So last week I was super excited to report that I cranked out a draft of a novel in a tad over a week. And I mentioned part of my being able to pull off this feat was due to knowing what I was going to write ahead of time. This brings up the never-ending debate topic of whether an author is a panster (as in, no outline and writing from the seat of his or her pants) or a plotter (as in, plotting out all the details in an outline before putting pen to paper).
Few writers I’ve come across are 100% either way and most fall somewhere toward the middle. That’s me as well, I like having an outline, but I don’t detail out every scene and sort of let the words come as they may while hitting the plot points of the outline.
With this new book, I knew I wanted to draft it quickly, so I thought I’d try to be a more stringent plotter so I wouldn’t waste any time and could maybe avoid so much re-writing. In some ways, I’m really glad I took this extra pre-writing time. In other ways, I proved that teaching an old dog new tricks requires dog treats and I just don’t think I could bring myself to eat Milk Bones.
Starting Out – The Not-So Short Story
As I mentioned, this idea started out as a short story and quickly grew out of its short story pants. After writing out what will eventually become a few of the opening scenes of the book, ideas kept popping in my head for where I wanted to go with the story. So, while the short story never happened, I not only had a couple great scenes started, but was also on a good track for where I wanted to go with the book AND I had gotten a fair start on learning about my main character.
Outline Attempt #1 – Chris Fox
Before we get too far on this, know that I ended up doing three outlines. Each one built on the other and this REALLLLLY gave me time to flesh out my story and to understand my main character’s flaws and desires.
For Outline #1, I took advice from Chris Fox’s YouTube series on outline a novel. I recommend watching the series, if you want the full scoop, but basically he tells you to sort out how your book starts, its setting, and how it ends. You then fill in the middle (the dreaded middle!) by asking yourself questions regarding how to get your characters from the beginning to the end.
This question-and-answer thing didn’t exactly build my story’s guts, but it was a great brainstorming exercise and did provide me with plenty of plot ideas. It also started allowing me to build my character’s backstory, which, even though I don’t come out and explicitly use it in the book, does play a significant role in how she reacts to the other characters.
Outline Attempt #2
With my ideas from Chris’s videos bubbling in my head, I knew I needed to get that middle bit sorted out and to flesh out my beginning and end (I had a basic idea at this point for them, but no real course for my writing vessel). Luckily, Reedsy has some terrific (and free) 10-day email courses and one of them happens to be How to Plot Your Book with Three Act Story Structure. PERFECT!!!
Sort of. The course did help me nail down what I wanted to happen in the beginning and end, and I sort of kind of had a fuzzy idea that was coalescing into something more tangible for the middle, but it was still too vague to begin writing. Well, I could begin writing, but I didn’t want to come to that second act and hit a brick wall.
Again, even though this second attempt didn’t result in a fully fleshed out outline, I was building and building layers that were turning my little premise into something with some excellent character motivation, plot twists, and tension.
Outline Attempt #3
I love it when things just happen to fall into place. As I was going through my outline creation, I happened on a podcast where they were interviewing a guy who wrote a book on outlining a novel! Holy moly!! And he sounded like he knew what he was talking about. So, I shelled out a few books and downloaded Scott King’s Outline Your Novel: The How To Guide for Structuring and Outlining Your Novel
I read the book through once, then set about to going through it a second time and hammering out my novel’s outline. King also uses the three-act structure, but breaks down each act into basic plot points that need to happen in each act. This sounds formulaic, but it really isn’t if you think of them more as prompts for your book’s own outline and story.
With the first two attempts I had a really strong sense of my beginning, end, and my main character’s needs/wants/motivations (since I usually struggle with character development, I felt pretty kick-ass about how well I’d built up my main character). However, it wasn’t until King’s books and his cycle of Status Quo-Attempt-Fail-New Status Quo-2nd Attempt, etc that I was really able to build the middle of my book.
Trying To Go Deeper – The Pantser Takes Over
Now that I had an outline. It was time to look at the scenes that would happen with each plot point. Even Scooby Snacks couldn’t train me to do this one.
King’s book has templates for each scene such as setting, character motivation, what happens, etc. I tried to do a few of these, but things quickly fell apart. Turns out I can only plan so much. When I start writing, I honestly don’t know what is going to happen within a scene. This can get me in trouble sometimes and does lead to some rewriting, but it also adds an element of play into this work.
For example, I didn’t know my main character was going to develop an interest in a rather creepy character. I didn’t know her landlord was going to be a complete jerk. I didn’t know my villain was going to turn out to have a special talent. I didn’t know one word of all the conversations that were going to take place. I didn’t know my main character was going to nearly burn down a doctor’s office.
It was fun discovering all of these things and kept me eager to come back to the notebook to see what would happen next. While I did know where the story was going and I knew where I needed to steer my characters, I didn’t know the exacting details of how to get them there. And that’s how you become a happy plantser.
Sorry for this incredibly long post today, but I hope it was insightful. I’ll be back next week to start sharing with you the myths that went into making my upcoming book The Bonds of Osteria: Book Four of the Osteria Chronicles and there’ll even be some sample chapters to gobble up!
How about you? How do write? Plotter or pantser, or something in between? For you non-writers, how do you tackle big projects? Break them down? Attack full on? I’d love to hear how you approach your work so be sure to leave a comment!!!