Sunday, July 15, 2018

Double, Double Toil & Trouble - #4 Outlining


There's a great debate among writers regarding which is the better method of writing, being a pantser or being a plotter. Since I've been on both sides of this debate, having lived in both worlds, I thought I'd go through some of the benefits and drawbacks of each.

First, a definition of both:

Pantser - a writer who writes by the seat of their pants, meaning no, or practically no, outlining is done.

Plotter - a writer who doesn't start writing until there's a basic (or complex) outline in place.

I think most of us understand the basic plot points of a story. You need a set up, you need an inciting action, rising action, climax and falling action/resolution. Your characters need some depth and you need a setting (sorry, but you really do need to name a place/town/city/country even if it's fictional).

When I first started writing, I did very little plotting. I felt, like many writers, that if I did too much outlining ahead of time, I'd lose that magical stuff that happens when you're at the mercy of whatever your mind conjures in the moment of storytelling. I didn't want to over plan and then feel married to my outline. I thought it would kill my creativity.

I'm not going to lie, I still am a little wary of outlining too much because I do really love that feeling of triumph when I discover a plot point I hadn't thought of before or when I sort out a snag that I hadn't been anticipating. But the stress I've felt when I don't outline is a huge motivator to getting some pre-planning done. I've been in situations where a lack of outline has put me into a corner with a story that stops me from continuing for weeks...which, when you are on deadline, is not a good thing. It sometimes takes months to sort out a twisty-turny plot full of problems that wouldn't be there if I had spent some time outlining before hand.

And that's another reason I didn't do a lot of outlining ahead of time...because it's hard work and it's not anywhere near as fun as the actual writing part. But I've learned that this is not a great reason for not outlining. And while I still sometimes cut corners, I'm working on improving my outlining depth. It's a good skill to have, especially if you're planning on pitching proposals to editors/agents. You really need to have some kind of idea of the complete story in that case (we can talk about writing a synopsis another time because that's a different beast).

So, after writing many, many novels (many of which are published now) without a solid, detailed outline, I have switched to the dark side and, really, wouldn't go back. Outlining has become a part of my pre-planning that I really can't do without.

I spend at least a week thinking, writing, and nailing down a new idea in an outline before I start writing. Sometimes it takes me longer (because there's a lot of creating happening here and that takes brain power) and sometimes I cut corners and leave things blank or to be determined (and regret it later). So, I'm still a work in progress. I've read a lot of books about outlining and storytelling (listed below) and have adapted my own outlining sheet with key features that make sense to me.

I'm still working on my outline sheet because as it stands now, it's still a bit huge and I'd like to streamline it more. At some point I'll share it here for others to use but ultimately, I think it's really important for every author to figure out a system that works for him/her.

What I've learned about outlining is that it really doesn't kill my creativity. I don't outline a story to death though either so I leave lots of room for the creative things I still need to figure out. If something happens that I didn't anticipate, the outline is flexible enough to allow for a change in direction. I do think that after years and years of writing, my brain is able to sort things out if given enough time so even with a sparse outline, I can make things work.

As a writer, the learning should never stop so I'll recommend some reads to you that have helped me get a grasp on outlining basics.

Save the Cat, Blake Snyder  - even if you're not a screenwriter, Save the Cat's beat sheet is a totally valuable writing tool. I know a few publishers that suggest authors use this format for outlining and I think it can help any writer grasp the basics of plot.

On Writing, Stephen King - This memoir is totally worth the read, not only because it's really entertaining but also because it's incredibly inspirational, especially with regards to rejection. The second half of the book goes through King's toolbox of writing skills. While it's not meant to be taken as a bible, there are many good gems in there that can be quite helpful.

The Story Grid, Shawn Coyne - This is, by far, the best book on storytelling that I have ever read. Not only that but there are podcasts you can listen to that supplement the book and help extend the learning. Shawn Coyne has a tremendous amount of experience as an editor and his insight really helped to clarify key storytelling aspects that I knew but didn't know how to identify. While this isn't an outlining book in and of itself, with a bit of adaptation, you can definitely pull together a decent outlining guideline from it.

Anatomy of a Story, John Truby - This is another great book on storytelling. It has similar ideas as Coyne but teases them out in a different way. It's worth a read, especially if you're having trouble understanding why we tell stories the way we do.

J.A. Huss has some great videos on writing that I found helpful. She has a great way of getting to the point of things in an easily digestible way.

So that's it for this week. Next post will be all about motivation and how to keep on keeping on. So until then...see ya!

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