Winging It with a Prayer

I’m going to spend a little time here talking about something that might cause some of you to bristle, and I apologize in advance if I offend anyone, but at least hear me out.

I’ll Spare You the  Really Long Speech

I will simply say, I really don’t believe you can write a great novel by winging it. I know I just probably offended a bunch of you seat-of-the-pants writers out there, but I have to say this. Maybe you’re brilliant and just have a gift and can throw things out from the top of your head and they’ll land in perfect positioning in your novel.

No? The answer I usually get from “pantsers” is that they have to spend months rewriting, revising, reworking again and again until some beauty comes from the ashes. A lot of famous authors like Stephen King will swear that all first drafts are terrible. King would say this, because he’s not a plotter. I could tell that right way from the first book I read of his. Who I am to argue with any method Stephen King touts?

Well, I am going to go against the grain here and beg to differ and dare offer you another way. And really, it’s fine if you disagree with me. You can waste months of your life if that’s what you want to do.

 The main reason I advocate serious planning before writing a novel is for efficiency of time. Frankly, I just don’t have months to waste rewriting and rewriting. I have way too many things to do in my life, and I have two novels I have to write a year, so I don’t have time to mess around with going from really raw material to polish.

I truly believe you can write a really good first draft of your entire novel that will only require a tiny bit of reworking or polishing when done. I’m a bit like Dean Koontz, who revises and edits as he goes along so that when he finishes his last chapter, he’s pretty much done.

I’m that way with all my novels. I almost never rewrite a scene, delete or add a scene, or do much other than copyedit and proofread. On occasion my test readers will point out some dufus plot hole I missed or note a passage that needs work and I’ll attend to those. But when I’m done writing my novel in two, three, four months, and I write “the end,” I pretty much mean “the end.” I’m done.

 I’m No One Special

You may think I’m unusual and you could never do that. But I disagree. I think a lot of writers shy away from putting in the work needed before starting a novel. Why? Maybe because it looks like a lot of work. But again, I’m looking at the big picture—the amount of time that you’re going to put into your novel from start to polished finish.

So think about it—you can spend a few weeks really plotting out your novel, developing rich characters, honing your themes, motifs, and heart of the story before you jump in and write. Or you can spend many months agonizing over numerous rewrites in a cloud of confusion.

Personally, I’d rather work out all the rough spots and challenging aspects first so they don’t get in the way. So I can enjoy writing and know the story is working already as I put the words down. I actually know of many authors who, after writing their entire first draft, throw it out and start all over again . . . because now they have a sense of what their novel is about. Folks, I just don’t have that kind of time, nor do I want to subject myself to that kind of frustrating, disappointing, depressing method of writing. I would think most writers would feel the same way. It’s no fun winging it with a prayer that your book might actually hold together when you’re done.

 Don’t Knock It if You Haven’t Tried It

I’m only saying all this for your good. Really. And I guess I lied, because I didn’t spare you the soapbox spiel. But if your time is valuable and you’d like to save a few months of your time for other things, like being with your family (remember them?), maybe you’ll reconsider and change your attitude about plotting and planning your book in advance.

I’ve mentioned before (somewhere) how Toni Morrison says that by the time she sits at her computer to write, she’s already done all the hard work—thinking, musing, figuring out the story she wants to tell. Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it.

There are many other reasons for planning in advance, aside from the time component, such as you really do end up with a tighter, better written book (okay, that’s my opinion, for what it’s worth), but planning shows. It does. And it just makes your writing life a whole lot easier. Trust me, you are not squelching your creativity or denying yourself a measure of spontaneity by planning in advance.

This week, if you’re just getting started on that novel, don’t rush to jump in and start writing. Spend some time thinking about the big elements you want in your book. Spend some days writing about your characters, even freewriting in their voice to let them speak to you. Try taking a walk, talking out loud or mulling over the story and why you’re writing it, what you want to say, and how you want to say it. (A good tip is to keep a tiny notebook and pen in your pocket, or use the notes app, as I do, on my iPhone, so as I get ideas, I can jot them down.) Resist the urge to write from the top of your head, and let those ideas first simmer and boil down into something concise and clear. You may find you like this!

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  1. Excellent post. I am just starting out writing a novel and figured I would try “pantsing” it as you so elegantly put it, but discovered after the first 10,000 words that I did not know where I was going with the story anymore. I have since taken a break and am putting together a detailed outline to work from. I think it will keep the work more focused and make for a better book in the end.

    1. Same thing happened to me! About a year ago, I had written a short story, but when people in my writing group read it, they kept telling me to rewrite as a novel. I ignored them until an editor told me the same thing.

