“To Outline, Or Not to Outline? That’s a Contentious Question”: An Interview with Sarah Domet

Creative writing professor Sarah Domet is author of "90 Days to Your Novel"

Sarah Domet, author of “90 Days to Your Novel”

A favorite at Crossroads, Sarah Domet is the author of “90 Days to Your Novel” (Writer’s Digest Books). She earned her Ph.D. in literature and creative writing from The University of Cincinnati in 2009, and she now teaches in the Department of Writing and Linguistics at Georgia Southern University. She has published her fiction and nonfiction in many journals, most recently New Delta Review, Harpur’s Palate, Beloit Fiction Journal, Juked, Barely South Review, Talking Writing, Bitch Flicks, and Bluestem. She recently completed her novel, “Altar Girls,” the first draft of which she wrote in 90 Days. For more information, visit her website: http://sarahdomet.com/


“To Outline, Or Not to Outline? That’s a Contentious Question”: An Interview with Sarah Domet

by Kathy Holzapfel


Kathy Holzapfel: Your book – “90 Days to Your Novel: A Day-by-Day Plan for Outlining & Writing Your Book” – outlines a step-by-step process to a completed novel. Can you explain the advantages of deadlines?

domet_90daysSarah Domet: So many people say “one day I’ll write a novel,” but “one day” is often pushed to the next day, then the next day, then indefinitely. Those who wait for “one day” to show up knocking on their doors wearing horn-rimmed glasses and demanding their manuscripts ASAP will wind up waiting a long time.

As a teacher of writing, I appreciate deadlines, but I also recognize that individuals often arise to the challenges placed before them. A deadline is just that—a challenge. Stephen King famously noted that first drafts should be written in no more than three months. And many famous (and not so famous) writers feel similarly.

Writing a novel can sometimes feel like an insurmountable task. Staring at the first blank page, knowing you have hundreds more to write, recognizing the truth of the matter, that you’ll literally sit in front of your computer, alone, for hours, days, months until this thing is finished—that’s a moment that can overwhelm even the most seasoned writer. Clear deadlines remind us that habits—good habits—go further than inspiration when writing a novel. Or, as Mary Heaton Vorse reminds us, “The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.”


KH: The book proposes daily – or nearly daily – writing stints. What tips can you offer for the time-crunched?

SD: I was recently talking to a friend who happens to also be a teacher, a scientist, a mother, and a wife, among her other roles and responsibilities. She’s a writer, too—at work on her novel. To get her pages written each day this summer, she got in her car, drove to a scenic spot, and sat in what she termed her “mobile office” pecking away at her book.

I love imagining her writing in her car, gazing out at the ducks floating on a pond as she contemplates her next line. But, more importantly, I think this story illustrates the simple truth: If it’s important enough to you, you’ll find the time.

For those who are really time-crunched, either learn to consolidate time or write in spurts. Reserve a weekend afternoon for writing, or draft a few pages on your lunch break. Get up earlier or go to bed later. Carve out the time wherever you can. Find what works for you.

And always carry a notebook to jot down those novel-worthy ideas when you’re too busy to sit down at your computer. I can’t tell you how many of my “great” ideas have disappeared into the ether simply for the fact that I forgot to write them down.


This will be my third year presenting at Crossroads. I come back because of the people: The planners, the presenters, the attendees. Quite honestly, I’d be a little sad if I weren’t a part of it. – Sarah Domet


KH: Your book offers an in-depth method for outlining. Can you go over the components covered?

SD: Outlines are a real point of contention for writers. Some adamantly attest that outlines thwart creativity, while others swear by them. I happen to fall closer to the latter category. When you have at least some general sense of where your story might be leading you, you’ll free up your mind to do the fun stuff that novel writing entails: developing characters, creating unique worlds, playing with language. Outlines needn’t be viewed as restrictive or prescriptive. Writing is an art, after all, and like any art there’s a little bit of magic to it.

“90 Days to Your Novel” takes the writer through the whole process—from idea generation to completed manuscript. However, I’ve noticed many other writing guides focus only on the discrete components of writing, such as character, plot, setting, dialogue, etc., without discussing how these components all come together to form a story. That is, you don’t first write characters, then write plot, then write setting. You write interweave all these elements at once. It’s a balancing act.

A solid outline helps you consider your story more holistically. Where will you begin? Where will you end? How will you get there? Most people who, half-way through, give up on writing their novels do so because they can’t figure out where their story is going. They get stuck. Outlines can help unstick you.


KH: The objective of the outlining process is a chronological scene list. What are the benefits of writing one scene at a time?

SD: Every scene must accomplish important work in a novel; each scene must carry its own weight, while revealing a part of the big picture. Some scenes work toward developing character, some work to forward the plot, some deepen the drama or heighten the conflict, and some accomplish all these things at once.

Writers need to master the art of gazing outward and downward, like a quarterback who must both observe his immediate surroundings, so he doesn’t get sacked, while also looking downfield for the pass. Channel your inner quarterback, even if you’ve never played a sport in your life. Writing your novel scene by scene, from start to finish, helps you understand how the parts are related to the whole.

On another note, writing scene by scene allows you see the very real and physical way that the pages add up. That’s the fun part.


KH: The end goal of the 90 days process is a solid first draft novel. What then? Can you share insights on revision?

Nathan and SarahSD: Revision. Oh, the agony. You spend 90 days writing a book, and just when you think you’ve finished, the real work begins. Revision turns good novels into great novels, so it’s important work.

When writing a first draft, practice the art of letting go—don’t restrain your writing or your characters. Instead, create over-the-top scenarios, experiment with voice, wax philosophical about the invention of the Snuggy, tell off-color jokes that you never would repeat in real life. Just get the words down on the page.

Then take a break. Better yet, go on a vacation.

When you come back to your novel, again, practice the art of letting go. But this time in a different way. Let go of what doesn’t work. Let go of characters who may not contribute to your story, even if you love them. Let go of your perceptions about the book you wanted to write, and take a closer look at what your novel has become. What are your characters telling you?

There’s no one correct way to write a novel, no magic bullet. Trust yourself—you’re usually your own best guide. Keep in mind the words of Carl Sandburg: “Beware of advice—even this.”


KH: You’re a repeat presenter at the Crossroads Writers Conference. What’s a high point from last year?

SD: So many high points from last year! The entire conference buzzed with good writerly mojo. I met and re-met some seriously cool writers. Chris Baty’s keynote address, among others, inspired me: “Everyone — and I mean, EVERYONE — has so much more inside of them than they realize.” Sometimes we all need a little reminder of that.


KH: What brings you back to the Crossroads Conference in 2013?

SD: This will be my third year presenting at Crossroads. I come back because of the people: The planners, the presenters, the attendees. Quite honestly, I’d be a little sad if I weren’t a part of it.


1 Comment

  1. “If it’s important enough to you, you’ll find the time.”

    I couldn’t agree more. Sometimes it’s avoiding wasted time that opens up the found time.


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