The best-laid plans of mice and writers

Just want to mention before I start how much better and better the help keeps getting that writers have been offering one another here. Such a pleasure for me to read. Kudos to you all!

This is a continuation of the last post. Here’s a rerun of the question: On May 18, 2016, Lady Laisa wrote, I cannot finish anything I start writing. I know lots of people have asked about this and many many authors have made blog posts and books written from both sides of the plotter/pantser perspective, but my trouble is that I am neither. I am smack dab in the middle, and I cannot seem to get out.

See, in one way I’m a plotter. I can’t write if I don’t know very well where I’m going. (Kind of like my dad on a trip. If he doesn’t have a very, very good idea where he’s going, he won’t go–unlike my mum who doesn’t mind wandering around a bit.) I need to know my destination and how to get there, or I cannot start out.

On the other hand, I find plotting tedious. I will plot out my story until I hate it so much I would rather take a weed whacker to it than a pen. I may write for a while, but the loathing intensifies until I sometimes literally hurl the manuscript at the wall. I then crumple it into an envelope and leave it to molder in my closet for years. Sometimes I’ll pull it out (not often) and take a peek, and then get excited about it and write on it for a little while, but then I get drained all over again, and try instead to work on a less taxing story.

This has been going on for roughly six and a half years, and it just gets worse over time. I have about three hundred loose stories, all at various stages of completion, (I even have a whole first draft! But it is so hideous it turns my stomach to even look at it) floating around in the abyss of my closet.

Does anyone have any tips for how to write a story without knowing the plot in advance or how to outline a story without becoming desperately bored?

What followed was an exchange with Christie Valentine Powell, which I didn’t post last time. Here it is now:

Christie Valentine Powell: Does it need to be a specific outline? Many “plotters” I’ve talked to have a rough idea, maybe up to a page, of where things are going, but not a precise blow-by-blow description. I’ll have the story broken down into big sections, but without a ton of detail. That way I know where I’m going but I’ve still got room to play (like giving yourself extra time on the vacation for exploring new places).

Another thought: I’ve heard of the Snowflake method, a type of plotting that works for some people. You might give it a try.

Lady Laisa: I don’t know if I’ve tried your way yet. I have tried a very vague outline, just two or three paragraphs to explain the basic “shell” of the story, if you will, but that wasn’t enough detail. I didn’t know what my character’s short term goals were when I did that, and goals are, I’ve found to my dismay, a VERY big part of a character. I just have a really, REALLY hard time figuring goals out (if anyone has anything to say about character goals I would like very much to hear it).

So when you say that you have your story broken down into sections what do you mean? Like “Part One: The Journey;” “Part Two: The Betrayal;” “Part Three: The Final Solution” sort of thing? I’ve never really tried that, but I could see how it might work.

I do like having elbow room to give some room to spontaneity. Tolkien himself had no idea that Strider, when he wrote him into the scene at the Prancing Pony, would end up being such a pivotal character.

But if I have too much elbow room the plotless expanse stretches before me like an open prairie, and I feel like a rabbit trying to reach his warren and knowing full well that at any moment a hawk might swoop from the sky to devour him.

Christie Valentine Powell: I have somewhere between five and ten sections. The book I just finished (er… mostly) is a quest, so it included different geographical regions. The next one I’ve outlined are more story-related (something like this: Exciting Opening, World Building, Character Building, Betrayal, MC character growth, Exciting Climax, Resolution). I’ll have a few bullet points under each of things I think I should cover. When I’m writing and getting closer, sometimes I’ll stop and plot out the next section more clearly–either on paper or in my head: “Okay, this is the Hanan region section. I’m going to start with the characters sneaking into the city, then they’ll meet some humans who tell them how to find the heir. How can I do that in an interesting way?”

With goals, I think it might depend on your story type. For my quest story, it was pretty easy. For most of the book, the driving goal is trying to find the true heir (although the very beginning and very end have different ones). For my first book it was harder and changed more, and I feel like it’s not quite as good because of it. I imagine a more realistic or character-driven story would be less cut-and-dry–which honestly is one reason I haven’t been able to write that kind of story.

Trying to outline is tedious for me, too. In fact, I just googled the snowflake method that Christie Valentine Powell mentioned, and I got so bored reading about it that I fled the site before finishing. However, the method may work for you, so check it out. When I outline, I always long to start writing scenes. I have a short outline for the novel I’m working on now, but I rarely look at it and rarely change it based on what’s happened in the writing.

