The Roeder Report:
Who Needs an Outline

Wherever I go, everyone wants to know how I assemble the columns they occasionally skim once they’ve finished Writer’s Digest’s useful content. Well, I describe my writing process like this: “Writing is like driving. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip—what the hell was that? Did I just hit a deer? Aren’t there laws requiring deer to wear reflectors? I should go back. No, no, nothing I can do now. If I happen to pass a roadside trauma center, I’ll be sure to give them a heads-up. Now, which way is Mexico? … ”

In other words, I never outline. And without the armature an outline provides, writing can sometimes feel like a hit-and-run accident that triggers an adrenaline-crazed escape to Tijuana. But over the years, I’ve learned how to keep the pages coming without relying on the publishing equivalent of a road map. Just remember …

1. THERE’S NO SUCH THING AS BAD WRITING, JUST BAD READING.
In other words, keep putting words down no matter what. Don’t pander to the story crowd. Let nothing stand in the way of your inspiration, no matter how disjointed, tedious or uninspired it is. Structure and coherence are for suckers.

2. IT’S NOT EXTRANEOUS INFORMATION IF YOU SAY IT ISN’T.
Hey, it’s your story and you’re the supreme being. You get to decide what readers need to know:

“It had been three years since Lorraine died, but Henry still received mail addressed to her. She always read aloud the entire Lands’ End catalog at the breakfast table, and now Henry recalled one such morning verbatim … ”

Of course, some readers might bypass a full transcription of a clothing and home furnishings catalog. But there’s nothing you can do about a lazy reader.

3. THE READER WON’T COMPLAIN IF HE’S AFRAID OF LOOKING STUPID.
You thought a combination of genius, caffeine and unemployment-driven desperation would cause your novel to spontaneously unfurl, but you’re stuck on page 93. Well, when the going gets tough, the tough get all kooky and avant-garde.

First, leave the next 75 pages totally blank. Just because you haven’t written on these pages doesn’t mean the “story” isn’t happening, right? After all, is the reader actually essential to the events taking place? Who or what is this “reader,” anyway? Who cares? Now you’re on page 168. In the middle of that page, print a single inscrutable word (vertically, if possible) like “zither” or “blowhole.” Skip another 80 pages, draw a horseshoe that appears to be secreting a teardrop and continue writing. Now that you’re on page 248, it should be much easier to put words down. After all, you already have a mostly developed story to work with.

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