Outline or No Outline? / Author Rick Reed

Outline or no outline? That is the question. Sometimes it’s great to hear how other successful writers do it. Author Rick Reed, after writing several acclaimed books, has found his groove. Here’s his take on how he plots.

Happy Reading!

Clay Stafford
Founder of Killer Nashville

Author Rick Reed

Author Rick Reed

I’ve been asked this question many times. “Do you write from an outline? How do you get your ideas and keep them straight while writing a full length novel?”

The answer I gave in the past is, “I don’t start with an outline. I start with a title (an idea) and then let the characters develop the story.”

But today I realized that’s only partially true.

Imagine a book as a lump of clay. (And please don’t think I’m comparing myself to an artist.) The definition of sculpting is to create by removing material in order for the shape that is hidden inside to be revealed.

With that in mind, imagine a title such as “Murder in Mind.” What images does that create? What feelings does it bring out? For every one of you it’s different, but will have subtle similarities. For one of you the story would be about a serial killer that fantasizes his murders and tries to make them fit the fantasy. For another of you it might be a nightmare, or the unconscious world of a coma patient.

"Final Justice" by Rick Reed

“Final Justice” by Rick Reed

Probably most of you work the other way around. You have an idea in mind, and then come up with a title. Either way, the title almost always changes to fit the story.

My books, The Cruelest Cut, The Coldest Fear, and Final Justice, all started with a title that stuck in my mind. It was my lump of clay. And like any sculptor or potter will tell you, eventually, the clay begins to take over, and the artist is merely the hands and chisel (or laptop) that tells the story. Inside my lump, I saw a number of possible directions for the story, and each one would lead to the characters. Then the characters would take over.

Each character has a different idea how they talk, what they will or won’t do, how a scene turns out, who they interact with. I never know the end until the end because it “ain’t over ’til the fat lady sings.” There is no better feeling in the world for an author than writing those two words…THE END.

Like any writer or artist or athlete, etc., each book is a different experience and you learn from all of them. I’d like to think that I’ve grown as a writer and I can look back at my old books and see where I would have done them differently. But the difference is the beauty of a book. Not everyone will like what you’ve written. Not everyone appreciates a painting or sculpture or song or music, but that doesn’t make it bad. (Like I used to tell my college students, “Not everyone likes asparagus.”)

So I say, “Go forth. Find your lump of clay. Create. Believe.”


Rick Reed was a detective with the Evansville Police Department in Indiana for almost 20 years. He was involved in law enforcement in some capacity for over 30 years.

His acclaimed book, BLOOD TRAIL, is the true account of one of the homicides he investigated in 2000 that unearthed a serial killer with fourteen victims.

He is also the author of the Detective Jack Murphy thrillers, THE CRUELEST CUT, THE COLDEST FEAR, and FINAL JUSTICE. His next thriller, MURPHY’S LAW, will be released in summer 2014. Check out his website for current projects and tour schedule.


(The Killer Nashville Guest Blog is coordinated by KN Executive Director Beth Terrell (http://www.elizabethterrell.com/).  To be a part of this series, contact Beth at beth@killernashville.com.)

About Clay Stafford

Clay Stafford is an author / filmmaker (www.ClayStafford.com) and founder of Killer Nashville (www.KillerNashville.com). As a writer himself, he has over 1.5 million copies of his own books in print in over 14 languages. Stafford’s latest projects are the feature documentary “One of the Miracles” (www.OneOfTheMiracles.com) and the music CD “XO” (www.JefferyDeaverXOMusic.com). A champion of writers, Publishers Weekly has identified Stafford as playing “an essential role in defining which books become bestsellers” throughout “the nation’s book culture.” (PW 6/10/13)
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1 Response to Outline or No Outline? / Author Rick Reed

  1. I love this topic and also Rick’s take on it, especially the lump of clay metaphor since my own protagonist is a potter. For those who want to read more about the great outlining or not debate, MAKING STORY is an excellent anthology edited by the Edgar, MaCavity and Lefty nominated author Tim Hallinan. It contains of twenty-one essays by mystery and thriller authors whose combined sales are in the millions. In the interest of full disclosure, I am one of those authors. Unfortunately, my sales have not hit the million mark.

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