T. Jefferson Parker on Outlining - Jo-Ann Carson

T. Jefferson Parker on Outlining

Off on the Right Foot:

When to Outline and When to Write

T. Jefferson Parker

(Thrillerfest Lecture, July 10, 2013)

  • Written 20 books
  • Writes one a year and focuses on it – like a 365 day road trip with a destination and journey

Things to See

  • He starts by writing himself a long letter (talks about things that interest him – he puts them all down and then prioritizes. It’s like planning a dream vacation at no cost)
  • Collects interesting “stuff” all the time  (i.e., articles clipped from newspapers or printed from the computer etc.) in plastic bins
  • This initial stage is the time to “fill up the van” with ideas (be inclusive) and trust your instincts

People to Go With

  • you need strong willed characters
  • They will all be talking in your head for the next year – keep that in mind


  • This is the heavy lifting
  • Need a destination
  • A 24 word story
  • He’s been able to get it down to 10 (e.g., “A lawman wants to save a baby from the devil.”)


  • writing is 90% improvisation – that’s the music and beauty of being a writer
  • His process (3 months outlining, 6 months 1st draft, 3 months clean up)
  • Gets a “sinking feeling” when it’s 99% right
  • Be fast to get to the next plot point
  • When you run out of points – that’s when things really get interesting
  • The care and feeding of your voice comes from what you read

If any of this doesn’t make sense, it’s my fault. Parker delivered an exceptionally clear and fascinating talk.

Next Wednesday: Michael Connolly on the Series Character

0 Replies to “T. Jefferson Parker on Outlining”

  1. Oh , the luxury of having a whole year to do nothing but work on one book! Also on a personal note I’d say reading is wonderful but you feed the muse with things you see, people you talk to and experiences personal or otherwise.

    1. Pat
      Yes, well he gets that luxury because his books are so darn good they sell well. I like your ideas about muse. I think it’s larger than the voices we read, it’s all the voices we experience. Thanks for stopping by and adding to the conversation. Looking forward to the writer’s meeting on Saturday.
      Best Wishes

    1. Hi Judi
      When I looked over my notes on Parker’s talk, I thought, Wow this looks too easy. But the biggest question remains: how to get from point to point. Skill, practice and a little magic is my guess.
      I think I understand your comment about character/plot. My stories sometimes become so character driven that I lose my sense of the larger picture, and wielding in is like breaking a bucking horse.
      Thanks for stopping by and adding to the conversation.

  2. If I could plan out some plot points ahead of time, I’m sure my writing would be much faster. Must. Try, Harder! Good thoughts. I like filling up the bins with interesting things, Thanks, Jo-Ann.

    1. Hi Ellis
      Yes, I love the image of bins filled with ideas…a life filled with filling bins with ideas. It’s a writer’s dream.
      You’re a pantser, eh. I’m a hybrid searching for my perfect process. I liked his image of the car ride. It sounded kind of comfortable.
      Thanks so much for coming by and commenting.

  3. Another author whose version of outline is tailored to his own personality and way of thinking. Affirmation we should let “the rules” act as a guideline for us but not override our creativity. Great stuff from Thrillerfest, Jo-Ann! Thanks for sharing.

  4. Hey, Jo-Ann. Thanks for another post filled with helpful notes. I too like the plastic bin image. Good to read about others’ processes, but I think you nailed it ““Tailored” yes. It fascinates me how we all develop a process that fits us.” We have to write to discover what “our” process is. I’m eager to see what my process has morphed into as I begin thinking about the 7th book. Appreciate so much you sharing from ThillerFest.

    1. Marsha
      You’re welcome. 7th book. You are an inspiration. I’m starting my 4th and trying Parker’s letter start. I’ll let you know if it fits me. Sunshine here.
      Best always

  5. This was absolutely fascinating! I’m always in awe of how a particular author approaches his/her work. I loved the idea of ‘the van’. It made me think of kind of a semi-hippy road trip stopping along the route visiting bizarre locations and meeting eccentric people.
    I also loved his ’24 word stoy’ about his novel. If I can’t explain what my book is about, then I’ve definitely lost my reader.
    This is an author who really understands his process. Thanks for sharing!
    P.S -I love blog entries that have specific headings. Very clean, clear and precise.

    1. Jodie
      I’m glad you like the post and thanks for your comment about clear headings. I love feedback.
      I had to laugh when you described the hippy van, because that is exactly the image that came to my mind. I guess it proves we are of a certain age.
      Your second book is doing so well. I hope you’ll be starting your third soon.

  6. I’m always interested in the process of the big boys, and girls. I’ve never been able to outline, although I make notes both when I have an idea and when I write something I’ll need to come back to. That way I won’t forget it. I do have a destination. It’s usually around 350 pages. 🙂 Thanks for all the information, Jo-Ann.

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