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!

25 comments:

  1. Very interesting post! While I'll never be a novelist,(I can barely write a blog post), I do love to read! Looking forward to reading more of your methods of being a real writer!

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    1. Thank you so much for stopping by, and I'm glad you enjoyed the post. If you watch the blog from time to time, I often have book reviews posted. Sue Ellis does a lot of my reviews, and she's really good. She finds great books to review. Since you enjoy reading, you might find something to your liking.

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  2. Funny, the only writing i do is with word prompts, like the six sentence stories or words for Wednesday. The thought of writing without a prompt doesn't compute in my brain, so i'd have to use this kind of outline if i wanted to write something longer.

    Fascinating what i learn by reading how writers hone their craft.

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    1. I like reading how other writers get their game faces on, too, because it usually gives me a boost to get going on my WIP. Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts.

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  3. I haven't tried writing an outline since grammar school. I usually (but not always) have a pretty good idea of where my story will end, but I like to improvise a lot as I write. I've come up with some interesting characters and story tangents as I'm zooming along, and they've made the stories in question better, IMHO.

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    1. In trying to attempt this outline, I go back and change a fair idea to a better idea quite often, and it's not too much work to do it when your chapter summaries only a few lines to a page long. So I'm definitely pantstering along the way. :-)

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  4. Fascinating to see outlining from the viewpoint of a pantser! I've been an outliner for years--I'd write myself into a corner otherwise, as a webcomic creator--and your process actually seems pretty similar to mine. (I write down enough details so I can properly sprinkle in foreshadowing and such, but the summaries are still general enough that I have the freedom to tweak things down the road, if I need to. Like, my comic Echo Effect has stuck pretty close to the outline I created in 2012, but one character I thought would be around for the entire series ended up being "put on a bus," so to speak, haha.)

    Hope this form of outlining works for your friend!

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    1. I'm enjoying the outlining, sort of, but it takes a lot of willpower not to just roll up my sleeves and barrel my way right into writing the novel. That's what I'm used to.

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  5. Excellent recommendations for every type of writer, and there are so many types. I can outline nor nonfiction. In school, when writing essays, the established outline helped with the claim, counterclaim and all that. Fiction, now that's different ball game. If I start outlining (and I've tried), and if I begin writing character detail, it seems all my inspiration and drive goes into that process rather than the novel itself. So, I don't really outline. Just try to have a plan, and most times that doesn't even work. It's not a perfect system, as it takes longer than it probably should to finish writing a story.
    Good recommendation for your friend. I'd definitely try it. Who knows? For those who don't outline, maybe we just haven't found the proper method yet.

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    1. I think this new style of outlining I'm trying out is sort of writing down only a brief idea of what's going to happen in a specific scene, and just like with your "plans," they tend to get changed a lot anyway. I guess the only difference I see from panster writing and pantster outlining is that I flesh out only enough of an idea for a scene to remind me of what it's going to be, rather than writing the whole thing right then. It still subject to creative changes as my brain comes up with different ideas along the way. :-)

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  6. 'nor nonfiction' meant as 'for fiction.' :)

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  7. Your summaries is much how I go about my outlining, except I can't stick with it and change it over and over and over again once I start actually writing, and then I get frustrated because I'm no where near where I intended to be, and what I had plotted out won't work for the story because I did this thing over here, and then I wind up mulling over what I'm going to put in one spot because I changed this, and now what I had in my outline just seems lackluster. (Holy run-on, Batman!)

    :) That's what it's been like with my current project, but it doesn't stop me from continuing to make the outlines. In fact, I've got that mini summary thing going for the next book and it's up to 19K in just mini summary!

    Hope your friend finds a system that works for her. :)

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    1. You are scaring me here. I thought once I was done with the brief summaries of each scene, I'd be ready to roll up my sleeves and flesh out this novel. And my friend would be writing hers right alongside me. But now I'm thinking I might be making just as many changes in my first draft as I do with my pantster first drafts. But it's worth a shot, especially if it gets her writing, because she's got a really good idea for a novel. I want her to finish it, because I want to read it. Selfish, I know.

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  8. A very interesting post!! I'm not a writer, but I am a painter, so I understand what you are talking about. I think personally, you have to take that leap and everything will flow, if it's suppose to! When you think too much, it doesn't! LOL !

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    1. When my brain is working too hard, I take a break in dip into a short story in progress, and then I go back to the bigger project. Whatever works is the way to go. :-)

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  9. It's always interesting to see how other authors approach writing. My outlines are very loose and I put the emphasis on very:)
    Keep us posted on how this works for you.

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  10. It's fascinating how different writers approach writing and planning their writing. Thanks for sharing yours here!

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    1. You bet, and thanks for stopping by. I'll see you around the blogosphere.

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  11. I wrote my first novel ‘pantster style’ but then my agent (at the time) wanted to have an outline of a new one. Panic! In the end, I did exactly what you did and it was a revelation.

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    1. I'm finding it a revelation as well. It is so much easier to read through 10 or 20 pages of summaries to make sure they flow well and don't have plot holes than it is to read through 300 pages looking for plot holes, and so much easier to make the changes I find necessary to make. And this is a good stage to let my pantster brain throw in new ideas as they pop into my head along the way. I can always scratch them out later if they don't pan out well.

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    1. Sorry, this blog is only for comments, not advertisements.

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