tend to evolve as I write them.  My characters grow, assert themselves, take the narrative in directions I don’t anticipate.  And so often I’ll find myself having to abandon my initial outline about ten chapters into a book.  I’ll do a new outline for the rest of the book. Which, in turn, I will often have to abandon after another seven or eight chapters, for the same reasons.  It’s just the way I work.

So, you might ask, why bother with an outline at all?  I mean, if I wind up chucking the thing less than halfway through the book isn’t it just a waste of time?

To which I reply, with somewhat less confidence than I’d like to show, Um, I don’t think it is.  Or even if it is ultimately a waste, I find some value in it.

I like to have a road map at the beginning of every new book.  Starting a novel can be daunting, even for those of us who do it for a living.  I’ve written more than a dozen novels and I still find the act of beginning a new one somewhat intimidating.  Having an outline, one that at least gives me a path through the key plot points, helps me past that initial fear.  But more than that, having a rough idea of where the book is going (and my outlines do tend to be very rough — just a few sentences for each chapter) allows me feel more comfortable giving free reign to my characters.  If I know where they need to be at certain points in the book, I can allow them to find their own paths by which to get there.

It sounds a bit oxymoronic, I know:  I am imposing structure on the project so that I can be more unstructured in my creative process.  But for me, it works.  The analogy I often use is this:  If I start a road trip with a firm sense of which interstates will get me where I need to go, I can be more confident in occasionally taking scenic back roads for parts of the trip.

And so, I now have an outline for City of Shades.  Already, I have some sense of where in the narrative I am going to stray from the road map.  But I also feel that I have a stronger idea of how my story is going to unfold, and I no longer feel as daunted at the prospect of starting this new project.  Which means that even if I jettison this outline tomorrow it will already have done it’s job.

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