      Then, instead of outlining or diagramming, I tried to “pants” it–& got stuck at the same point at Mr. Shrier! 10,000 words in, I was still unclear about the characters, plot arc, etc. I went back and outlined, then began to write again. SO much better. The funny thing is, I still didn’t like the ending, so I re-outlined just the last few chapters and rewrote two more times before getting it right (or so I think–hopefully I can convince a publisher that it’s “right” too!).

  2. I love to plan first and I completely agree with you. Getting to know my characters and figuring out their place in the world I’m creating is one of my favorite parts of the novel process. Some say that by planning it takes the fun out of surprising yourself with your story along the way. I’ve found however, that I still get surprised and the fun is so much more fulfilling when I don’t have to start and stop to think about what direction I’m heading…Great post!

  3. There’s a saying, “Man plans and God laughs.” When it comes to my books I can twist it around to “God plans and man laughs.” My first book, which had a complex web of plots, wasn’t plotted. By the time I finished writing it I was so dizzy I named it The Tangled Web. As luck had it, it turned out to be a good book. Here’s the interesting thing. I decided to loosely plot the book I’m writing now. Everything was going along quite smoothly until two characters started having a little chat. As I eavesdropped on them, it dawned on me that one of the characters is a pretty nasty character – capable of – murder. Ooh, that’s an idea. Why don’t I have him bump off so and so? Instant plot change. As writers, how do we ignore an idea that will enrich our plots even if it calls for a drastic change of direction? And is writing mechanical or intuitive or a bit of both?

    1. I think it’s a combination of serious planning and knowing your themes, objectives, and the heart of the story you want to tell, and then leaving room for spontaneity. I have a blog post later this year that will compare this to taking a lengthy trip with a number of goals in mind. You always want to allow for inspiration to lead you in wonderful new ways, but you don’t want to lose sight of the essential story you are telling.

    2. I agree; I wrote my first book the same way. I had the plot all figured out and it took a complete left turn when I started writing! What I ended up with was nothing like my original story line. I’ve got some work to do on the book, but hope to publish soon. I’m writing another novel now and though I have the basic scenario plotted, I’ve have decided not to stress if it changes.

  4. Technically I may agree with you however in practice I disagree.
    Last year was the first time I participated in NaNoWriMo, something I recommend to every writer. I met writers who simply wrote and others who had various methods of organizing their writing. My conclusion writers either spend time preparing to write or editing it all balances in the end.
    I suspect it is a matter of personality. Some people have a strong need to be organized while others go with the flow. Another observation: many of the people I know who freestyle write work on multiple projects.
    I have attempted to be very organzied in my writing, with plots outlined, research completed etc. unfortunately for me somewhere between “once upon a time” and “the end” my characters become independent and I have discovered it is easier to allow them to grow up with a modicum of supervision than to force them to be someone they are not; thus my outline goes out the window.
    Having said all of the above I am thinking; perhaps it has to do with your genre? If you are writing a ‘who dun-nit’ you have to keep notes.

    1. I know not everyone will see it my way. I just feel like I would waste years of my life wandering around lost while trying to figure out what story I’m writing. I write in a lot of different genres and I plan all of them. Sometimes I veer off quite a bit from my note cards, and more than half my scenes will be ones I hadn’t planned for but just grew organically out of the story, but I find, at least for myself and after listening to the anguish voiced by my “pantser” friend writers, that knowing how to structure a story line and putting in the time to get that framework established saves time and aggravation. I’m not trying to convert everyone to my way, but I speak to a lot of new writers and feel they especially could use this shot in the arm.

  5. I am a reverse pantster. LOL! I will start out as one then once I “vomit up” everything I have in me I will put it in some sort of outline and build from there. Mainly because I always know my endings when I start a new book. Great post!

  6. I totally agree. Every time I start out a novel by winging it, I get myself in trouble going off on long tangents that lead nowhere. There’s still a lot of room to be creative even when you’ve plotted out a novel ahead of time. By the way, I just finished a four-part series on prepping for the novel on my blog.

  7. I understand your viewpoint, and when I write my non-fiction books I plan them out in detail before I start (have to, of course, to get them commissioned), but I’m finding my fiction technique evolving with each book. I started totally as a ‘pantser’, and I consider that rambling 200K word Sci-Fi novel as my apprentice piece; not good enough for publication but I learned a lot by writing it. Since then I’ve planned, rather than plotted exactly, and before I start I have a beginning, an end, and a rough idea of how I’m going to get from one to the other. (On my 4th now, one with an agent).
    I find I need the time while I’m actually doing the writing for ideas and characters to develop, i.e. for spontaneity.
    Of course, I’ve never had to work under the pressure of 2 books a year (my publisher gives me 14 months per title, but that also includes photos/diagrams/pictures etc.) so I may feel differently if/when my fiction gets picked up by a mainstream publisher with demands…!
    Thanks for the pep-talk.

