|I don't even know what's happening here, but... that's certainly a less-traveled road|
Some days I miss the freedom of pantsing a novel, of starting in one place and letting it run free, just to see where it goes. Now, as a writer under contract, having a good outline—and sticking to it—is an essential part of the job. Projects have editors who expect a manuscript that follows a particular boilerplate, and my stories have to be rubber-stamped before they get to find life on the page.
Still, since I was forced to adopt rigorous outlines, I now find the invisible, guiding hand of a thorough synopsis too much of a creature comfort to go back to the old days. Where I used to spend whole chapters exploring my worlds and my characters, but sometimes never knew how I’d wrap up this whole big Rube Goldberg machine I’d created. Unsurprisingly, I didn’t finish a lot of things when I pantsed them because I tend to write myself into corners with no idea how to get out. For me, total pantsing is the death knell of a good manuscript, because there’s no outline catch me when I trip on writer’s block or back my hero into a dragon's mouth.
I know some miraculous pantsers, who start with only an elevator pitch, then roar off down the dusty road of writing a novel without so much as a topo map. I admire them. I admire anyone who can throw subplots and story threads out like crazy and manage to reel them all back in by the end (or at least figure it out upon a revision).
I was a pure pantser once. I started seriously writing back in high school, with fanfiction, and continued on through college expending all my creative energy on fan sagas. I didn’t focus on original fiction until after graduating, and only because I realized my AU (alternate universe) fics had gone far beyond “fanfiction,” and become practically original novels.
Back then, I only started writing if inspiration struck, and I abandoned a project as soon as the muse left. Because why not? Fanfiction was purely for personal enjoyment. There was no point to it if it felt like a chore.
But if by some circumstance you ever stumbled across ye olde fanfiction archive (you poor soul), you’d find two dozen unfinished pieces—and a grand total of maybe three finished ones. Without that gentle guiding hand of an outline, I was mostly a lost cause.
So never have it said I’ve always written from an outline, or always started my novels from scratch—both have been true during their respective periods, and I imagine both will continue to be true, on and off, in the future.
Where Pantsing and Outlining Intersect
Even now I find that the most thoroughly planned outline has inherent flaws that only appear when you actually sit down to write. Like a manuscript itself, I often have to revise outlines as problems emerge, or the manuscript takes an unexpected turn off the path I’ve laid out for it.
Honestly, you can’t make me believe books aren’t alive, even in their incomplete forms. They are beasts of burden, happily carrying along your little storyteller wagon most of the time, then occasionally throwing a fit, breaking a yoke, and barreling off into the sunset. Wee bastards.
It’s usually around the halfway mark that I discover I’ve miscalculated the beats and the outline breaks. You know that term, “soggy middle”? No, not love handles. I mean that gooey mess that lies between your expert set-up and your flash-bang climax. It’s not just hard to write; it’s hard to outline, too.
My common problems:
- “The dark night of the soul” comes up too soon, or too late, or sometimes not at all.
- Or worse, I’ve completely missed the heart of the story in my outline, and only discover it as the characters and plot start finding life on the page.
Those moments of unexpected deliverance are the best and the worst, simultaneously—best, because thank goodness I’ve stumbled across this gem of a soul! I was worried for a second there.
But they’re also the worst, because now I have to re-plot the rest of the manuscript from scratch.
The Rap Sheet
Now that I recognize the inherent difficulty in writing middles, I’ve started intentionally leaving my outlines vague, because you just don’t know what’s going to happen once you start writing. Characters veer off in their own directions, plot points get moved up when the pace feels too slow—and to me, it’s better to let that stuff happen naturally and deal with the fallout than to stifle natural divergences in the story.
So I created the “rap sheet.” My rap sheet is essentially a list of potential mischievous deeds my characters can get into in the middle, but without an exact map. The rap sheet works great for me because I’m a big brainstormer—I get a rush of ideas at the beginning of a novel (sometimes to a degree that’s overwhelming, and makes it hard to craft a coherent outline), but the idea well dries up when I get to the middle. That’s when I start to feel like a hack. “Am I a real writer, even? Who do I think I am, writing books? I can’t even get past the halfway mark without losing all my creative steam!”
This is where the rap sheet takes over. Not sure what happens next? Take a quick glance at the rap sheet, and boom—some mischief for my unlucky hero to get into, to encounter, to conquer. It’s like throwing a new log on a fire that’s almost to coals—sets the whole thing ablaze again for another half hour, at least.
Duct-taping a Cracked Outline
It’s a waste of time to go back and rewrite an outline from scratch, just because the story waddled off the rails a bit—but I do like to change my headspace and drum up a fresh direction before going back to the keyboard.
For the holidays this year, I was gifted a really incredible pen. I know it sounds like a silly impetus for any kind of significant change in process—getting a pen—but this is a special pen. It’s a pink fountain pen. It’s a nice pink fountain pen. And I adore it.
The thing that this pen did for me? It gave me a really good reason to get off the computer.
Computers have made me an over-writer (someone who writes scenes too long, or draws out descriptions to the point of dull), because it’s so easy to do on a computer. I was taught to type at a very early age, and these days I can lob a 110 WPM in any given online typing test. So why not make up gaps in skill with sheer word count?
Well, because then your pace drops to zilch, your reader gets bored, and you’ll have to cut it all out again later anyway.
Going to pen-and-paper has been the single most effective change in my process. It’s not that I’ve started actually writing my manuscripts with my sweet pen in my sweet notebook; it’s that I’ve used it to take apart my broken outlines, ask myself the hard questions, and come up with ways to fix them, on a different medium than the rest of my work.
If you sat down and read my notebook, I’d probably sound a little unstable; the whole thing is just me talking to myself. “What about this thing?” it’ll say. “Did you consider such-and-such? No, that’s stupid, that won’t work, because of X, Y, and Z.” Line break, an ellipsis. Thinking. “Okay, how about this instead? Is this plausible? Yeah, I think that could work, if I do it like this.”
It sounds strange, but once I got into the flow of using my notebook like a fake person—like a brainstorming buddy, like a sounding board—it got easier to work through broken concepts and ideas that had at first sounded great, but now weren’t working so well. Usually by the end of a pen-and-paper session, I’ve got a new outline and another mini-rap sheet to get me through to the next hurdle.
I don’t know that I believe anymore that any writer can be purely a pantser or purely an outliner. They both offer advantages at different stages of the process.
Manuscripts are like kids, or dogs, or beasts of burden. Sometimes you have to rein them in, and sometimes you’ve got to let them run free.