The Paperclip Method

Book Writing – Should You Outline Your Novel?

People are always asking me if I outline my novels before I begin.


I work associatively and thematically. For example, The Year of Fog is a novel about a missing child. But to say it’s a novel about a missing child is somewhat misleading. The major plot line of the novel is the search for a missing child. But the novel also tackles a few other things: memory, photography, and first love.

As I researched the novel, I wrote up small pieces, one to two pages each, about memory: memory case studies, interesting facts about memories, how memories are recorded and stored, etc. All of these items, I kept together with one paperclip. Thus The Paperclip Method was, inadvertently, born. My work on photography included quotes and research from Henry Horensteins classic text, Black and White photography, memories of my own time spent in darkrooms as a college student, notes on the use of the camera that my narrator, Abby, used (the Holga), etc. Another paperclip.

The first page of any stack is just a blank white page with a handwritten identifier: Photography, memory, the search, Jake, Emma. Eventually, all of the stacks go on the dining room floor. It looks something like this. My cat Phoebe loves this part of the process. Sometimes, in the middle of the night, I can hear her moving things around. Seriously.

pagesBelieve it or not, that mess of papers on the floor of my dining room is now in galleys over at Random House. Which is to say that, what looks like nothing does become something, if you just have the patience to see it through.  For the longest time, as I was working on that novel, it didn’t look as though it would ever come together. For the longest time, I was ready to give up. But then, in the end, it did. The process I’ve grown to trust once again paid off.

So, if your outline is giving you a headache, if your plan has gone all awry, take a step back. Ditch the outline. Write two pages about something that matters to you. Tomorrow, write another two pages. Keep at it. Eventually, you’ll have enough pages to spread out across your dining room floor.

Want to put The Paperclip Method into practice? Learn more about the method here.

The Paperclip Method

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Sans Serif is the blog of author Michelle Richmond.

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