  8. Plotting saves me time. The few weeks I spend outlining in the beginning saves me months and months of editing, and makes the first draft go three or four times faster, which is great because I love outlining and editing, hate writing the first draft. Okay, not hate exactly, but it’s so exhausting.

    And of course, if you have a sudden inspiration midbook, you can always go back and tweak the outline. Been there done that etc.

  9. This is a very interesting post and exactly what my mother told me (wise woman that she is)! I’m working on my first book-length work of creative non-fiction. The problem I have is that I really do need to write off the top of my head to figure out what I want to say because the material is so close to home. Part of the writing is the catharsis of getting things out and then letting them go as I fill in gaps and hone down extraneous material. Part of the problem is that I am still refining my craft.

    It is ironic that I am taking this approach as I am a quintessential planner by nature and, in fact, offer my organizing services to others. I think that the ideas I have for my next two books will lend themselves easier to planning and I believe that your words are wise. This current book, however, just needs to meander a while to figure out what it is. I think that after this first one, I will be better prepared to map out the next one.

    Thanks for your thoughtful posts.


  10. Really good post. Here’s my history: I have always been a pantser. I tried writing with outlines but couldn’t get to know the characters that way. The way I figured things out was just by writing. SO, I always wrote about 50 pages, figured out where I was going, then went back to rewrite/revise and took it from there. It worked for me. HOWEVER, the current manuscript I’m working on tells two stories that are intwined and nuances matter. And, I did the unthinkable. What I swore I would never do. I…wait for it…outlined. And I think I’m a convert. It’s quicker to write and I know where the story is going. Shocker! 🙂 Thanks for this post.

  11. I think when a writer starts a novel for the first time, it’s like putting your hands in a mud puddle only knowing how to make mud, but as you work to develop your skills you learn your own way of plotting and visioning. I started at as a pantser, but after years of writing, rewriting, and rewriting, I have to agree that planning, plotting, and character develope done in advance help write the true story and get it down a whole lot faster.

  12. I have to think about my plot/story/etc a long time before I can write it. I really need to learn how to streamline that part of my process; it can take me months. The problem is if I just start and pants it(because I’m the most unorganized person in history), I end up writing and chucking whole manuscripts(sometimes more than one), or writing 150K words on what amounts to salvage 50K words on a first(3rd) draft. Maybe it’s part of the process being a new writer, figuring out your system.

  13. I like someone with the courage to tell a multi-millionaire published author he’s doing it wrong. As a pantser myself, I also know that even among plotters there are and should be multiple drafts as you hone your novel before you release it.
    One thing I object to here, besides someone who isn’t a multi-millionaire published author telling other authors how to writer – is the idea that there’s any right true way to write.
    What was it W. Somerset Maugham said? There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.
    Oh, and just in case you don’t know who he is he’s the English dramatist & novelist who wrote Of Human Bondage and The Razor’s Edge – classic novels.
    You’re only saying this for my own good? What right have you to even suggest that you know better than everyone else? Just because it may work for you, doesn’t mean it will work for everyone. And in fact, it doesn’t.
    Every author needs to find their own path, their own method. Believe me, I heard it enough from people – you have to outline. It killed the story for me. I was bored. There was no discovery.
    Folks, if you want to learn how to write a novel, pick up Stephen King’s On Writing.

    1. Valerie,

      My sentiments exactly! How can I possibly plot out my entire novel first? While I might have an idea as to what it’s going to be about, and know certain specific things that I *want* to happen, I don’t know what is *going* to happen until I write the scene. I can’t do an outline for a scene that has not yet been written! And I loved Stephen King’s “On Writing!”

      That said, I do think there is a lot of value in the above post. There are many who *will* do better if they plot things out and outline first. This post is for them.

  14. I’m sure all your plotting works for you – and it works for a lot of people. And maybe if I spent hours with the index cards and story boards all those hiccups would be ironed out before I even put finger to keyboard.

    But – I love just going for it. The not knowing what’s going to happen till it does. The way characters surprise me – do what they need to do without me telling them. All that is such fun! And yes, I do have to spend months sorting it all out, and I enjoy that too. (And I probably won’t write a masterpiece, but I am still having a great time!)

