Friday, July 3, 2015

Outlining vs Pantsing: Why choose just one?

Note: This post is late. I mean waaaaaay late. But it's also not the first time I've written it. I can only hope I'm half as coherent this time around as I was last time, because you can't see last time.

First, some quick definitions:

The process where a writer builds a framework for their story before they start writing. This can be done at the plot level, where the major points in the start, middle, and end (including a twist or two here and there) are predetermined. It can be done at the arc level, where major character and story elements are planned. And even at the scene level, where every scene is planned out from start to finish with it's own plot and arc covered.

Most outliners work at several points along that scale and at varying detail with each work. Some go heavy into their outline for specific scenes or characters, and leave side characters or less key scenes at a very high level.

There is a lot of preparation and pre-work with outlining before you even start writing the actual story. Some writers feel that outlining kills the story for them and makes them lose interest.

Writing by "the seat of your pants". This is the process where a writer has a vague but awesome story idea, character, setting, or theme they want to explore and they just go with it, discovering the story along with their characters.

Now, in the case of many pantsers that I've talked to, they often do have an idea of where the story will end before they start. But they don't always end up there.

I'm also told that pantsing often involves a fair bit of rewriting and editing, often to the point where more words are cut out of a work than are left in the finished product.

Well, now that that's out of the way.

There are plenty of blog posts, and articles, and books on the subject of Outlining/Plotting/Architecting and Pantsing/Discovery Writing/Growing stories and why one is better than the other. Or different systems for implementing each. And there are famous (and prolific) writers on each side.

With all the people I've talked to I've seen few things more fetishized in genre fiction writing circles than Plotting vs Pantsing (except maybe choice of writing software, alcohol, and the ever-present Mac vs PC).

Some people get downright tribal about it.

Which I find surprising, because a lot of the writers I spoke to seem to fall somewhere in the middle. Plotting and outlining very loosely, and discovering their way between points.

I mean, yes, that sounds like a high level outliner. But they're not rigid in what they've outlined. Instead of points on their outline being anchors to write between, they see them more as guideposts along the trail, and sometimes they'll go for a wander.

So where do I sit?

Ok, confession time: I'm all over the place with this one. If there's one point of my process that's a hot, gooey, moist, mess, this is it. This is the biggest pain point in my writing process.

I can't write without an outline. Not anything complex anyway. Vignettes and short stories for ideas, certainly, but not much more than that. So I definitely fall on the Outline side of the spectrum. I need my waypoints. When it comes to writing, I'm like one of those drivers who can't leave their driveway to go to the corner shop without putting it in their GPS first, even if they can see it from their driveway.

But on the same token, I'm not married to my outline. My finished story is never the same one that was in the original outline. It changes and mutates often, as I explore the characters, or spot problems, or get inspired by something that explodes the little synapses in my brain. I may need to turn my GPS on to go to the corner shop, but I don't necessarily have to follow it to get there. Sometimes my trip to the corner shop for a carton of milk ends up at the dairy halfway across town because they have ice cream!

I call this: Agile Outlining.

Now if only I was better at it.

If it's a problem that puts the brakes on, that can take hours, days, and sometimes even weeks of agonizing and brainstorming to sort out, and I'm paralyzed from pushing further on that story until I sort it out... because it may have ramifications.

You see, every time I run into one of those things that make my synapses go BANG, I have to see what it does. Start to finish I have to look at the setup and impacts, the foreshadowing and payoff. I'm not so bad that I have to go back and rewrite the things that beg, nay, the things that need to be rewritten. No! That way madness lies! I go back and make notes. Wonderfully detailed notes in the handy spot Scrivener gives me for them.

And all is write with the world. (Sorry, couldn't help myself there.)

Except that it isn't. These little (nuclear) blasting caps of story don't just happen once in the writing of a book. No. They're not that decent to me. They happen all the time, leaving me with more word count in notes than I often have in my finished manuscript.

Editing is its own kind of torture.

If you know of any way to help me along in this process, or can throw any tips or suggestions my way, please feel free to do so in the comments. Sadly, I'm a teetotaler, so, while I hear it does the trick for an alarming percentage of the writing community, alcohol won't be of much use.


This is the sixth entry in a series of posts about my evolving writing process.

Friday, June 12, 2015

A Glitch in the System

Note to self: Don't trust Blogger.

In an effort to be more consistent and reliable in updating my blog I wrote a "series of posts" about my writing process, where it's been, and where it's going. I had 3 more posts written up and scheduled to drop, but instead of posting them on their scheduled Fridays, Blogger appears to have eaten them instead.

Blogger... This is why we can't have nice things. And I hope my words tasted good... and give you indigestion... you monster!

So... I'm going to have to rewrite them. Which means there's a great big ugly gap in time in the middle of the series. For that I apologize, because regardless of Blogger eating them, I still should have been checking that they actually, you know, posted. Instead, I was getting into the groove and learning to (not) enjoy getting up at 5am every morning to write.

I'll try to have the next post, about Outlining vs Pantsing (which was, and likely will be, a doozy) up sometime soon, if my paying day job doesn't intercede on the Internet's behalf.


