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On Outlines and Red Herrings – A Guest Post by DB Grady

Welcome to week 3 of the Red Planet Noir blog tour. This is also the first week that Red Planet Noir is available for the Kindle — something I’ve been eagerly anticipating — and I hope everyone with a craving for a good mystery and snappy one-liners will consider it.

In Alison’s last post, she described the importance of properly staging a scene, of metaphorically “blocking” before putting pen to paper. She describes this technique in matters of murder and romance. And while I’ve never written a love scene — and God willing, never will — her advice is spot-on for crime fiction. (As a general rule, Alison is always right, and don’t you forget it.)

Outlining has garnered a bad reputation among writers for reasons good and bad. Most of the snake oil “Write A Bestseller in Thirty Days!” books recommend it. That’s reason enough to shun the practice. Some writers believe is delays the actual (fun!) practice of writing, and adds a bit of staleness to prose. And Stephen King hates it, which is pretty much the final word on the matter.

I like outlines.

Like most authors, I wrote my book while working a 9 to 5. Like most authors, I like a good solid block of time to work. And when time is at a premium, nothing is more jarring than flying through a page of prose only to hit a mental bear trap.

“I’m going on a vacation next week.”

“Where?”

“Illinois.”

“Chicago?”

“No, the capital.”

“I thought Chicago was the capital.”

“No, it’s—” ???

Experienced writers would recommend adding filler text and driving though, but my brain doesn’t work like that. I need to know Springfield is the capital. I can’t rest until the details are right.

Red Planet Noir is a whodunnit. Until the last 10 pages, it’s not clear who the killer is, but the novel is filled with hints along the way. An intrepid reader can play amateur detective with every page, because every page builds the case or adds something new to chew on.

Really brilliant crime writers — the kind who smoke pipes and have the words “New York Times bestselling author” precede their names — can do this in their heads.

I can not. I’m just a normal guy from the Earth planet.

Before writing my book, I drafted a five page, handwritten outline. It didn’t detail plot, exactly — it never delved into feelings or motivations — but it hit the major settings and key events. The dots, you might say, to connect. To give a made up example:

Restaurant
* Greasy spoon
* Notices steak knives serrated
* Remembers victim was stabbed with serrated knife.
* Chats with waitress.
* Waitress hated victim.

This was invaluable for several reasons. Because it was important to engage the reader in the investigation, I wanted to throw red herrings and clues the mix. And once the outline was complete, I had a nice picture of a sprawling mystery, and the ability to make mischief. Circle one character’s name: “Lover.” Scribble in the margins of a different scene: “Fingerprint.” Somewhere else, still: “How did he know where the body was found?”

Next, I bought a multi-color pack of index cards, and transcribed each scene onto a card. Here, I added a bit more color. Like many writers, I keep a pen at hand at all times. Whenever a funny exchange or quirky detail or brilliant revelation strikes, I jot it down for later filing and usage.

The index cards are great for pinning the tail on the donkey, so to speak. This funny bit of dialogue I scribbled while driving to work last week would go great in this scene. This interesting tick would work nicely for this character. This is a really cool metaphor — and here’s where I’ll use it.

After filling the index cards, I move on through to the end of the story. It’s a very useful practice for spotting glaring holes in logic. “But if the butler did it, he’d have to have been in two places at once… I need to rethink this.” Or whatever.

Erudite writers with brains the size of planets will scoff at my amateurish reliance on notes, but it works for me. I think of the outline and the index cards as assembling a prefabricated Christmas tree. There are no lights, no ornaments, no personality or motifs. It’s just the nuts-and-bolts details. Because when I sit down to write, I want to make full use of every available minute. I want to be productive. And nothing is less productive than ending a chapter and saying, “Now what?”

Speaking personally, the prose can’t flow — the humor and the sadness and the tension — if my logical mind is fully engaged in a dilemma. I can’t be Kirk and Spock at the same time. But by working from cards, there are no dilemmas. I’m rarely concerned about missing a critical element, because that element is jotted on yardstick, waiting to be crossed off. It also frees me, as a writer, to go off on tangents without fear of losing the trail.

I can decorate the tree without worrying whether or not there’s a branch for the star.

Outlining also gets a negative reputation because many people go overboard with it. If you’re on page 20 of an outline for an 80,000 word book, you’ve probably got too much detail, and run the risk of killing the spontaneity. Treasure maps don’t list barometric pressure and windchill factors of the desert at night. It doesn’t list soil composition of the place where X marks the spot. Think of your outline as a treasure map. “There’s the cliff shaped like a horse’s head. There’s the cluster of cacti. There’s the old ghost town. There’s the creek with the giant rock.”

Add the desperadoes with black hats and snake tattoos when you’re writing. All you need to know is where you’re going to find them.

They’re probably on your index card. X marks the spot.

A final note: there are a lot of really expensive pieces of computer software out there that help with the process.

Don’t waste your money.

You can’t spread out a computer program on the kitchen table and rearrange scenes. You can’t scribble in the margins of your monitor. A pen, a spiral notebook, and index cards run less than a dollar, total. You’ve probably got them lying around your house. (Check that junk drawer in the kitchen.)

It’s very tempting as a new writer to do anything but actually write. And these elaborate programs allow one to spend hours and days and weeks and months feeling productive without actually producing anything.

Pen and paper — it’s fast and effective.

Now get to writing. X marks the spot, and that treasure’s not going to dig up itself.

D.B. Grady is the author of Red Planet Noir.
He can be found on the web at http://www.dbgrady.com.