Author David Bell: Outlining novel is like having a security blanket

by G. Robert Frazier

Writers who insist that “pantsing” is the best way to write their novel probably won’t be afforded that creative luxury with future books, especially if they land a deal with a major publisher, best-selling author David Bell says.

Since She Went AwayThe author of Since She Went Away (New American Library, $16), Bell explained that with the first book he wrote and sold to Penguin, he wrote the way he wanted. But when he got ready to write the second book, the publisher said, “not so fast.”

“The thing about publishers and editors is, and understandably so, they don’t really trust writers,” said Bell, who recently appeared at Parnassus Books in Nashville to promote his new novel. “They think you’re going to blow their deadline. They’re like, hold on, you’re going to write an outline.”

Pantsing, for the uninitiated, is writing “by the seat of your pants.” That is, spilling out words onto a page without having a specific outline to guide you each step of the way. Pantsers argue that the method allows for more creativity and spontaneity than an outline allows, as you can explore new thoughts and ideas as they come to you.

“If you make an outline, you’re going to be able to answer any questions in advance,” said Bell, who is an associate professor and director of the MFA program in creative writing at Western Kentucky University.

Outliners, or plotters, like to know the beats or key moments in a novel, which helps keep them from veering off track or into ideas that don’t serve the main story.

“I really couldn’t imagine doing it any other way, because the time I spend on the outline is almost equal to writing the first draft,” Bell said. “It’s like having a security blanket.”


Bell’s fifth novel, Since She Went Away, follows the story of Jenna Barton whose lifelong best friend, Celia, has disappeared. Jenna was supposed to meet her but showed up late, and by that time Celia was gone. As a result, Jenna is living with this huge regret and tremendous guilt. When her son’s new girlfriend also disappears, Jenna attempts to discover the truth, revealing long-buried secrets on the way.

Like his previous books, Since You Went Away takes place in a small town.

“I like writing about small towns because it’s manageable,” said Bell, who ironically grew up in the city of Cincinnati. “I think everyone makes assumptions that small towns are like Mayberry, USA. That nothing bad ever happens in a small town, which is not true. Just as much crazy stuff happens in a small town as in a big city. Also, the people tend to be more closely woven; everybody knows everybody, but you really don’t. It’s that kind of disconnect I like to play with in the books.”

Bell’s first idea for the novel didn’t go over so well, which is another important reason why editors want to see an outline beforehand.

“I came up with what I thought was a brilliant idea, and the editor acted like I’d just handed her a turd,” Bell said. “So, I had to start all over again.”

Once the outline is in hand, Bell likes to forge ahead without a lot of editing as he goes.

“What works for me is getting the whole draft down. I have to see the whole thing, and then go back and try to fix it,” he said. “It’s like a security blanket for me. I always fear the editor is going to call me and say they need the book two months sooner, and I can say, ah, I have a draft.”

That’s not to say that the outline itself can’t change in certain circumstances.

“There was a different ending to Since She Went Away,” Bell said, “but as I wrote I realized there was a better option for the ending.”

Doing favors for your editor and agent aren’t likely to change their minds either. While in New York for the International Thriller Fest, Bell took his editor and agent to “Hamilton”, thanks to scoring tickets from the choreographer who was a school friend of his.

“The editor in chief of Berkley Books said it was the nicest gift any writer ever got an editor,” he said. But the sentiment didn’t last long. “There was a day where they were like, we love him, but then it was back to business as usual.”


Quotable David Bell

  • On indie bookstores: “I think a store like Parnassus is a miracle. This is the real deal here. This is a bookstore that cares about books, that wants to sell books, that wants to build relationships. It can be the heartbeat of the community. I feel lucky to be here, that I live an hour away from Parnassus. I think it’s great to be in a bookstore like this. Buy your books here.”

DSCF0446 (2)On Dean Koontz: “I opened a letter from Dean Koontz once and it said, ‘I was going to give you a blurb for your book, but my dog died.’ In the amount of time he took to wrote that letter, he could have written a blurb. But, just to show there’s no hard feelings between Dean Koontz and I, I had the characters in the book reading Dean Koontz.”


  • On book covers: “There is no significance to the red umbrella in Since She Went Away. They do the cover way in advance before the book is even finished. They did a first cover and it really kind of sucked, so they went back and redid the cover, which I think is now really great. In the past, I have gone back and added elements from the cover into my books. For example, in The Hiding Place they had a boy walking beside a pond on the cover. I added the pond into the book.”


  • On research: “Research is such a boring word. I don’t think of it as research. If you’re interested in reading about the stuff, It doesn’t’ feel like work. I’m always interested in reading about missing persons cases and crime cases.”




1 thought on “Author David Bell: Outlining novel is like having a security blanket

  1. Very good post and a great title for a book. A simple title, but brings in thousands of questions and emotions. I like pantsing the best too, but just one book so far and I have a feeling if I’d had to outline some, I would not have revised it the zillion times that I did. Same result, but maybe a lot more work. Not sure.


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