Friday, July 3, 2015

Outlining vs Pantsing: Why choose just one?

Note: This post is late. I mean waaaaaay late. But it's also not the first time I've written it. I can only hope I'm half as coherent this time around as I was last time, because you can't see last time.

First, some quick definitions:

The process where a writer builds a framework for their story before they start writing. This can be done at the plot level, where the major points in the start, middle, and end (including a twist or two here and there) are predetermined. It can be done at the arc level, where major character and story elements are planned. And even at the scene level, where every scene is planned out from start to finish with it's own plot and arc covered.

Most outliners work at several points along that scale and at varying detail with each work. Some go heavy into their outline for specific scenes or characters, and leave side characters or less key scenes at a very high level.

There is a lot of preparation and pre-work with outlining before you even start writing the actual story. Some writers feel that outlining kills the story for them and makes them lose interest.

Writing by "the seat of your pants". This is the process where a writer has a vague but awesome story idea, character, setting, or theme they want to explore and they just go with it, discovering the story along with their characters.

Now, in the case of many pantsers that I've talked to, they often do have an idea of where the story will end before they start. But they don't always end up there.

I'm also told that pantsing often involves a fair bit of rewriting and editing, often to the point where more words are cut out of a work than are left in the finished product.

Well, now that that's out of the way.

There are plenty of blog posts, and articles, and books on the subject of Outlining/Plotting/Architecting and Pantsing/Discovery Writing/Growing stories and why one is better than the other. Or different systems for implementing each. And there are famous (and prolific) writers on each side.

With all the people I've talked to I've seen few things more fetishized in genre fiction writing circles than Plotting vs Pantsing (except maybe choice of writing software, alcohol, and the ever-present Mac vs PC).

Some people get downright tribal about it.

Which I find surprising, because a lot of the writers I spoke to seem to fall somewhere in the middle. Plotting and outlining very loosely, and discovering their way between points.

I mean, yes, that sounds like a high level outliner. But they're not rigid in what they've outlined. Instead of points on their outline being anchors to write between, they see them more as guideposts along the trail, and sometimes they'll go for a wander.

So where do I sit?

Ok, confession time: I'm all over the place with this one. If there's one point of my process that's a hot, gooey, moist, mess, this is it. This is the biggest pain point in my writing process.

I can't write without an outline. Not anything complex anyway. Vignettes and short stories for ideas, certainly, but not much more than that. So I definitely fall on the Outline side of the spectrum. I need my waypoints. When it comes to writing, I'm like one of those drivers who can't leave their driveway to go to the corner shop without putting it in their GPS first, even if they can see it from their driveway.

But on the same token, I'm not married to my outline. My finished story is never the same one that was in the original outline. It changes and mutates often, as I explore the characters, or spot problems, or get inspired by something that explodes the little synapses in my brain. I may need to turn my GPS on to go to the corner shop, but I don't necessarily have to follow it to get there. Sometimes my trip to the corner shop for a carton of milk ends up at the dairy halfway across town because they have ice cream!

I call this: Agile Outlining.

Now if only I was better at it.

If it's a problem that puts the brakes on, that can take hours, days, and sometimes even weeks of agonizing and brainstorming to sort out, and I'm paralyzed from pushing further on that story until I sort it out... because it may have ramifications.

You see, every time I run into one of those things that make my synapses go BANG, I have to see what it does. Start to finish I have to look at the setup and impacts, the foreshadowing and payoff. I'm not so bad that I have to go back and rewrite the things that beg, nay, the things that need to be rewritten. No! That way madness lies! I go back and make notes. Wonderfully detailed notes in the handy spot Scrivener gives me for them.

And all is write with the world. (Sorry, couldn't help myself there.)

Except that it isn't. These little (nuclear) blasting caps of story don't just happen once in the writing of a book. No. They're not that decent to me. They happen all the time, leaving me with more word count in notes than I often have in my finished manuscript.

Editing is its own kind of torture.

If you know of any way to help me along in this process, or can throw any tips or suggestions my way, please feel free to do so in the comments. Sadly, I'm a teetotaler, so, while I hear it does the trick for an alarming percentage of the writing community, alcohol won't be of much use.


This is the sixth entry in a series of posts about my evolving writing process.

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