Rob Hart: How To Put The Toilet In The Right Place

Rob Hart is a cool dude and he wanted to write a post about outlining and that seems all nice and good and sure, fine. But then he went ahead and named it HOW TO PUT THE TOILET IN THE RIGHT PLACE and I was in love. Now Rob won’t respond to my texts (sorry, “dick pics”), and he changed his locks but ha ha ha he doesn’t know that I found a way in through the vents and now live in his basement.

* * *

I went into my first novel without an outline.

I regret this!

It took five years to write the book. Characters appeared, disappeared, and reappeared. Entire threads were repurposed, rethought, trashed, and untrashed.

It was like if you’re building a house, but the blueprints are constantly getting changed, and the builders aren’t communicating, and suddenly there’s a toilet next to the fridge. And you have to figure out how to move it, but once you do, it screws with the plumbing lines…

So you hammer away and hope it comes together in the end.

And it did, mostly. I am immensely proud of New Yorked, but looking back, I see the gutted piping that didn’t get relocated. Publishers Weekly, in their review of New Yorked, said:

“The book’s relentless pacing and strong sense of place (happy face) compensate for the incoherent plot line (sad face), which prevents it from being truly effective (very sad face).”

It sucks to hear, but it’s not an unfair point.

One of the lessons I learned from New Yorked is: I’m the kind of writer who needs an outline. I knew the beginning and I knew the ending, but the middle—that’s where the plans got mixed up and the basement stairs suddenly led to the roof.

So for my second book, City of Rose, I knew I wanted a strong set of blueprints. The question was: How? There’s no one right way to outline. So I took a couple of tries, sketching things out, jotting down ideas.

Then I came across something that really worked for me.

I got myself a notebook, and I wrote up a list of characters. Then I went chapter by chapter, and wrote a couple of sentences for each one—the setting, what happened, how it would lead into the next chapter.

Once I was done, I trashed it. Ripped it right out of the notebook and threw it into the garbage can on the Staten Island Ferry.

A few days later, I did another outline. Characters, chapter-by-chapter breakdown. All from memory, all without referring to anything else.

I threw that away, too.

A few days later, I did it one more time.

That outline, the third one, I kept.

So, what’s with throwing away all this paper, you ask? Is it because of my deep-seated hatred for trees?

Yes.

No, wait. It’s because the second time I did the outline, I’d had some time to think. The plot threads marinated, the characters broke apart and reformed into stronger versions of themselves. I remembered all the things I was excited about, forgot all the stuff that didn’t really matter, and even came up with some new ideas along the way.

The third time was the charm. The final book isn’t exactly what I sketched out, but it’s pretty damn close. I wrote and delivered City of Rose within a space of six months. A far cry from the five years of New Yorked. And the best part of that is: I think it’s a better book.

Publishers Weekly seems to agree. In their review of City of Rose, they said “readers will enjoy [Hart’s] playful, jaded hero and twisty plot (happy face).”

It worked. Not to say any of this is going to work for you. Not every bit of advice is right for every single writer. But in the grand scheme of writing advice, I like to this this is a little more concrete than the often-conflicting stuff I’ve seen out there (write every day, write when you want, write drunk, write sober, write when the moon is in the seventh house…)

But if you’re the kind of person who feels like you need an outline, and the outline doesn’t always come together on the first pass—try not using the first pass. Junk it. Give it some time to gestate, then use the second, or third, or fourth, or hundred millionth.

Bonus round: I also found it helpful, after I finished the first draft of the book, to summarize each chapter on an index card, then sit with the cards and angrily stare at them while I drank a big glass of Jim Beam.

It was useful for seeing the breadth of the story, figuring out the pacing, finding where things happened too quick or too slow, etc.

Anyway. That’s me. That’s how I took a problem with the first book and fixed it the second time around. I’ve been doing this for all my new writing projects, and it’s really helped me feel like I’m proceeding on stable footing.

That is to say, the toilet ends up where it belongs.

What about you? Do you outline? Or do you write by the seat of your pants and hope you find the story in the process?

Do you have a process, different from this, that works for you?

* * *

Rob Hart is the author of New Yorked and City of Rose. His short stories have been published in places like Thuglit, Needle, Joyland, and Helix Literary Magazine. Nonfiction has appeared at Slate, the Daily Beast, Nailed, and the Powell’s bookstore blog. You can find him on the web at www.robwhart.com and on Twitter at @robwhart.

City of Rose: Indiebound | Amazon | B&N

32 comments

  • Oh this is a cool idea! I already did something like this in revision. After doing a read through looking for all the problem areas, and then putting the scenes on index cards, I think about it for a day or two and then I sit down and write the story out in order from memory. As you noticed, all the good bits rise to the top, and the slow-boring-wtf bits are lost. I’ve also come up with cool ways to condense saggy middle scenes.

    I never thought about trying this BEFORE drafting, so I’ll have to try this! Thanks!

