posted on October 2, 2014 by J. T. Ellison

The Value of an Outline, by a Pantser

JTEllisonThere is something so incredibly exciting about the birth of a new book. THE LOST KEY, the second Nicholas Drummond thriller, is out September 30. Drummond has been asked to join the FBI, and has agreed to leave Scotland Yard and come to America. The book opens on his first day of work at the New York Field Office. He’s a newly minted agent, having just gone through rigorous training and graduating with honors from the FBI Academy in Quantico. And sitting in his small cubicle in the New York Field Office, he’s wondering, what, exactly, he’s done.

Drummond and his FBI partner Michaela Caine are tasked with working the murder of man killed on federal land near Wall Street – an investigation that eventually leads them well beyond murder, into a hunt for a missing World War I U-boat containing a stash of gold bullion.  All they have to go on are the dead man’s last words – the key is in the lock.

We had so much fun putting together THE FINAL CUT that when it came time to plot THE LOST KEY, we wanted to try something bigger, more audacious, and also grounded in history – a treasure hunt of sorts, for a key lost for decades, and the sacrifices made by the people who were tasked with keeping it hidden. As our dual writers’ brains cooked, the story became larger than life, sweeping through time, crossing borders (Scotland, anyone?) touching upon real historical figures like Madame Curie and Kaiser Wilhelm II.

Working with Catherine Coulter is beyond a dream come true. She’s brilliant, funny, a great writer, and an even better friend. I trust her implicitly, and I hope she feels the same.

There’s only one problem.

Neither one of us likes to plan ahead. We’re both pantsers. No outlines, no plotting, just sit down every day and let the story take you where it will. We’ve talked about this at length, and we both agree – therein lies the fun of being a writer. Outlines are stifling. Knowing what happens next makes the story less fun. The element of discovery isn’t there.

(My plotter friends are howling right now. Trust me, there’s no canyon quite as deep and wide as that between a plotter and a panster. Becalmed, friends. I’m willing to admit you may have a point.)

Catherine and I realized during the process of writing the first book that we needed to have very open lines of communication in order for this collaboration to exceed its potential. Both to keep me on track, and to tap into her vast knowledge and experience. So for THE LOST KEY, we sat down together and did an outline.

The Lost Key2We worked out the overarching story and the first half of the book. I went back to Nashville and wrote, talking with Catherine daily about what was happening. Midway through, we got together again, went through the first half, and plotted out the second, in even greater detail.

And as I wrote, I realize the value of the outline. With a thriller that has such a broad scope, swinging through time and cultures, chasing madmen around the world, having an idea of what was supposed to happen next kept me from getting too far out there. It kept us focused, and to the point. It (cough) made the book stronger.

There, I said it. The outlining process made the book stronger.

I won’t say I’m a total convert. I wrote my next book without an outline. But I have realized how important they are to collaborations, and so we’ll keep on this path, as long as it keeps on working.

I hope you enjoy THE LOST KEY! Because I have to admit, it was a blast to write.

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J. T. Ellison

J. T. Ellison

New York Times bestselling author J.T. Ellison writes dark psychological thrillers starring Nashville Homicide Lt. Taylor Jackson and medical examiner Dr. Samantha Owens, and pens the Nicholas Drummond series with #1 New York Times bestselling author Catherine Coulter. Cohost of the premier literary television show, A Word on Words, Ellison lives in Nashville with her husband and twin kittens. Follow J.T. on Facebook or Twitter @thrillerchick for more insight into her wicked imagination.

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