    1. Jo,
      Totally understand and agree. Having written a lot of short fiction and Gunshot Glitter, all my best work has emerged on this basis. Some of the trickier elements of Gunshot Glitter were plotted and I mapped out a timeline and knew my ending, but I had to let the characters live out the middle part to get me there. Knowing too much of my novel to the marrow killed the excitement for me. I ended up having to leave it alone for almost a year because I tried to map it out too tightly. For me to remain motivated and interested there had to be an element of mystery too.
      For my 2nd novel I do intend to take on and experiment with an approach that meets needs halfway. I don’t want to turn into the Terence Mallick of fiction! So appreciate the suggestions mooted in this great blog post. But yep, did want to say I know where you are coming from.

  15. As a reformed ‘panster’ I can understand the reluctance to let go of the thrill of the book evolving and anticipation of what will come next. It’s almost as if you are ‘reading’ the book. It’s exciting.
    But I am now a convert. Making an outline for my last book kept me in check. I always know the beginning, middle, some pivotal scenes and the end before beginning to write anyway. Sometimes magic happens as you write a scene, so the outline has to have some elasticity, but it is way easier to go back and begin to flesh out the story than remove scenes you love but are irrelevant. At least, that’s my experience.

  16. I’ve learned the hard way that I need to give myself some basic structure so I really appreciate this blog post. It hardly keeps me from my pantser origins. For me, I’ve decided that a novel needs to have the main events characters have to hit. But then I write little bits of side/pre/post story that’s little more than random writing to help me explore the character. Sometimes I have to write a particular character doing random, mundane, or useless-to-story things just to figure out how they’ll react to a situation.

    The pattern I’ve established for writing now doesn’t entirely abandon winging it. I have the main events the characters must hit but the variable is how the characters react. That’s what allows them to invent their own little side plots and excursions. I suppose that ties me back to your post about side plots. I outline the main points then write hoards of useless material to develop the characters then let the characters build side plots. As for the manuscript I’m working on now, because I didn’t have a very firm outline, the characters ran away with their own useless little side plots and now I’m doing extensive cutting. I got completely sidetracked from the main purpose of the work.

    Overall great timing, though. I’ve got an idea for a short story that I know will ramble for eternity if I don’t plot it out. I was planning to just wing it but this really reminded me of why I shouldn’t . Especially if I want to keep it a short story.

  17. I was about 30K words into this second novel in my mystery series when I felt a bit stuck. I knew the ending and the beginning (you know, that same old story). What saved me was putting together something that I HATED with my first novel — a synopsis. But by outlining where it was going in the form of a synopsis, I suddenly saw the light, cut the riff raff and was back on track.

  18. Great blog—winger (preferred to “pantser”) or plotter? To paraphrase Bill Clinton yet again, it all depends on what “is” is. If a winger is to someone who has half an idea and then sits down at the keyboard and flails away trying to shape the monster—then I am definitely not a winger. But if plotter means someone who jots and tittles from detailed start to inexorable finish before putting finger to keyboard—then I am not a plotter. Maybe it is more useful to think of these admittedly extreme definitions as occupying the two ends of a spectrum, along which many nuanced practices may fit. It all depends on the individual writer and what it being written.
    In my case, I never really understand an idea until I start to write it down within the context of a non-fiction study or a story. Up until that point all is dazzling clarity, the outline moving smoothly from one heading to another. But once an idea has to be explained or a scene written down and then hooked up to other ideas or events, structural adjustments have to be made. The carefree winger may have to jettison thousands of words that wandered heedlessly astray. But the assiduous plotter may end up shredding carefully wrought file cards because the plot danced off in unexpected directions.
    Don’t get me wrong. I do plot. The sequel to my first novel was delayed for over a year until I could resolve some basic structural problems. However, my plots remain in my head. I don’t commit much to paper prior to writing because I know that the story will evolve as I produce it. This means that I am constantly plotting each section on my daily walks before sitting down at the computer. And it may take a couple of good long walks before I return to writing.
    Okay, I must confess that my plots are pretty simple with only a few characters. If I was to try something more complex with a cast of dozens, then my alfresco plotting would be followed by hours in the rocking chair with a yellow legal pad and, yeah, even some file cards. Does anyone know how Tolstoy managed WAR AND PEACE? Now surely, there was a plotter!

