Monday, February 5, 2018

For the Writer Who Can't Outline, the Writer Who Can Only Outline, and the Writers Who Should Outline~from the heart of a pantster

I’m a pantster. Yep, I make up plots as I go (though I always start with a germ of an idea). I don’t worry about writer’s block, because I don’t believe in it. All writer’s block means is that you don’t have an idea you like, or one that inspires you; it doesn’t mean you’re out of ideas. Brains hold a lot. 

I didn’t become a pantster through any firm belief that outlining slows down the creative flow, nor did I come by it because I didn’t know any other way to go about writing. On the contrary, I’ve taken classes, read oodles of how-to books, and studied charts graphing character GMC’s (goals, motivations, and conflicts), high and low points, the climax, and character sketches. Oh yeah, and I read a lot of fiction.

Still, it seemed to me that the best way to start a story was simply to start, keeping GMC’s in mind along the way. Might have to do with laziness, considering that the time put into outlining could be time spent drafting actual chapters.

I’m sort of a detail-oriented person, so I don’t like skipping important steps. I just never thought outlining was one of them. I’m at the polishing stage of a novel, written pantster fashion. Yet I’m now giving outlining some thought. I confess, it’s mainly with the intent of helping a fellow writer who has an awesome idea for a story, but just can’t seem to get herself writing it. 

Here’s a little about her. When she packs her suitcase, she starts weeks in advance, and everything is organized and folded (and for all I know, labeled). I pack the night before, throwing in just what I think I’ll need. Also, her desk is organized enough to show it off. I close the door to my office when company comes to hide my piles and sticky notes. 

Because of these differences, I suspect that in starting a long project, she’d want organization. Organizing her thoughts in such a way that she knows what’s going to happen miles in advance, no surprises to slow her down. 

In my mission, I’m actually outlining a new novel, just to see what it’s like. How can I convince my friend this is the road for her, if I’ve never tried it?

I started last week. Before I wrote word one, fear snuck in. Is it true that writers lose their creativity if they’re not letting their brains run wild on the page? Yikes!

But I rolled up my sleeves. 

As soon as I jotted down notes for the first two chapters, ideas stockpiled into my head and I wanted to “just write.” Forget outlining, a waste of time when I can go full throttle at the novel. Luckily, I remembered the endless revising I’ve been slaving over on my pantster novel. 

Sure don’t want my friend to go through that––it might fracture her meticulously organized way of thinking and doing. Plus, I admit, I probably wouldn’t have had to make so many changes if I had known beforehand what was going to happen. I wouldn’t have wasted time on my third chapter, which I ended up trashing, and I might’ve suspected the kind of makeover chapter four would need in order to work as my new chapter three. And the number of times I changed the first chapter? I can’t count that high. 

Here’s a simple truth. I need to know how a book ends before I know how it should begin. So, for that pantster novel I wrote, once I laid eyes on the final chapter, I had some serious revisions to make in the early chapters.
Wanting to be the best BFF ever, I worked diligently, and what I’ve got going is a semi-outline. A nontraditional outline. An outline that doesn’t have Roman numeral I, II, III, and the A,B, and Cs below them. Instead, I’ve got little mini summaries for each chapter in a sentence or two, sometimes a paragraph or two, like a plot synopsis. (This should help me when it’s time to write the actual plot synopsis that editors often require.) My summaries describe what’s going to happen in each chapter, and to whom, so that I know where the novel will be going from one point to another. 

I’m giving myself the freedom to use abbreviations, fragments, or long windy purple prose. Sometimes I slap in a word to remind me later what it should smell like there, or maybe three odors so I don’t have to make the decision yet. Some chapter summaries have a snippet of dialogue, since the voice readily came to my brain. But that’s a choice. Something you can do at this stage if you want to, and you don’t have to do if you don’t want to. Just focus on the plot.

I’m loving this outlining!

With such short chapter summaries, I’ll be able to read through the entire thing within an hour. That said, I’ll be able to analyze the sequence of events quicker and spot plot holes or lapses in logic. I’ll be able to add or delete stuff right in my little summaries; problems will be solved before I ever get into writing the actual chapters. But once I do, the end result should need fewer revisions than my other novel did.

This sounds like a shortcut. I love shortcuts.

I just might change my pantster spots to the stripes of an outliner, at least a semi-outliner. More importantly, I think this free writing in outline fashion may work for my friend. She can pacify her meticulous brain and stick to the preplanning an outline offers, but also retain the right to add creative descriptions of the setting, clothing, or whatever she wants, so long as she focuses mainly on what happens in each chapter. 

Using such a nonthreatening start as this, how could she not begin? If she hates the finished outline, she’s not out near the time as she would be if she struggled through a novel only to find that it’s one better left in a drawer.

A word of caution:
My friend is no newbie at writing, but if you are, in addition to your semi-outline, you should also create character sketches and a chart of each character’s GMC’s. Your character sketches can be real sketchy at this stage and become more complete later on. Besides noting a character’s clothing style, favorite foods, worst fears, and maybe crushes, sketches should also include each character’s history, even though most of this will never land in the novel. Doesn’t matter. It’s still something you need to know before attempting to put “people on the page.” (More on this down the road.)

Do the same for the setting. Yes, you need a character sketch for the character of your setting. But again, this doesn’t have to be super detailed when you’re first drafting your semi-outline and character sketches. Just include a few words as reminders of setting details.

Armed with a semi-outline, an idea on GMC’s and the setting, and the history of the characters, putting a novel together won’t sound so exasperating.

My semi-outline now holds summaries of the first 22 chapters. I’ll keep you in the loop on my progress, and on how to proceed on the semi-outline you should be starting for your new novel right now. 

And to my writing friend,
Happy writing!

Wednesday, January 17, 2018


The Marsh King's Daughter 
by Karen Dionne
For Readers:

Settle in for an excellent psychological thriller with Karen Dionne's, The Marsh King's Daughter. Helena Pelletier has buried her past as the daughter of a kidnapper and the young teen he abducted. Growing up in a remote area in Michigan, Helena had no idea that her mother was being held against her will. She was twelve before she learned the truth and met opportunity to take her mother and run. 

Their story made national headlines. Reporters became most interested in Helena, a “wild child” who could track and trap as well as her father, a man to whom she had been devoted and who had tattooed Helena to mark each success in her homeschool of wilderness survival skills. To escape the notoriety, Helena left town and started a new life, severing contact with her mother and grandparents. 

Fast forward several years and Helena has two little girls and a husband who know nothing of her past. And that's when she hears the news bulletin: her father has killed two guards and escaped from prison. Helena immediately knows that the police won't be successful at tracking him in the wild marsh where she grew up, the place she knows her father will surely head. Police will seek her out to assist, and her secret will be revealed.

The details of Helena's life before and after her escape are spooled out with admirable synchronization and creativity, but it is when she begins tracking her father that readers will be most riveted. Each chapter is introduced with a quote from a dark fairy tale with the same title: The Marsh King's Daughter, by Hans Christian Andersen, with chilling omens of things to come. Dionne's obvious understanding of a psychopath's issues of control and manipulation make the story leap from the pages—an excellent work by a talented author.

Reviewed by Sue Ellis.
Published by G.P. Putnam's Sons
ISBN 978-0-7352-1300-5

For Writers:

Karen Dionne cofounded Backspace, an online writers' community. Belonging to a writers' group is often a positive thing for those involved, a place to learn one's craft via critiques from fellow members.

It also didn't hurt that Dionne had a homesteading experience in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, the locale she chose for her book. Writing what you know always lends a feeling of authenticity to a piece.