I had a comment on one of my recent posts:
Do you structure your stories or just sit down, start typing and let them grow organically?
Good question – especially since some days, I can’t think of anything to write a blog post about! And today is one of those days. So, I’m going to address this question, even though it’s going to lead to a longer post than I really feel awake enough to write. *sigh* The things I do for you, lovely readers.
In the past, I’ve been what’s generally known as a ‘pantser’ – somebody who writes by the seat of their pants, doesn’t plan anything, and just sees what happens. It’s a fun way to write as you’re constantly being surprised by the plot, and you also tend to write faster as you want to know what happens next. However, it has its disadvantages. You’re more likely to get stuck halfway, and the editing afterwards is HORRIBLE because you have to sort out all the pacing that didn’t really work.
However, I have also written to proper outlines. It never worked out for me.
What I tend to do at the moment is a bit of a combination of the two. I started writing from an idea I had, and I wrote a couple of chapters. Then I sat down and thought about what I’d written and what could happen next, and wrote a brief three-line outline for each of the next three chapters. I wrote the first two of these – so still had an outline for the third left – and then outlined the next three.
This technique has some massive advantages if you’re like me and you don’t entirely know how you’re going to finish the book or who the murderer is, as it doesn’t require you to have the whole plot hammered out in advance but it means you always know what’s going to happen now and so are less likely to get into a hole while writing – you can just keep going. Always planning two or three chapters ahead also means that if you write more than you expected, you don’t run out, which is why I’d counsel against just outlining one chapter further.
That said, I didn’t use this technique for Watching, Destroying or Returning, my three favourite novels that I’ve written at the moment. Watching would have turned out very differently if I’d had an outline.
I started the thing in January 2010, wrote four chapters, then forgot about it completely until mid April, when I started writing it again. I couldn’t remember what I’d intended to write before, and without an outline I couldn’t recall that, so I turned it into something that is probably completely different from how the original would have turned out (especially since the old title no longer fitted at all and I had to change it). The others were the same. Returning in particular was interesting, because I wrote most of it on a boat in Norfolk / staying with a French family in France, and so it was all fragmented and in a notebook and I had no reference notes or anything and had a lot of [XX LOOK THIS UP] notes in the margins :)
Note, I’m talking about first drafts. Edits are a completely different matter.
You may know that I’ve rewritten Watching about six times now, and when I was starting the sixth draft just before Christmas, I knew it was going to be a major edit. I wrote an outline for that. I got about half way through, as until the end of Part 1 the only major change was the character of Mel, who now existed in the first half and hadn’t previously, and then sat down and basically, talked to myself on paper.
No, seriously. If you open my writing folder and go to the section labelled ‘notes for ‘Watching’ and ‘Destroying’ rewrites 2011/2012′, the first line on the piece of paper (save for the title), is this:
And the first thing I am going to do is outline what plot I have to go.
There are some points when I do appear to be talking to myself:
Oh, good, he can heal Leah’s arm. Yeah, cool. He does so.
Well, this is cosy. What next? Oh, fight off the midnight invasion by Courtiers ….
…. and so on – don’t want any spoilers here, ha ha!
This outline (which is actually from Chapter 10 of Part 2 onwards) is about a page and a half long, and I generally just followed a train of thought on the paper. Some things made it into the draft, some things I left out or modified. However, it did help me a lot. I was writing very quickly, while ill, to meet a deadline, and it was useful whenever I got stuck to be able to pull out the piece of paper and see that if I just got past this bit, I’d get to write whatever came next, and to KNOW what came next.
With Returning, while I was writing it I kind of had an idea how it was going to end, and what that would do to the characters, but it was just a question of whether or not that would fit. I’ve had things in the past that I’ve thought would be a great ending but in the end weren’t right considering what happened next. Returning needs a lot of tightening up and editing, but I’m keeping that ending. It was so painful and devastating and I wrote it in a notebook sitting on a bed in France and halfway through the most emotional bit my French penfriend came in to tell me it was dinner time and I had just completely forgotten how to speak French because that was my world right then and I have never felt that way about writing ever since but I hope I will some day. Yes, that sentence was four lines long. Bite me.
The novel I’m working on at the moment doesn’t have a title, so it’s harder for me to reference here. However, the first page in that section of my folder is titled Outline and has a three-line summary of every chapter from the Prologue to Chapter 8. yes, I know, you shouldn’t have prologues because readers skip them, whatever. Point is, I wrote the prologue before anything else and it was perfect but too short to be a chapter, and I wanted the actual book to start a couple of weeks later, so that became a prologue. Don’t shoot me. I ignore your literary rules!
Mwah ha ha ha.
Generally these chapter summaries sound very dry and uninteresting, although I like the sound of Chapter 5, since it starts with “Lunch with the contract killer!”. For those wondering, I’m currently halfway through chapter four, and have been for a couple of weeks.
I hope this answered the question. I don’t outline overall, but I look ahead as I go along so I always know what’s going to happen in the immediate future, even if I don’t know who the murderer is :)