Once upon a time, there was a great war between the kingdoms of Plött and Påntz. Countless battles were waged, despite the fact that nobody cares which side you’re on as long as the story wins in the end. Plotters have written great stories and terrible stories and all kinds of stories in between. Pantsers have written great stories and terrible stories and all kinds of stories in between. In the endless quest to improve by exploring new techniques, plotters have converted to Pantsianity and pantsers have converted to Plottism. Eventually, all writers settle where they’re happy and/or productive.
I began my writing career eons ago as a plotter. My first novel was like replicating a successful science experiment — gather the materials, control the variables, follow the procedure, get reliable results. The desired publisher paid me for my efforts, validating my choice of method.
At some point in my career, I was advised to always say yes. Opportunities arise when someone else’s deal falls through or when a trend is too hot for a publisher to ignore, and suddenly there are openings in their catalogue that need to be filled in a hurry. If you’re asked if you can deliver a book in four or six weeks, and you say yes, and you follow through, you will get more of those offers. If you say no, even once, they will never ask you again.
Pros: You will never be out of work, and your editor will make appreciative noises about how you’re just the best. Cons: You will be a monkey chained to a keyboard, pounding out whatever you’re told to write, and your editor might come to value you more as an obedient monkey than as an original writer.
Hey, there are worse ways for a single mom to pay the bills than churning out crappy books. Sign me up.
A six-week novel doesn’t lend itself to in-depth plotting. By six-week novel, I don’t mean you start thinking about the project in January and then in November gather your notes and go on a six-week writing binge. I mean getting an assignment you know nothing about prior to November 1 and having to turn in a draft requiring only minimal editing before everyone leaves for Christmas. That means writing 3,000 publishable words a day because you don’t get any extra time for rewrites. (For perspective, a lot of successful authors who write full-time think 1,000 words is a good day’s work, and they have the luxury of revising at their leisure later.) Devoting a month to outlining is not a thing that can happen under those conditions. By necessity, I converted to winging it and hoping for the best.
I never had a publisher declare the results of my pantsing too bad to publish, but I’m embarrassed by the hot mess of every single one of those books.
Fast-forward to 2015. I’m free of all contractual obligations. I can do whatever I want. And what I want to do is generate reams of pre-writing. I want to dive into a pile of notes and do the backstroke like Scrooge McDuck. I want to write five times more words about the book I’m going to write than will be in the book I’m going to write.
Welcome back, outlining. Oh, how I’ve missed you.
The most common reason I see for resisting outlining is that it “stifles creativity.” For me, outlining is all about exploration, which is the essence of creativity. No one’s holding a knife to my throat and telling me I have to write something. Structure presents a list of questions that force me only to think about what, exactly, I want to write and the most effective way to go about it. I can answer however I want. I can ignore questions if I don’t see their relevance. I can come back to them later if answers occur to me. This questioning process is how I become the expert about the story I’m going to tell. By the time I write word one, I’m intimately familiar with these characters and their motivations and how they normally behave and what pushes them to behave otherwise. I have not a random list of favorite things and physical traits but a comprehensive understanding of what makes them tick and why — before I start writing about them.
Here are two pieces of biographical info about my current heroine that started out as only loosely related:
- She’s a boat rocker at work.
- She’s been disowned by her father.
Her stated reason for fearlessly challenging the powers that be at work is that she’s the only one free to do so. There’s a shortage of providers in her field. If she gets fired at 4 p.m., she’ll have another job by 5, and they’re not going to be in a hurry to fire her because she’ll be difficult to replace due to the aforementioned shortage. Therefore, if things need to change, she’s in a better position to campaign for that change than someone whose livelihood is at greater risk.
Her father disowned her because her career path isn’t as grand as he wanted, and he’s not sympathetic about the reason her career plans got downsized. He’s a tyrant — she didn’t do exactly what he wanted, so she’s dead to him. He doesn’t appear in the story, but his heartless abandonment plays a large part in her core belief that men are not to be trusted.
While I was mapping the effects of this man’s behavior on the heroine, her sister, her nephew, and her aunt (father’s sister), another question arose: Where is her mother?
Given a recurring motif of tyrannical men, it makes sense that her mother is reduced to an extension of her father’s will — she cut off her daughters and grandson because her husband said so. The heroine accepts that her mother may be afraid of being tossed out on the street herself. She places blame on the tyrant who rules by fear, but she wishes her mother had been able to stand up for her children and grandchild.
Suddenly, the heroine’s boat rocking has two dimensions: practical (she can afford to do it more than others) and emotional (she will stand up for others the way she wishes her mother stood up for her).
That sort of nuance might have come out during writing. If I stumbled across a reason to think of a person who won’t appear in the book, which is… doubtful. Now, because I thought ahead, I have this knowledge before I even begin writing and can choose when/if/how to use it. Being prepared is infinitely preferable to fumbling around without a clue. I can write the character, from the very first page, as if this information is established fact. Even if I never write “she’s like this because she’s standing up for people the way she wishes her mother had stood up for her,” the specter of it will be there in her actions. Every time she advocates for someone else, there will be a sense of something beneath the surface, regardless of whether it’s scratched.
Outlining also forces me to think about why I’m making decisions and whether they are, in fact, the best ones.
At the beginning of the story, the heroine meets the hero, he gives her his number, and she throws it away, but it’s memorable. Later that night, she has her inciting incident (the thing that makes her realize she needs to take some kind of action). I had her immediately take action in the form of calling him. When going through my structure checklist, I identified a revelation (new information) about him the following day and wondered whether delaying the call until after that revelation would be better. Maybe she didn’t see him as a tool to solve her problem until after she got that new information.
I ultimately decided to leave the call on the same night because:
- He’s obviously the solution to her problem. HIS NAME IS MENTIONED. If she says, “Hmm, I just don’t know what to do,” readers will rightly think she’s an idiot.
- She’s decisive, and there’s a time limit for making the necessary arrangements. She’d want to know NOW if she needs a Plan B. It would be out of character for her to put off contact one second longer than necessary.
- It gives him an opportunity to express respect for her work, in contrast to other specimens who will distinguish themselves as sexist asshats.
- He’s under a gag order about something that will be revealed the next day (the aforementioned revelation), which provides a mystery to showcase her tenacious curiosity and his integrity in keeping his mouth shut.
- Never put off until tomorrow banter that you can do today.
Changing the timing of the call would lose all of that and gain nothing worth putting on a list, so my instinct was correct, but now that I’ve examined the decision, I have evidence to validate it and don’t have to second guess that one again.
Outlining is giving Future Me the gift of confidence when I start writing. I’ve already had the doubt. Potential problems have already come up, undergone examination, and been resolved in a logical manner. I’m not going to get halfway through and grind to a halt because I’ve written myself into a corner with no exit. I’m the preeminent authority on the subject of this story. I know exactly what I’m doing.
That’s not to say other issues won’t arise that interfere with writing (i.e., sleeping 20 hours a day for a month, cranking out porn for quick cash, existential malaise…), but not knowing what to write won’t be one of those issues thanks to all the forethought.