While there are a thousands shades of writing processes, from researchers to outliners to storyboarders to free ballers, the fundamentals can be narrowed down to two–plotter vs. pantser.
You maybe be familiar with these terms, but if not, the meaning can be easily discerned. Plotters plot and pansters fly by the seat of their pants. I have done both in many genres of writing, including both fiction and nonfiction, and let me tell you–I will never be a pantser.
Make no mistake, this is not a judgement against authors with alternative writing styles from my own. Every writer will approach every story differently and we benefit from such myriad of styles, voices, skills and perspectives. This post simply delves into why plotting works for me.
Words That Count
As I have addressed in previous posts, I am an overwriter. I can eat up word count easily and jot off first drafts with little fanfare, leaving the real challenge for the editor version of myself, when I have to get to the nitty gritty of discerning the good words from the fluff.
This particular skill can be quite useful or quite a lot of extra work. If I have the roadmap for my story, a knowledge of even the most basic direction the manuscript is supposed to head, I can utilize my word count goals for good. If I don’t have a destination in mind, the next scene or element of character development, I can still write two or four thousand words, it’s just going to be a lot of fluff, wasted space and wasted time. Organizing a plot outline, even if it changes, which is might and it has, saves me time on both ends.
I keep trying to write standalone books, but the truth is that series are a lot easier to write–the setting and characters are established and stories two, three and four tend to come naturally from story one. The problem is that I often reach story four and forget some of the details at the beginning of the series. In fact, with the length of time it might take to write a book, I have forgotten major plot points or the order of story elements.
Knowing I have an outline to return to gives me a safety net to continue writing deeper into the series without worrying over the specifics. It streamlines the process and everything after book one runs much more smoothly.
These are arguably some of the hardest elements of a story to write. Condensing a 50,000 or 80,000 word book into less than a page or one hundred words routinely proves itself a remarkable challenge. With an outline, the book is already down to its most skeletal form, a bare bones version of the beast. Looking to that highlights the most important elements of the plot and character development and makes the narrowing down process a lot less intimidating.
Note To Self
Stories don’t show up in order. Though I’ve never been a writer who skipped scenes or wrote backyards–not out of some disapproval of the process, it’s just never been part of mine–elements still come before their time. It could be a major breakthrough in the plot or a simple line of dialogue between two characters in the final scene, but having an outline gives me a place to put my notes so they’re safe and accessible and I know I’ll find them later. A simple note at the end of the outline might make all the difference in my book.
Keeping it Straight
Writing is kind of a messy process, and I’m often working on several books or series at the same time. Outlines and storyboards are a really simple way for me to get back into the headspace of one book over another, especially if I have to switch between genres. I might go a week or so before working on the next scene in one book because of a deadline on another, and going back to my outline as a reference provides a compass for navigating all these different stories.
The honest to God truth is that pantsing scares me. I have bulletins boards, whiteboards, notebooks and Google docs of story preparation and development, much of which comes before any writing begins on the book. I have gone into one book without an outline and though I believe it turned out well, looking back I recognize many places where an outline would have benefited the characters and me as the writer. Going into a story without preparation feels like jumping off the edge of a cliff without a parachute and hoping I land in a pillow factory. But that’s just me.
Every writer brings their own process to each book. And it will vary from book to book, editor to editor. That’s just how the writing process works. The trick is simply to accept what your book is telling you and work from there. Because the book will tell you. It might come naturally or it might demand sacrifice, it might flow as planned or hit a bump in the road. The nice thing about an outline is that it’s not set in stone, but it moves with the tide of the story, like sails in wind.
So, whether you’re a pantser or a plotter, point your book where you think the story’s headed and see where the winds and waters take you. If you learn a few tricks along the way, share them. After all, no matter how much planning and preparation an author does, we can still only move forward on the book one wave at a time. ♦