  • Lots of chuckling at this and thinking my WIP is a contractor’s nightmare because I’ve done all the types of outlines you mentioned (from Roman numeral-including, super-schoolish to index cards in a lovely rainbow format) and I’m still struggling. I’m years in, and it’s “complete,” but far from ready to be shoved into the world. The outlining still helps reignite my excitement for re-writes, I just think I’ll do more throwing away next time before deciding what works. Thanks for the post!

  • This is something I think I will try on my next book. I am swimming through treacle on my current WIP, but I think I have to have a draft of some sort to figure out the characters. At least I have done so far. The second bit of advice is also cool. I am editing a third draft that I just hate right now -I’m bored with it, but not sure how to pick up the pace before the 5th chapter… so perhaps those first few index cards will get dumped altogether… Cheers! (I’ll be using Jameson, though, just to keep a wry smile while I glare…)

  • Mostly, I’m a pantser. But I write novellas (35-50K) so it’s pretty easy to see where the toilet goes. Ironically, though, I outline my short stories!

    When I first started writing fiction (25 years ago), I pantsed 200 pages of a “pre-novel,” and then stalled out. I didn’t know what happened next or where to go after that. I scrapped it, and started a different novel, which I finished. Since then, I’ve finished writing every book I’ve ever started– 4 unpublished novels and 24 published works. I’m still a panster, but I live with the dread that I will be unable to finish a book.

  • You mean, you don’t have a toilet in your kitchen? How inconvenient is that… Really, the architecture analogy is good, but it breaks down when you start talking about pilasters in the atria and basement S&M lairs (or maybe it doesn’t).

    In practice, pantsing can be fun for the author; plotting makes a better experience for the reader. But plotting the plot? Rough draft outline? Should we get outline editors? Looking back… maybe so.

  • This was a great read for me- I thought I was crazy (perhaps I am but I’m not alone, apparently) when I made an outline, scrapped it, made another, wrote the first draft, made a third outline (thee might have been a fourth) and started rewriting. I’ve now got an excel spreadsheet (nerd alert!) with the plot and main themes, locations and characters. With each outline, the story and the characters have become more coherent. The added bonus is that when I get stuck with writing it, I tinker with the spreadsheet, fleshing out characters and scenes and it helps get me back into it.

  • Pantsing, aside from sounding like the worst possible means of getting arrested, seems to involve writing out too much stuff that never gets used. I have whole boxes full of purposeless pants, all still drenched in the sweat of inspiration. On the flip side, outlining has all the thrills of being masturbated to dust by someone with too many planets in Virgo. So I like to mix things up. Any initial ideas prompt notes, and from these notes, sketches and outlines emerge. When I have the broad thrust of some kind of outline for thefirst third, I start writing, and before I reach my first Pant Threshold, sufficient new ideas emerge to propel the outlining forwards. It is never quite outlining, and never quite pantsing — and more like inking in the underwear on to your hip area with marker pen, watching for weirdo curvature as you go.

  • Great article (and kudos on the City of Rose – the blurb sounds great!). I tend to go at my project with bursts of wild pantsing, make a mess of it, get hopelessly tangled and stuck, and have to spend large chunks of time trying to find my way out of the crash site. It’s really inefficient. I have nine pubbed novels, but I’ve got to find a better way to do this. I’d LOVE to outline FIRST. Been trying “Save the Cat”, but it’s not quite working for me. Can anyone recommend another outline system I could try?

  • Great post! I like outlining with a story map (like a mind map), showing where the characters interact, break apart, fight, or whatever. I haven’t done multiple iterations though. Revising the outline sounds a lot easier than revising the whole book. I’ll try that next time around.

  • Waaaaaayyyyy back in my youth, I used to write entirely by the seat of my pants, and it used to work fairly well. But I was still in school, I’d be talking with friends about story ideas and plot points, I’d come home and be able to sit down and write for four or five or six hours straight, every night. More importantly, whatever story I was then writing was an essential and nearly constant part of my headspace back then.

    Nowadays, I have a full-time job, a wife, two kids, a house of my own to keep up with, bills to pay, social obligations to fulfill… the headspace that used to be so devoted to my story-worlds has undergone massive (and not entirely welcome) gentrification, and large sections of it appear to have been seized through some psycho-social version of Eminent Domain. And I find that “just sit and write”, which used to work so well for me, simply doesn’t work anymore. Or when it does work, and I produce something — even something I like, something I’m fond of — I can’t follow up on it. Anything that doesn’t get finished in one or at most two sittings simply doesn’t get finished; it doesn’t matter how long or how determinedly I keep coming back to it.

    I could limit myself to shorter projects, but I don’t really want to. I’d like to work on the longer ones. I’d like to finish them — some of them, any of them.

    So… the only way forward I can see from here is to get more organized about it. I can’t count on being able to picture the entire structure all at once anymore; I think I need a blueprint. I don’t know if this approach to outlining will work for me, but I’m prepared to try it.

    So… thanks!

