Thursday, March 14, 2013

Confessions of a Non-Outliner (Because Confessions of a Pantser Just Sounds Wrong)

I like to make lists.

I like making grocery lists, book lists, to-do lists, and lists about the books I'm going to write.

I also like maps. Especially road maps that guide me in the direction that I need to go.

You would think then that I would be one of those writers who make up outlines.

I've tried. There's all kinds of different ways of doing it. There's an entire blog devoted to this called Paperback Writer which is not about channeling the Beatles. There's an outline that embraces the snowflake, which is not a good thing for a writer trapped in Alberta winters. Phyllis A. Whitney, who wrote over a hundred books in her over one hundred years on earth (not an exaggeration)  wrote a book called Guide to Fiction Writing where she goes step by step through the process of outlining so that when you sit down to write you only have to connect the dots. Agatha Christie wrote her books backwards. I read a story about climbing mountains and how outliners get to the top in record time while those who don't outline get completely lost and get eaten by wolverines or sasquatches.

Writers swear by outlining. Remember in school when you were told to write an outline before writing the story? I wrote the story first and then wrote the outline. How could I write the outline when I didn't know what the story was? It's like telling someone all about your trip before you go on the journey.

And there's my shame. I am a seat-of-the-pantser, and yes that is a phrase that outliners use for people like me. Or worse - pantser.

I've tried outlining. I stare at blank screens and blank paper and have no idea where to begin. On the other hand, first sentences, first paragraphs, first pages, first chapters are no problem for me.

After all I can't tell a story I haven't lived yet.

I write like I read. I start at the beginning and go step by step through the story. I don't jump ahead. I hate that. I belonged to a round robin group once. Each person would write a small section and then the next person would pick it up where it left off. It worked fine until someone decided they didn't like where it left off so decided to write something at some point in the future. The whole thing started falling apart at that point because other writers started doing that and then pieces wouldn't fit.

I was feeling kind of bad about being a seat-of-the-pantser because real writers write outlines. Until I read an article in Writers Digest about it and then another from a writer friend.

I am not alone!

I love cross stitch. (Notice the smooth segue).  Usually I work other people's patterns but a few years ago I tried my hand at designing. Turned out once I had designed it, I didn't want to stitch it. It felt like I had already done it.

And maybe that's what outlining would feel like to me.

Not only that, but I would probably feel like I had to stick to the outline. After all outlines are supposed to keep you on the path and not send you off on treacherous and winding roads that could lead you to the wolverines and sasquatches.

But it's the path that the wolverines and sasquatches are on that have the adventures and give new dimensions that make the writing exciting.

When I wrote Thimble Fingers a character appeared that I hadn't known would. He didn't take over the story, but he added an element that I hadn't forseen and made the story richer.

I rarely know what my characters are going to say and have found myself laughing over dialogue, or even stranger, made me stop and say "I didn't know that." Now THERE'S a surreal experience when you start writing things that you didn't know, but your characters do.

I often have no idea how a character is going to react to a situation, which leads to other situations.

If I don't know that, how can I possibly outline it?

Interestingly, I have come to conclusions, or solved a mystery and found that I did indeed already foreshadow it, or left the clues without even realizing it.

Now that's weird too. How did I do that? And even if I hadn't, that's what rewrites are for.

Now I'm not saying that I will never outline. I can see the use for them and they are very helpful for many writiers. I just don't know if I can. It seems to me like a way of delaying the actual writing while still saying that you're writing.

Besides, I don't want to spoil the book by knowing the ending.


Marsha Ward said...

Brava! Brava! Hurray for you!

I feel very much as yo do. I have half-a-novel sitting on my computer because I made the mistake of doing a full synopsis for it while writing, because someone urged me to enter a synopsis contest.

Can I finish it? No. My brain says it's already finished.

Anna Maria Junus said...


Anonymous said...

I'm with you, Anna! I make lists of plot points (some of which may never make it into the book), rule, settings, and character sketches. After that, I let the characters tell the story to me. Sometimes they say things that I didn't expect!