  19. I’m a ‘Winger’ I go to work and write every day, with not a thought about what’s going to follow. Don’t get me wrong, I have a basic Idea of where it is all going but I certainly have not planned or plotted chapter by chapter. That would ruin the fun of the day and where it takes me, where the characters find their fortunes or come to sticky situations.
    I believe we are all different, some need to plan and plot, I tried it and found by the time I was half way through my project, I had gone in a completely different direction. The only thing I do is edit as I go, usually at the end of each day. Yep I’m a ‘Winger’ and enjoy every moment of the flight.

  20. For me the whole process of creating a story is a journey of discovery. Once the characters and the story are revealed the plot
    demands attention. I describe my work as visionary fiction, close to fantasy, so I create other worlds and characters to populate those worlds and give them meaning. The plot is just a way to get from beginning to end. A necessary evil. So, yes I wing it all the way. Not efficient but a whole lot of fun.

  21. Fascinating and timely discussion. I hit what I believe is the nominal half way mark on my book this past Sunday (61,000 words). This includes all of Part I and about half of Part II. It is a big canvas with half a dozen story lines intertwined. Starting out I knew the basic story line, broadly who the characters were, the flow of the story, and the presentation style I wanted to use. But like some of you, I’ve learned the story wants to tell itself. My original timeline assumed an event in November, an interlude while things happen in background, and, in late spring and early summer following the story picks up and with increasing intensity to culminate in the fall.

    I started without a detailed outline and only the general timeline I just described. What has happened is that the vignettes (scenes) that compose the various storyline elements got out of control — on their own, I might add. So. Yesterday and this morning, and probably continuing for another day, I am going through the scenes one by one–identifying where they fit on an Excel spreadsheet timeline, editing each for time discrepancies, and will probably wind up reordering some of them.

    I believe this will improve my story and fulfill my contract with the reader to deliver an interesting, informative and satisfying read.

  22. Great post and replies. Here’s my story:

    I outlined my first novel and never made it past chapter 5. After three outline revisions and three more tries I still couldn’t break the chapter 5 barrier before everything fell apart. So I tried freestyle and, for me, that didn’t work any better. I enjoyed the writing freedom and huge page count, but really I was just writing in all different directions but getting nowhere.

    So I put the first novel down, got on with life, and in between times considered my writing process. As several of the replies have said, everyone’s is different and I needed to find mine.

    I started a second novel (353 pages) and finished the first draft in about 10 weeks writing 5 days a week for 2 hours a day. I outlined the book first, thinking of the outline as the story’s proof of concept. If I write that this and this and this happen, then that will happen. In the outline each chapter had to achieve certain goals. For example, there had to be some physical event. I called this the “bone” of the chapter, something to build the story on. The chapter also had to do things like advance the plot and demonstrate conflict among the characters. This put the muscles and flesh on the bone. As long as I meet the goals for a chapter, I can meet them however I want.

    This mix of freedom and control works for me. Now I’m on a third novel which I outlined in two weeks and I’m well past chapter 5. The first novel, meanwhile, is still awaiting another round of editing to clarify the story.

    1. This reminds me of the author Angela Hunt’s “Plot Skeleton” that I learned about from a workshop she gave. There are a lot of ways to build that story but I find if I take the time and know the plot and spiritual goals for my protagonist and what the point and ending of the book will be, I can lay out a nice long, deep, rich, complex story line as long as I don’t lose sight of these main things. This is why in this blog I am spending five months on the first scene because I have learned after writing twelve novels that, at least for me, having all these elements clear and in place provides the glue that holds it all together and allows for a great flow of unhindered creative writing. Thanks for sharing.

  23. Once again I’ve thoroughly enjoyed both the article and the comments. So many varied approaches. In the end, each of us has to find the way that works best. I think I’m more planner than pantster, but I won’t know for sure until I finish my WIP novel.

  24. Every writer is unique. There is no “proper” way to write a novel. In my opinion, if you were to prechart your novel, then you are writing to a plot and I believe that makes your story too predictable and dry. I like King, and all those who write like him because it’s like playing a game of “peek-a-boo” when I read their stories–I don’t know what’s coming next. Face it, we all get a kick out of “peek-a-boo” even as adults.

    I’ve tried outlining and find that I my initial ideas peter out half-way through the process and the whole story dies. I’ve tried “winging” it and find myself, and again, half-way through the process I’m in a deep swamp-land forest, talking to myself, with no idea where to go, or how I got there.

    I’ve found that by writing the ending first I know what my target is for the rest of the story. If I don’t know where I’m going I never end up where I intended to be. However, the ending is not carved in stone so I can zig and zag as long as I end up in the right neighborhood.

