In the open floor last week, a thread developed on how to tell if that idea you have is a story or a kumquat. There was discussion about how to develop the idea, writing, etc. I want to thank everyone who commented and talked about their process. One thing became clear reading the thread, everyone writes differently and that’s the important thing to remember. Too often, writers (especially new writers) feel like they’re doing something wrong because their process isn’t the same as others they talk with or study. So here is probably the most important rule you can ever learn in writing: quit worrying about how someone else creates and do what works for you.
This is a lesson Sarah and Kate brought home to me in the early days of my career. We were talking one day and I was lamenting how I had this story idea and I couldn’t get it out of my head. But I also couldn’t manage to get an outline written. So that had to mean it wasn’t really a story idea, right? It was my subconscious telling me to move on to something else.
Sarah shook her head and Kate laughed a touch hysterically. Then they looked at one another and one of them nodded. It was time to school the new writer into the dangers of reading all those “how-to” books and believing they were the only ways to create.
They explained to me there are basically three types of writers: the plotter, the pantser and the hybrid of the two. Then they went on to explain how they work.
The reason Kate laughed a touch hysterically is because she’s a pantser. She sits down at the keyboard and waits. The story comes to her and she is merely the vessel for her muse. Oh, she might have an idea about where the story is going but there’s not outline and certainly no detailed notes about the plot. She writes it as it comes to her.
And she is damned good at it. Damned good.
Sarah is a plotter. Oh, not to the degree of someone like Dave Drake who, from what I understand, writes a very detailed draft. But she will write out notes on a project. That may be a quick outline before she gets started or notes for the next three chapters at the end of her writing day. But she gives herself a road map of sorts.
There are strengths and weaknesses to all three approaches. The strength of being a pantser is you can follow the muse. You aren’t going to find yourself fighting her when she suddenly decides to take the plot off in a direction you didn’t anticipate. The weakness is panters are often close to stream-of-consciousness writers. You write what comes and, if you aren’t a good structural editor (or have on you work with), you can leave plot points hanging or have contradictions you wouldn’t necessarily have if you had an outline. But, if you are a vivid visualizer as you write, your descriptions can fly because you aren’t worried about making sure you hit all the points in your outline.
Being an outliner means you have a road map for your story. You know what your characters are going to do and where they are going to do it. You see the flow of the story and know the main plot points and the sub-plots you want to develop. Outliners might have a line or two, or more, for each chapter. Others might just write a detailed synopsis of the story. I’ve seen a two page “outline” for an 80k word manuscript and I’ve seen a 30k word “outline” where every scene had been described in detail.
The problem some writers have when they outline in any detail is that once the outline is finished, they don’t want to write the book. Why? Because they feel they already have. (Been there, done that.) If they wrote a very detailed outline, they basically have. Oh, the dialog might not be there and some setting development might be needed but all the “guts” of the book have been written. In those few instances where I’ve worked from that sort of an outline, the only thing I’ve been able to do when that feeling hit was walk away for a month or two–or more–and then come back to the story. Then it was either toss out the outline (not really, but I didn’t look at it as I wrote) or look at it as a very rough draft in need of heaving rewrites.
Then there’s the hybrid writer. The one who does a little bit of outlining and a little bit of pantsing. If I had to choose which category I fall into, it would be this. I tend to make a page of notes, usually longhand, before starting a new story. Think of it as an expanded blurb. Those few paragraphs hit the main plot arc and possibly the sub-plots I want to include. Once that’s done, I tend to sit down and start writing. Several times during the writing process, I’ll usually stop and “outline” the next few chapters. This usually happens when I’m having a problem moving forward. As with my preliminary notes, this is usually done with pen and paper. There’s something about going old-school that sparks my creative juices.
However–and this is important to note–that process changes. Sometimes it changes from one project to another. Sometimes it changes after several books. It depends on what I’m writing. A new book, set in a “universe” I haven’t written in before (or in a long time) usually means more notes than one I’m currently very familiar with. Those notes might not all be plot-related. In fact, a lot of my outline notes have to deal with setting, character development, etc.
So here’s what it all boils down to. Find a process that works for you and don’t freak out when that process changes from one project to another. And remember, what works for one writer might not work for you. There is no one true way except for the one that works for you.