I do often use fairy tales as the taking-off point of my plot, and they help me find my direction. Usually, it’s the flaws in the tale that shape my story. In the original “Cinderella,” for example, the eponymous heroine is passive; evil is done to her, and good is done to her. She doesn’t do much except what she’s told. So, I wonder, who is she? Why is she so obedient? Why doesn’t she strangle her step family, or at least ignore them? I get to work to figure out why. The answers shape my plot.

That’s one strategy: use a known and problematic story. Yours can be a fairy tale, too. Or a myth. Or a story in the news that seems incomplete. How was that bank chosen as the robbery target? Why that museum? Or, how did the art forger get her start? (If we’re going to do this, we probably want to invent our answers–although research can help us frame more questions.) Moments in history that seem inexplicable can generate ideas. We’re likely to find character goals when we start interrogating our story.

I agree with Christie Valentine Powell that the quest is a great plot shape for seeing one’s way through. I love when I can frame my story as a quest. But the quest sometimes needs to be set up. Ella’s quest doesn’t start until after her mother dies, because she’s protected until then. In The Two Princesses of Bamarre, Addie’s doesn’t start until Meryl gets sick. In The Wish, Wilma’s doesn’t start until she finds out her wish won’t last forever. However, Aza’s in Fairest is with her in the beginning, but changes later on.

Before the quest in Two Princesses gets going, Addie has different objectives, which vary from scene to scene. Then the objectives narrow when Addie tries to save her sister, but still, some scenes call forth another response. In Fairest, Aza wants to be pretty or at least not ugly. That’s her character’s goal. If she achieves that or conclusively fails to, her character arc will be resolved, or so we think. But the story has other ideas, and the solution is different.

I’m suspicious of the idea that we have to think up our characters’ goals ahead of time, before we start a book or write a scene–at least for us pantsers or partial pantsers. A few years ago, I used a car service to go to a kids’ book event. It was late at night, and the driver hit a deer, which caused a pretty big jolt. If I had been plotting the scene in advance, I would have given myself, the caring person I believe myself to be, the first objective of making sure I was okay, then the driver, the car, the deer–the important stuff. Actually, my first goal turned out to be making sure my laptop was intact (granted, it was obvious to me that I was still alive). The driver (uninjured) was impressed with how cool and unworried I was. Sure–my laptop hadn’t been damaged. Not really cool. My priorities were haywire.

The funny part is that I used the car service because I hate long distance driving, especially at night, and I realized that if I had driven I would have been miserable but I (probably) wouldn’t have totaled a car, injured or killed a deer, endangered any human or laptop–because I would have made the trip during the day, when most deer are snoozing.

When I planned out the trip, the real-life equivalent of outlining, I didn’t expect deer accidents. I didn’t pack human or vet first-aid supplies.

Let’s imagine a chase scene. Our MC is pursuing the major villain through a forest, desperate to catch him. He’s armed and more familiar with this place than she is, but she’s more fleet. She’s focused on what’s about to transpire. We, the pantser writer, are thinking along the same lines, but something pops into our head and we act on it. Birdsong penetrates our MC’s concentration–not any birdsong, the distinctive call of the elusive purple nightingale, which hasn’t been heard since her grandmother’s time. Without thinking, her feet slow.

(Either the reader already knows that in peacetime our MC is an avid bird watcher, or we jump back fifty pages to slip that info in.)

In that foot-dragging moment, her body has one objective and her brain another. We can go a lot of ways from here. She can goad herself even more and take after the villain again. She can stop to enjoy the bird, justifying the delay according to her character. The villain can hear it, too, and also be entranced. Or he can realize she’s stopped and use her slowness to his advantage. Or any other possibility we may come up with.

If I were a committed, happy outliner, I probably would have built this surprise into my outline. I would made the delightful bird discovery earlier in the process and would have had fun figuring out the repercussions.

In my opinion, pantser or outliner, the complexity of the bird improves the story, even if it complicates the goals. And we are likely to learn something about our characters from the surprise. Maybe our MC realizes how important wildlife is to her and how it needs to be part of her plan to save the kingdom. Or maybe she discovers something about her villain that will help her–or vice versa!

Regarding me and my laptop and the late-night accident, I was forced to see how intrinsic writing is to me. My work was backed up. If my laptop had been destroyed I would have lost no more than a few new pages and, possibly, some money, but I reacted as if much more had been at stake.

I hope this is good news for those of us who worry about advance planning. Whether we’re pantsers or outliners, we can’t expect total control of our stories or ourselves. We can go with the flow. I don’t know what my characters are going to do or want until I get into the moment. Something may crop up that I haven’t seen coming, and that’s what keeps the writing un-tedious.