    I believe in writing my first draft as fast as I can. If I stop to edit as I go, I lose the thread. I still have that problem and have to force myself to forge ahead. Sometimes I wish that it weren’t so easy to delete whole blocks of writing and be able to rewrite because I find myself doing that constantly. Why did I throw out that old typewriter?

  25. Oh, horrors of horrors, you cant edit once you’ve submitted! I’ll have to watch for that the next time I reply. Sorry folks.

  26. Susanne…so glad you’re speaking up on this subject. The airy-fairy approach to novel writing seems to rule the wannabe writing world. And most writing bloggers don’t have the guts to speak the truth. (Maybe they’ve never written a novel themselves!) You presented the case marvellously. I’m going to link to this article on my own blog, if that’s okay. Especially since I have an eBook almost cooked and ready for free download. It concerns a most-simple overview of “story”. I call it STORY STRUCTURE TO DIE FOR. I’ll make sure you hear about it. Cheers.

  27. Wonderful article and responses. Of the 11 years I spent on my Guinevere Trilogy about 6 were research, 5 actual writing. By the last volume I was dealing with a huge number of subplots. I couldn’t have done it without outlining with index cards–not only noted each scene, color coded with marker pens the characters involved so when I laid out the 250 plus cards on my big table, could immediately see if too many scenes with Arthur and his son Mordred were clumped together in one section, etc. Meant that when I had a pretty well-balanced card arrangement, I could see the peaks and valleys leading up to the various climaxes. Numbered them (in pencil, upper corner) and simply put them in a stack next to the computer. When a scene was completed, turned that card over and the next was revealed. As has often been said by other organizers, it frees me up for the actual word-smithing. I always know where the characters are at the beginning of a sequence, and where they need to be at the end–how they get there and what they reveal on the way is up to them. And therein lies the delight of discovery and creativity for me.

    1. I have used index cards for scenes I think for the last six or so novels. I love it and also make big timeline charts since my plots tend to cover numerous timelines and characters. I agree that by plotting it all out it frees you up to focus on the creativity of actually writing the scene. Also I like to lay all the cards out on my dining room table and organize them into a three-act structure (or four or five, since I don’t always go by this standard). But this helps because I have a column for act one and can see what scenes I might be missing to bring it all to the first big door of no return to plow into act two. I do the same for act two and three to bring the book to the big climax and resolution. Somehow seeing the whole book laid out on the table before me really helps the whole thing gel. And as Elizabeth George says in “Write Away.” you only need about 12-15 scenes to get started and you can add more as you go (for those of you who really need to “wing it” a bit). Try it!

  28. You are right, no question about it. Just imagine a carpenter being struck by his muse and building a house as a “pantser.” House would be unusual, but it probably would not be habitable. A novel is also a building project. Without planning, it ain’t gonna.

    Read Larry Brooks’ book “Story Engineering.” Without planning, the house falls down and the novel goes nowhere. Stephen King can pants it, but always remember, he’s Stephen King; we’re not.

  29. Since I have tried outlines, I have to disagree. It’s not a choice for me to outline or not. I can’t outline. It doesn’t work at all for me. I went through some tough problems with the book and tried a wide variety of outlines, including one that was “panster friendly.” Every single one failed. I could not connect my creativity to them.

    Yeah, I know the revisions take a lot of time. That was one of the reasons I wanted to try an outline. I can’t change what it is.

    1. You don’t have to use an outline. I don’t. I do a lot of brainstorming on lots of pieces of papers. I think of scenes, randomly sometimes, then put each scene on an index card. You can lay these ideas out across a table and when you come up with other scene ideas, create new cards. Eventually you’ll have enough to get started. Elizabeth George, in Write Away, says once she has about 12-15 scenes on cards, she begins, since she feels it’s enough to get writing. I like to have pretty much the whole book laid out, but I do allow for scene ideas to come to me as I write, and often more than half my book will have new scenes in there I hadn’t thought of in advance, but the framework is set up enough that I know the story I’m telling, the point to my story, and what I want to accomplish. Sometimes I have no idea how the book will end unti I get close to the end. But I do know my characters before I begin and know what their goals and needs are, and I think this is essential.

  30. I completely agree. I have to have a plan and one that I’ve laid out over some time. The plan may change some as I go, but it’s still there. The surprises that come from my characters are enough to keep it exciting for me. Occasionally I’ll start on something – a short scene, a “prologue”, an ending, etc. – but these are more experiements or exorcises to see how they feel and assess if I think the story has potential. Bunches of these are just lying around in forgotten folders. But the important thing is that I pursue the ones that I like by following up with a plan – generally a very detailed outline.