Friday, March 20, 2015

Plot: Where are we going and why are we in this hand-basket?

Now. I know some of you are pantsers and you're not interested in what I'm selling. But hold on! This isn't about outlining. This is about plot. It's not the same thing. I promise!

And please stop leaning on the door, you're breaking my foot!

Thank you.

A little bit of definition and context for how I'm using the word plot.

Plot vs Story
Look at the term "Plot Twist".

plot twist (noun)
An unexpected event or development in a book or movie.

...event or development... keep that in mind.

The Story is what you want to tell: A janitor on an interstellar cargo ship saves the galaxy from nefarious space hippos! The Plot is how you tell it. It's the details. The series of choices that allow our intrepid spaceship janitor to overcome those space hippos.

Woah! Stop right there. Put that down... Now step away from it...

I know "series of choices" makes it sound like an outline, and it can be part of an outline, but it's not the outline. Plots run through every story, and it doesn't matter whether you figure them out beforehand or afterward. I find defining the plots of my stories key in making them flow and keeping them (hopefully) entertaining.

You'll note that I keep saying choice instead of events. That's intentional. The character's choices should drive the events of the plot, not the other way around. It makes the story more compelling and raises tension.

Whether you're plotting through an outline process or you've just finished your first draft and you're sketching out the plot for the first revision, try to define each point as a choice. Every event doesn't have to be a choice, but you'll find the most gripping moments in any story come as a result of a character's choice.

The harder the choice, the better the tension. Choices with no good options are best. The character needs stakes, therefore the character's choices need stakes, therefore the plot needs stakes. If you don't have stakes, you are screwed when the vampires come around. Oh, and your story will be boring.

With that in mind, it's time for me to wind up some of the outliners.

A personal hard and fast rule: Never let the plot dictate the character's actions. I don't care if I've plotted something within the outline with a really cool payoff, if the character wouldn't make that choice, that plot point is broken. I've re-outlined my current book twice already to fix broken plot points.

The plot (and in this case the outline), can be changed without changing the story. Don't shoehorn the character's choices and actions to fit it. You'll blow readers out of the story and ruin a perfectly good character's credibility.

So, beyond framing plot points as choices, how do I keep them interesting? By having consequences. There's a pretty cool new technology standard coming out that's based on a very old concept. If This Then That. Basically, you set up a series of conditions, and when met, something else is done.

It's a great concept to build consequences around for the choices that make up your plot. Always know the consequences to any choice, even if it's a small one. Whether you call them out in the story or not, it's key that you know they're there. Those unseen consequences can potentially lead to other choices/plot points.

They're one of the coolest toys in the writer's toolbox.

From something as little as a space janitor double-knotting his shoe laces: He may need to take his shoes off in a hurry later to get into an EV suit. Does he cut them or untie them? If he cuts them, what does that mean for when he needs to put his shoes back on later?

To something as large as the major story resolution: Does our space janitor turned impromptu hero release an untested genetically engineered pacifying agent for the space hippos that could save the galaxy? What if it doesn't work? What if it does? What are the side effects?

The consequences of both of those choices can lead to all sorts of further plot elements if you examine them far enough.

Oh. And the choices don't always have to work out. In fact, some of the best choices are the ones that fail spectacularly with the word "but". "But" always adds conflict, and conflict is good. And you can still have your character's deal with the consequences of having made a choice, and the resulting outcome, whether it's from their choice or not.

Our hero space janitor orders a secret release of the engineered pacifying virus, but it doesn't work as intended. Instead of pacifying all of the space hippos, it only has any effect on 3% of their population, and instead of making them docile and non-combative, it enrages them against their own kind sparking a small civil war.

Being the heroic sort, our space janitor sees an opportunity to help the warring space hippos with their incredibly aggressive minority and in doing so he negotiates peace. He's averted a war between his own people and the space hippos, but he's ultimately directly responsible for the death of 3% of the space hippo population. Even if they don't know it (yet), he does, and he has to live with that knowledge. So do his crew-mates, who will never look at him the same again.

See. A simple "but" put in there unleashed a whole LOT of potential plot and conflict.

Trimming the Cruft
Unfortunately, plot can be where a lot of unnecessary stuff and scenes get introduced to the story. This where "Kill your darlings." can readily apply. I know it does for me.

If a scene is there to further the plot, either highlighting a choice or a consequence, but it doesn't actually have anything directly related to the story or growth of a character, odds are, it can go. Figuring out which plot points those are, and whether they're key to your primary or secondary plots is one of the hardest things for me to do.

I've found a good exercise is to write out the "synopsis lines" for each scene. As much as I hate writing a synopsis, those 1 or 2 lines describing what happens in the scene with relation to the story are pure cruft killing gold.

If it's not advancing the story or integral to a character's development, it can go. No matter how cool it is, it can go. Even if it's the scene that triggered the entire concept of the story, if it's not moving the story or characters forward... it... can... go.

Let me know what tips you have for plotting, or your thoughts on any of my definitions or methods in the comments.


This is the fifth entry in a series of posts about my evolving writing process.