Hi everyone! As I've been working on my latest novel, I've been thinking a lot about being an outliner (someone who plans the novel ahead of time) versus a pantster (someone who makes it up as they go along, aka by the seat of their pants). I've always been a pantster, but in my recent attempt to become more efficient in my writing, I've been wondering if outlining can improve my productivity.
On the one hand, I enjoy the spontaneous nature of making things up as I go along, letting my characters constantly surprise me on the page. But for me, that means a lot of meandering as I tell the story. I'm starting to feel like that might not be the most efficient use of my writing time.
I think that outlining has always reminded my of school - with it's organized system of numbers and letters. While I actually like the inherent structure of an outline in some areas of life, in my fiction writing, having to know what happens next in a story intimidates me. I generally don't know the exact details of what my characters are going to do, and I only have a very vague idea of the ending of my story beyond "happily ever after". How I will get to that point is a mystery.
So I recently tried a very loose outline of my current work-in-progress. I took each character and wrote an overall arc for their individual growth and for the overall story growth. Then I wrote one or two phrases for the next 10 chapters or so and what direction I thought the story would take. My very first (and very loose) outline!
So how's it going? Well, I pretty much stuck to the plan for the first four chapters or so, but then, a fight broke out (literally) between a few of my characters that I didn't see coming! Luckily, since my outline was so loose, I just updated it to deal with the consequences of the new plot twist. I kept the original outline as well to help me remember how I thought things were going to happen, so I can attempt to get back to those points somewhere along the way.
Despite the changes, I found the outline was still helpful. I think part of this was because I didn't spend a lot of time on my outline. I know that some people spend almost as much time on their outline as they do on their novel, and that works great for them. But for me, the fluidity of my outline gives me more of the freedom I desire. If I had spent days or weeks on my outline, then I'd feel too attached to its trajectory and not willing to veer from the course.
So am I an outliner now? I'm sure that to a lot of outliners out there, the answer would be no - I didn't even stick to the basic one I had. But I am seeing some of the benefits already of having a semi-plan in my writing. It is helpful when I see where I left off each day, and then be able to look at my notes and say "okay, now for this chapter I write where X finds out Y". It gives me a sense of direction so I don't waste as much of my precious writing time; but it still leaves me lots of room for the characters to take over.
So what does all of this mean? Maybe it's an encouragement for those who don't outline to try it even in the loosest form. It doesn't have to be the kind of outlines we learned in high school - I give you permission to break the rules! Or maybe for those of you that are strict outliners, try mixing it up a bit by writing some unplanned chapters. While I know we all have systems that seem to work best for us, challenging ourselves in our craft will always lead to more inventive and creative work.
Would you like to join our summer writing and reading challenge? My group has been making great progress and saying that accountability really helps! Read the details of the challenge here and let's see what we can accomplish together this summer!
Take care, McCourt