  31. I agree with everything you said, but I think it depends on the writer. For my first book, I outline every chapter. This help me see the novel as a whole. Yet, when I actually wrote my first draft, I veered away from my outline. So as an experiment for my second novel I decided to just to write the book without an outline. Right now I am almost at 80,000 words. I think what really helped me was writing every day and imagining what will happen. The novel is no ways perfect and I do not expect the first draft to be perfect. I still have a long ways to go. So, I think it depends what works for the writer. Thank you for the article.

  32. I really want to try this. Most of the fictional things I’ve ever written have been short, things I can see from beginning to end and I either know where I’m going with it right away, or really quickly once it’s started. What I’m doing now is my first chapter book and I’ve wanted to approach it the same way as with the shorter things, not only because that’s how I’m used to creating, but because planning, outlining, organizing was what I did on a massive scale for my thesis and I’m so glad to be past that, you know? 😀 But I really do want to give this a try, to see how it goes! Maybe things will fall into place much more quickly. Thanks!

  33. I read this post, and I’ve read On Writing. I think it’s best if inspiring writers consider these works as suggestions, and not a statement of rules. There are different approaches to writing, and no one can teach you what will work for you. There’s only one way to find out.

  34. I think it depends on content and the author. For me, I was/am trying to write something multi-layered that is entertaining, adding to the genre, making a point of some kind and hopefully getting the reader to think. For me, that takes a lot of planning. If I didn’t plan it, it would probably come out preachy and/or terrible.

    Be as that may, there are times where I’d rather just “wing it.” I took some improv classes in college and I find, for me, humor works best that way. Occasionally, an idea will pop up that I’ll jot it down for later use, but more often I’m in the process of writing a scene when it hits me and I go with it…then go back and make sure the humor worked.

  35. Planning is something I have to do more of. I used the last three years to learn how to write more fluidly, not to make those obvious flaws in text, conversation etc… It means I’m now editing as I go along.

    I have started to write out the bones of each chapter, which takes the pressure off me when I come to actually write it, but I know I could do so much more. Sometimes the story is itching to come out and I launch straight into writing 10k words of it. It’s probably not the best method, but my interesting tangents for the story spill out when I’m writing. Not so much when I’m planning.

  36. What a great post! Thank you. I’m certainly more Steven King wing-it person than the Elizabeth George planner. Robert Frost, in my opinion said it best: “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.”

    If I spend too much time mapping out my story, I never write it or it changes drastically anyway. The book could have been written by the time I flushed out the outline – only to watch the story unfold in a totally different way; wasted time. But that’s just me…

    I’ve been writing for years but just recently decided to take it seriously (treat it like a second job and see what happens). I hope to be as good as all of you one day with my style and structure. 🙂

    @Lynn – I loved your “peek-a-boo” comments! I’m reading the Steven King “On Writing” now and I must say it is certainly the most entertaining piece on “the craft” I’ve seen.

  37. Fascinating post, and great to read all the different opinions on this very important subject. I began writinga novel twenty years ago, without the faintest idea about anything, other than I had something I wanted to say, and knew the style of novel I wanted to write (crime mystery set in a futuristic, 25th century society, mainly in Australia, where I live, and with a dash of the supernatural thrown in as well). I wrote purely on inspiration, got stuck with the plot half way through, set the book aside for twelve years (!), then wrote the rest in six months, still purely on inspiration. I then began obtaining other people’s opinions, and found I had a lot to learn, both about writing and making sure the plot was consistent and there wre no holes in the mystery aspect and its solution. Endless revisions later, I finally published it in 2009 – and then found I had to do four more revisions! Ye Gods, how embarassing… When I wrote the sequel, I had also written the first half on pure inspiration (while I was revising the first one), and found I had written myself into a plot corner, which is a very big danger for crime and mystery writers. When I had time, I then had to think very carefully now to get out of the corner, which meant writing an outline of the rest of the *main* plot. The other big issues I had to grapple with were
    * making sure each character had a distinct speaking style, behaviour and appearance, which without a table of characters and these traits is very difficult to maintain.
    * maintaining a realistic timeline, so I kept a table with main events and the relevant date/year/time etc, as well as notations in blue within the actual document, which were taken out before the final version.
    * doing the research on details of the plot to make sure it was all believeable. Easy to do these days, so I built a file with research notes and web links etc
    However, I still had problems with having to revise the novel (it’s about 150,000 words) many times before publishing, though this time, thank goodness, not afterwards 🙂

