Release the hounds!

I’ve been writing casually since 2004 and seriously since 2009.  In that time, I’ve written three novels (plus some short stories).  The first novel is a shiny mess I’ve relegated to the filing cabinet, the second is finished (well, except that I can’t stop tweaking it) and I’m shopping it, and the third is on its second round of revisions.  Pretty much the only thing these three books have in common is the fact that when I first sat down and wrote the initial drafts I did very little organized planning.

Oh, I’d worked out the basics of the plot and done some character development and so on and so forth.  But, in essence, I took a deep breath, dove in, and let the story unfold.  Basically, I pantsed the first draft of each novel.  As a result, each came out in fits and starts, with lots of backtracking and reworking, and plenty of “oh, I should do THIS” going on.  For the second draft of each novel I had to knuckle down, rip the first draft into the birdcage fodder it was, and more or less re-plot the entire thing.  It was fine.  I’m happy (more or less) with where each novel has ended up.  But maybe, just maybe, it was time to try something new.

So I’ve spent the last 8 months doing exactly that.

Yesterday was the dawn of a new era.  I sat down to begin drafting my fourth novel, a novel I had (wait for it) plotted, outlined, world-built, and character developed in detail, in advance.  In fact, for the better part of a year I’ve been working on the ideas, places, conceit, and characters behind this novel.

Did it make a difference?  So far the answer is a resounding YES.

Sitting down to finally start writing was like opening the kennel door and letting a pack of vicious, feral dogs who’d been fed nothing but blood loose on the page.  To borrow a rather crude phrase, they tore that shit up.  I didn’t have to write a sentence, sit there, scratch my head, ask “how would the protagonist react to this?”, scratch my head some more, and then write another sentence.  Instead, the words were flowing.  I knew exactly what the protagonist would do.  Her voice has been battering around inside my head, growing louder and louder, for months now.  I could close my eyes and see every detail of her surroundings and every nuance of her supporting characters’ thoughts and actions.  I knew where she was going, what she was doing, and (most importantly) why.

It was, in a word, awesome.

There were still surprises.  Of course there were.  My fingers still lay down words I wasn’t expecting to write and I still encountered scenes where I had to go back and revise because what I’d written was taking the characters in the wrong direction.  Even with a good outline, it’s still writing and it’s still hard.  Nevertheless, the difference was substantive and satisfying.

So, I may have become a come-to-Jesus plotter.  We’ll see how it goes in the long haul, but for now I have to say that putting in all that development work upfront has given the first chapter of the first draft significantly more richness and complexity than any other first chapter first draft I’ve ever written.  I’m hoping that, down the line, it will also mean fewer major overhauls of the plot.  Only time (and my outline) will tell.

So that’s my testimonial as a born-again plotter.  How about the rest of you?  Any experience switching from pantsing to plotting, or vice versa?  Share your thoughts in the comments!

4 thoughts on “Release the hounds!

  1. AdamBob

    I’m glad this worked! I find plotting helps me stay focused too. My problem with it though, is when I go into too much detail in plot notes. My motivation to actually write the story down drops off.
    It’s kind of like Hitchcock getting bored during filming because he’d already seen the whole thing in his head. I’m no Hitchcock, but I relate to the problem.
    Now I have to limit myself & know when I’m too far out in the tall grass.

  2. ken davis (@kencdavis)

    I made a very similar switch myself this year, after having written four novels with a mostly discovery approach. The main issue that prompted it for me was the rewriting: the massive, massive amount of rewrites that I was doing. Tear it all apart, put it all back together, junk half of it, add in new plot layers and characters, etc. It wasn’t that I begrudged the work itself – but rather I realized that the problems were stemming from losing sight of my basic storytelling during the first draft. The narrative, the characters, the warp and woof of the plot layers, the arc of conflict throughout – it was difficult for me to give those elements their fair due while I was also doing the initial drafting.

    So this year, I spent a few solid months just working out the story to my new novel, start to finish. The issues, the details, the background, the character arcs, the plot – I worked hard at not letting myself off the hook on any of it, not glossing over of the details, making sure that it all held together. I found it creatively satisfying, and when I finally started the actual first draft (I’m about 60K words in now), it’s been flowing so much better than any novel I’ve written before. Not just that, but I have to say that I think my writing has hit a new level altogether. Biggest surprise: I enjoy the drafting SO MUCH MORE than I had before, and it’s because I don’t have that anxiety of not being certain where it’s going, and can focus more creative energy into adding the life to the scenes, into making the prose more resonant. And, yes, there is still a very organic element to it, because new ideas and insights are developing as I write, taking the story further than even my outline has suggested.

    One other thing that helped was that I switched over to using Scrivener during the rewrites of my last novel, and it’s so much more suited to this kind of outlining/planning/drafting process than Word or Pages could ever be (and I used both of those for years and years).

    1. mirandasuri

      Ken,

      Thanks for sharing your experiences. It’s encouraging to hear that putting in the labor required to really outline and prepare in advance has paid off for you (especially since it sounds like you’re much further down the line on your draft than I am).

      So far (and I haven’t gotten too far yet, so I can’t say this with 100% confidence) I totally agree about enjoying the drafting process a great deal more when you’ve outlined.

      Keep me posted on how things go!

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