  • February 18, 2016 at 12:21 PM // Reply

    Oddly enough, years ago when I was shopping for a house near Palm Springs, there was a fully functional toilet in the kitchen next to the fridge, open for everyone to see. There was also another kitchen in a master bedroom from a converted master bath. Some walls were missing, as in ripped out with the gaps and holes still there for anyone to trip on. Needless to say, we didn’t buy the house even though it was less than half the price of any other home in the area. I figured someone would get it and convert it to a four-plex (four kitchens total in the place). Note that it was always a single-family home, although I assume the family was a bunch of runaway clowns.

  • I think I might be one of those people that loathes outlines but really needs to do one. I did do the post-outline on note cards like described above. I put some key info on a larger index card (timeframe, key idea, conflict, first appearances, and most important, which powers people had as I was forgetting who could do what). Then on smaller cards, I wrote each scene.

    Some issues became apparent pretty quickly – like if there was too much in a chapter, I couldn’t attached the little stack of cards without busting the paper clip. Or if I went to write the conflict in the chapter out and came up with “… uhh…”

    Then I could remake, remove or reshuffle scenes to cut the chuff and make the pacing better. Not quite the same as doing it to begin with so I didn’t write all the garbage I didn’t need, but it helped organize things a lot for the revision.

  • Three novels, no outline, and happy with the results . . . can’t wait to get a bad review in Publishers Weekly because that will mean I got published (one out for submission, two being edited).

    But . . . I love the idea of outlining. Much like I love the idea of getting a black belt in Jiu-Jitsu, learning to play the Didjeridoo, and being part of an expedition to Mars (and back). I also love the idea of getting really ripped (got me books and videos and stuff).

    Seriously, I wonder about the above retelling . . . shouldn’t some of the problems attributed to a lack of outlining have been caught on a re-write or at the very least during the editing process? Not being flippant or sarcastic. I’m seriously asking.

    Yes, I’m a seat-of-the-pants writer. Not dissing outliners, but wondering if every writer eventually becomes an outliner. I wonder because I’m not sure I can do it and still write like I do (flow, enjoyment, thrill of discovery, etc.)

  • I did the same thing with my first novel, “A Beast in Venice.” It ended up getting published, but it didn’t blow the doors off. The point is, you’ve got to plan your novel, either before you write it, or after you write it. It’s a hell of a lot easier to plan it first.

    I’m a slow learner, so in the novel I’m preparing to query, I wrote it, and then I had to jack around with it to get the plot points in the right place. That is not fun, because all solutions breed new problems.

    Whether you like it or not, a novel has a particular structure. Things have to happen at certain points, more or less, in the novel. Plot points, pinch points, and all that gibberish. I think it’s one reason some people have so much trouble writing a query letter. The story is not structured properly.

    For those of you who like software, I found “The Novel Factory,” which is a watered down version of Scrivener (which I use), but with a detailed planning system. Take a look at it (I don’t get nothing for it, I’m just being nice).

    Anyway, great post, and good luck with the book.

  • I have outlined two books, and i never finished either of them. The one I didn’t outline, I did finish though it required significant rewrites before I was happy enough with it to send it to a beta readers. Then, the beta reader had more rewrites.

    I am trying to find an outline strategy and format that still lets me be creative and doesn’t switch on my analytical, deadline driven half that plows through the outline like a college term paper.

  • I don’t outline; I template. I start with an MS Word template of 24 or so chapters all laid out but blank. I just a few sentences into chapter one about how it all begins and who’s involved and I go from there, chapter by chapter until I reach the end. Only once I have a template that takes me all the way through the story, do I start writing.

    Once the writing starts, things get added as I think of them. I pop them into the appropriate chapters. Sometimes that pushes other things down further and that’s okay. I just do a simple cut and paste to move it where it needs to go.

    The beauty part of it is, if I think – out of the blue – of a couple lines of neat dialog or some such thing when I’m not writing, I can go and zip them in where they should go so they’ll be waiting there for me when I get to that point.

  • Thank you Rob Hart! I’m pretty sure my house is getting built without a toilet at all. I needed to read this. I don’t know if it will help but I’m certain it won’t hurt.

  • It’s amazing the difference an outline makes. For years and years I’ve been a pantser but recently stumbled across an outlining book called Take off your pants. I’ll admit, I bought it because the title intrigued me – writing pantsless? I’m up for that! But in all seriousness, it’s the first time I’ve really had control of where my story is going. I know what’s going on, who’s doing what – and more importantly, why they’re doing it. I’m converted now :-)

    • I like the first few steps of the Snowflake Method. I do something like that to formulate my idea when I get started. But by the time I get past the first few steps it becomes to formulaic for me. However, I think it is useful sharpening your story idea in your mind, and it doesn’t feel too much like outlining. More like building your story as you go.

      Also, I subscribe to Randy Ingermanson’s (The Snowflake Guy) newsletter, and he has plenty of good advice for writers.

      • It is more of a writing aid than an outline, however, you actually do build an outline as you write.

        As an engineer, I like the idea of it, the organization and logical progression. As a writer, it sucks all the joy out of writing (much like outlining). I should stress, that’s for me and my writing.

        Like I said, some swear by it (in a good way, not as in calling down imprecations from above).

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