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Mystery Author Autumn Doerr’s Advice on Writing Outlines (ala James Patterson)

When I first started pitching ideas for television shows, I found that if you couldn't write a log line that described the show in a line or two, you didn't have a show. That same principle applies to writing an outline for a novel.

Writing an outline is helpful in so many ways. The most important one is to figure out the purpose for the scene. Each scene moves the plot forward and can reveal a character’s motivation. I didn’t have an outline for my first book, “Baker’s Dozen.” That’s probably why it took me 6 years to finish.

With book two, “Free For All”--that I’m still working on--I do have an outline. Before taking James Patterson’s Masterclass on-line, I had a sketchy bullet-pointed outline. Patterson generously provides an outline from one of his books, “Honeymoon,” as part of his Masterclass. Each scene is described in detail in a paragraph. It reads like the first draft of the book. There are snippets of dialogue and, with the use of terms like “then,” “next” and “later that night,” each scene leads into the next. There are eight-four scenes and, as Patterson says, he works them and works them until it flows and you can’t stop reading because you have to know what happens next. That’s the tag line for every James Patterson book: The pages turn themselves.

If you want to work with an outline, think of it as the first draft of your book. Once it starts to flow and make sense in a “this happened, then this, then this” (as Ira Glass describes storytelling), you can flesh it out and, before you know it, you’ve written a book.

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