My mantra these days seems to be Relax. Don’t sweat. No worries., which, if repeated at fifteen-minute intervals all the way through a story, may be the key to finishing. Near the beginning of the writing, when we’re either outlining or writing notes and lists (my method), or writing the first few scenes and getting to know our major characters, we can speculate about what might be a satisfying (not necessarily happy) resolution. The answer can be vague: come into herself as a leader; be loved; be safe; find the treasure; rescue somebody. We don’t have to know how the resolution can be achieved. Then we can let our subconscious work for us. While we’re writing scenes, it will keep an eye on the goal, and–I really believe this–create a path to get us there.

I don’t mean this is easy. With my Stolen Magic I had to swim upstream and downstream and start again three times for over four years. But I did get there, and I guess I did my flailing about in the spirit of exploration.

Here are three prompts:

∙ Lady Laisa asked Christie Valentine Powell about sections in rough outlining, so let’s use the first two of hers and two more of mine: “Part One: The Journey;” “Part Two: The Betrayal;” “Part Three: The Accommodation;” and “Part Four: The Terminus.” Use these suggestive headings as a bare-bones outline for your story.

∙ Write the above chase scene with the birdsong.

∙ Cinderella’s fairy godmother from the original tale arrives to help Cinderella go to the ball. Just as she’s about to wave her wand, have someone else come in. You decide who and write the scene.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Plan or pants?

Before I start the main post, I’m re-posting part of a question capng asked in comments on the last post: I’m worried that if one of the minority characters dies, readers will read too much into it – I’ve seen enough criticism on the internet because of things like that.

Yesterday I wrote this and I don’t want it to get lost, because people have stopped checking and it’s important: I don’t think we should pay much attention to what we read online about what’s good or bad in writing. We don’t know the person who said whatever it was or what his motive was–or how good a writer he is! I don’t know any rule about killing off or not killing off minor characters. It depends, as it always does, on how it’s done and how the death fits into the plot. One of the things I adore about this blog is how positive and encouraging we all are.

On to the post.

On April 17, 2015, Hypergraphia wrote, I know, Ms. Levine, you said you didn’t outline. However, I know of many famous authors who swear by it. What about you guys (other readers of this fabulous blog)? Do you find it easier to finish a story with or without an outline? Does it make your story better? I hadn’t outlined until I read all these things saying it was much better if you did outline, but I’m not sure if it’s going to work for me, so I was just wondering what you guys thought.

Kaye M. repeated the question: I’m reading WRITER TO WRITER now, and I’m curious to hear what Mrs. Levine thinks about the benefits of pantsing over plotting. I’ve always outlined because I have friends that outline religiously, but sometimes, especially if it’s raw in my head and not a revision, I feel like I’m bleeding out my enthusiasm for the story and trying to commit the colorless remains to paper. Other times, I try to get by without it and I realize that there are parts missing or I worry about my stakes being high enough. Does this mean I should try pantsing?

People kindly weighed in.

Tracey Dyck: It all depends on the writer. I know of excellent writers who outline (extensively or sparsely), and also excellent writers who “pants” everything (meaning they make the story up as they go along). Both kinds of writers are equally capable of pulling off AMAZING books.

I myself tend to fall into the outliner’s camp, but I don’t plan so thoroughly that I know everything that will happen. I like to leave some room for creativity. My outlines are never set in stone. For shorter projects, I plan much less and end up halfway pantsing it, but for the 4-book series I’m working on… let’s just say I would be entirely lost without my outlines! So I guess it depends on the project as well as the writer.

Song4myKing: I agree with Tracey that it’s different for different writers. That seems to be the way with any art.

I outline. I find I have to know that there is a possible way to reach a good ending before I can actually begin writing. Basically, I figure out and write down what the main plot points will be, and I have in my head at least some idea how I’ll get from one to the next. Sometimes this takes the form of possible chapter titles or a rough timeline.

I do go through a bit of a (very unorganized) process in my head before I can figure out an outline. I compose scenes and try out various directions that I then keep or kick out. I wonder if those of you who don’t use an outline do a bit of that same processing while actually writing?

carpelibris: I’m a pantser. I’ve tried to outline, but it quickly goes astray.

From what I’ve heard and read, a lot of my favorite writers are pantsers too. I wonder if that’s common?

This subject fascinates me! I’m always interested in better ways to write, and I love to hear what other writers’ processes are. I want to know what people do to get past the bumps that trip me up.

We may not have free will when it comes to outlining versus pantsing versus falling somewhere in the middle. Our method may choose us. I’m like carpelibris. I’ve tried to outline. I’ve asked writer friends to explain their outlining procedure. I’ve listened, nodded, even taken notes. But when I try to follow their example, I get confused and bored. I itch to try my ideas out in scenes. On the rare occasions when I have managed to work up an outline, I inevitably and quickly discover that I forgot some major factor that unhinges it, and I veer off into uncharted, pantsy territory.