    Therefore, before beginning the third book in this trilogy, I imagined the entire *main* storyline, all the main characters, and did the preliminary research, keeping files of all these things. Again, I have to be very careful with the timeline, so am using my blue notes within the body of the book to keep track of it, as well as some rather complex plot details so I can easily refer back to them as needed. I find the table of characters, with their speech mannerisms and appearance, invaluable. As a result, with this pre-planning of the main features of the book, it has been relatively easy to write, but still with plenty of scope for inspiration. I haven’t written myself into any significant corners because I knew where I was heading. Also, I found that after writing three chapters, it was useful to go back and re-read them, editing anything that stood out at the same time, and so on until the end. This way, I’d refresh my recollections of what I’d written (and usually received some surprises along the way!)as well.

    Revisions are still needed, of course, but far less than for the first two books, so overall, it has been a far less demanding task to write this book compared to the first two.

  38. I am a little of both. I figured out my world, who the good guys are, who the bad guys were and what the motivations of both were before I ever started writing.

    It went along the lines of, here are the bad guys, here is how they came to be, here is what they want and why.

    I also knew several scenes that had to happen in the book. Three scenes actually. Everything from the start of the book to how the characters got from point a to point b, was total panster.

    I thought I knew exactly how I wanted a couple of places to go. I was wrong. I ended up deleting about four chapters and two characters, but it led to a much better story. Another scene that I knew had to happen was a big battle, but where that battle happened and what set it off, developed as I got there. It changed completely from what I originally thought it would be. So where I did have some things developed and knew the direction I wanted the story to go and what had to happen during it, how those things developed came up as inspiration along the way. No way would I have ignored that. Sometimes, my characters know much better than me, how things should go.

    And that is my long involved ramble for the night.

  39. I find that I employ different methods depending on what I’m writing. For instance, I don’t normally preplan anything for short stories. Novels, however, are different, but even with them the way I approach it is different. The novel I’m working on now started off as chapter after chapter of pantsing based off prompts, but after 13 chapters I couldn’t keep going without some structure, so I’ve been rewriting what I have to improve continuity. Had I planned out any of the story before writing, though, I don’t think the concept would be as wild or fun as it is now. Still, I completely agree that a plan helps make the best parts come out more.

    On the other hand, one of the stories I worked on for NaNoWriMo this year had TONS of planning put into it, way more than I usually do since I knew what I wanted to write and had all of October to sketch things out. I got to around the 10th chapter in my outline and found that I couldn’t know where to go next until I actually started the story and wrote up to that point.

    So I know I’m definitely a mix of both.

  40. Couldn’t agree more. If only because at the end of the day we are not simply writing for just ourselves. We are writing it for other minds and hearts as well. Even if we don’t necessarily are inclined to share our writing 😛 It is an expression of thought, and that is never kept in a bottle.

    Because we face perspectives other than our own, it is why pause and plan are necessary.

    1. Years ago I was working on a manuscript and kept bringing in more and more secondary characters. I wasn’t moving forward so much as moving outward, going off on tangents. Once I started prepare an outline, it helped me stay on the main road. There were plenty of wonderful little surprises along the way, but I was careful not to let myself develop additonal storylines that detracted from the main one.

  41. I do have to say that with most of my writing if I try to go past short story length I literally lose the plot somewhere while trying to wing it. I was pretty stubborn about it for a while too. Then I had a day dream that I just had to get down, so I wrote it down in outline form. Now while the story it’s self is far too personal to ever publish I am defiantly write it out and see how much eaiser it is then “pantsing” it. Hopefully this will help me with my future writing endevers.

  42. Oh man. Plotting. So much to say.

    I started writing because I got into roleplaying at the tender age of grade seven. I started with making characters and I still love making characters. I love figuring out all the ddetails and being surprised by them. I’ve never found making characters to be boring unless I made the character boring.

    And boy, have characters surprised me as well. Even with all that plotting they still manage to surprise me on a daily basis.

    Personality wise, I wing things. Go with the flow and don’t like to plan things out too far in advance.

    Writing I am so very different. I love plotting things out and figuring things out. I never have to fully commit to a plot, even if I have written it down. But if I write with no plot, I never gone anywhere. I’ve tried rewritig the same plot several times and never get anywhere when I don’t plot it out.

    I think my biggest problem with writing is actually making the the plot. I’m great with characters and their interactions. I could go on forever with the mundane character interactions and get no where to finishing the plot. Actually working on an outline helps me to work on that weak spot and focus on what is going to happen in the novel.

    Now to figure out how to divide this plot into chapters.

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