Should vs. Would

So, I’ve mentioned a couple of times lately that I’ve been struggling with my first draft of Project Awesome. This struggle has been frustrating, and not just because it means the draft isn’t getting written as quickly as I’d like. It’s frustrating because I wrote an outline. A really detailed outline. I outlined the heck out of this novel.

I know exactly what I should write next. So why am I getting stuck?

It’s actually taken me three cycles of “stuck/unstuck” to figure this one out.

I’m getting stuck because my outline is wrong. It’s telling me to write things that I want and need the characters to do but which they just wouldn’t do.

Now, I know this is one of those big rules of writing – don’t force the characters into inauthentic actions just to serve the plot. I know this. But somehow I have still created an outline that is telling me to do that very thing.


I guess learning and doing are two different things, but since I was at least able to figure out the problem and fix it, I’m going to chalk this one up as a win.

Still, it’s frustrating, and I think it highlights some of the problems with relying too heavily on plotting (and, perhaps, on the rather artificial and somewhat dishonest division of writers into “pantser” and “plotter” camps). Of course, whether we favor outlines or free writing, we must all sometimes engage in both practices.

I’m usually kind of a control freak (which is probably why I favor outlining), but lately I’ve forced myself to diverge from the outline and just write, just see where my characters want to go – authentically and as themselves – in this rather sticky predicament I’ve created for them.

It’s rather liberating.

Go figure.

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!