However, I’m not a total pantser. Even without outlining, I’m happiest if I’ve got a notion of my story before I start writing, and I like having an end in mind, although it may change when I get there. It’s possible that I retell fairy tales because they give me a sketchy outline, and they’re generally pretty simple, so I can embroider and go in fresh directions while still sticking to the original story shape.

I’m delighted to announce that I finished the first draft of the prequel to The Two Princesses of Bamarre, which took me only about nine months. Contrast that with four-and-a-half years for Stolen Magic. The difference is that I imagined the prequel as Rapunzel meets Moses (just part of the story of Moses) while I made Stolen Magic up from scratch–and got lost and made a few very foolish story choices.

It’s possible that some genres lend themselves more to outlining than pantsing, and the mystery, which Stolen Magic is, might be one of them. I’m speculating here, but a mystery, or a complicated one anyway, calls for more moving parts than, say, one of my adventure fairy tales. In a mystery we have to figure out the movements of not only the villain but also the suspects and the victim. Everyone has secrets, and we have to get interested in them all. It’s complicated. Maybe an outline, like Hansel and Gretel’s breadcrumbs, can more easily be followed to reach an ending.

And conceivably a simpler plot works better for a pantser. Take “Sleeping Beauty,” for example. Nothing to it. The pantser has only a few plot points she has to hit, which gives her a sense of security. She has to get the fairies to the christening, but she can have a grand time bringing them there and delving into what’s going on with any and all of them beforehand. At the ceremony, she can have a field day with the dialogue. When Sleeping Beauty sleeps, what dreams does she have? Who is the prince and why does he take on this quixotic quest? And on and on.

I’m with Tracey Dyck in that I, too, doubt that whether one outlines or pantses influences the quality of a book. Quality comes from word choice, plot, characters–all the elements we go into here.

Kaye M. asks if it’s better to pants or to plot, but everybody has to plot. The difference is plotting ahead of time versus plotting as you go.

I agree with Song4myKing that outlining for outliners is a lot like writing for pantsers: exploration, uncertainty, experimentation.

Each method has difficulties. Years ago, I listened to some classes taught by Brandon Sanderson at Brigham Young University that had been taped and made available for free online, which some of you may find interesting. I did! Here’s the link: He discussed differences between pantsers and outliners, and I think he said he falls mostly into the outliners’ camp. The difference that I remember is that he said that pantsers love to revise and outliners do not. Wow! Revising is my favorite part of writing. What outliners love, if I remember right, is plotting, and plotting makes my head want to explode, though I do it, and I happen to be a plot-driven writer (rather than character-driven).

A while back, I had a conversation with the young-adult writer Walter Dean Myers on the subject. I’ve mentioned this before, because it astonished me so much. He was (he died last year) an outliner and as far out on the spectrum as possible. He told me that by the time he finished an outline, he knew how many sheets of paper to put in his printer for his draft, and he knew exactly how many pages would be in each chapter. I concluded that he and I had grown up on different planets. He wrote a book about his method, Just Write: Here’s How! I read it, and was glad to have someone else’s method mapped out for me, although I continue to stumble along. You may find it useful.

Whether outlining or pantsing are better for finishing stories, I’m not sure. Pantsers have written here that their stories peter out into tangles and loose ends. Outliners have commented about getting bored. Outliners may need to blow up their plans a little to get excited again, and we pantsers may benefit from imposing order on the chaos we make.

I can’t recommend this from personal experience, because I’ve never tried it, but I’ve heard from other writers that it’s helpful. I’m talking about Scrivener, described by Wikipedia as a word processing and outlining program for writers. Scrivener isn’t free, but if you’re comfortable with technology, you can download a similar public (free) program. Does anyone on the blog use Scrivener or anything similar? What do you think?

In these two prompts I may be setting you up for failure by asking you to go against your usual method and maybe against your nature. If you’re enjoying your story but the process keeps getting in your way, abandon it. But first give it your best shot. Here are the prompts:

∙ This can be realism or fantasy: A young man is walking along a cliff with a friend when he falls off. His death is the basis for your mystery story. If you’re a pantser, write an outline for the whole tale and then write the first scene. See if you can stick to your outline. If you’re an outliner, don’t outline, just pants the first scene, although you are allowed to think ahead about how the story might end, but you may not write anything down. If you’re inspired, keep going.

∙ Write a prequel to “Snow White,” that ends with her stepmother ascending to the throne. If you’re an outliner, don’t. If you’re a pantser, do.

Have fun, and save what you write!