To Plot or Not to Plot – That is the Question

to plot or not to plot

While I have been writing the first draft of my novel, plot has played a significant part of the scheme.  Naturally, stories have plots, so what’s the big deal?

It all started with an outline.  It has never been my process to write an outline.  Sure, I’ve jotted down notes and have been known to write extensive character profiles but the jumble of notes, snatches of dialogue, and ideas about scenes even in its aggregate could never have been called an outline.

After reading a pretty good case for outlining written by J.A. Konrath in the Newbies Guide to Publishing I became convinced there would be benefits galore to my writing an outline, and among these benefits were:

  • After devoting a week to 10 days to an extensive and thorough outline, I could finish a first draft in a month
  • My daily output could be more than doubled
  • I could write two to three books a year using this method
  • I would probably never write myself into a corner again

To be fair, I wasn’t promised these benefits, I did infer them but still, it was these inferred benefits that spurred me on to write the outline.

The first bump in the road

Unlike J.A. my outline didn’t take a mere one week to 10 days.  It took over a month.  And to be honest, I never finished it because by the time I got through the second act plotting I was losing the juice that inspired the story in the first place.  So I just decided to start writing, lest I end up with an outline and nothing else.

I have to admit the outline did get me started but somewhere around the fifth chapter the characters decided the outline was crap and insisted on going off-script.  No matter how many times I herded them toward the outline, they bolted every chance they got.  I also spent a lot of time consulting the outline before writing, which made me and the characters pretty impatient and I found the sequence was often wrong once the story started to gain steam.

To my shock and awe I also frequently found myself in a corner and then had to re-think things to get back on track.

Including the time spent writing the outline; I am now three months into the project and still haven’t completed the first draft.

Then I ran out of outline

And, of course, since I didn’t bother to outline the last act I ran out of outline.  So there I sat, stuck and wondering what to do, where to go, and how to get there.  I knew the ending; I just didn’t know the path that would get me there.

Since my own method – the jump in and just start and make it up as you go along method – typically takes me about three months to produce a first draft, I had to laugh.  This new method that was supposed to (in my mind) make things go smoother and faster was taking about the same amount of time.

Life doesn’t have an outlined plot, why should a novel?

Then it dawned on me.  Life has no plot.  Oh sure in hindsight maybe.  But we all know that the best laid plans rarely work out as we expect.  We all know that no matter how much we plan and stick to the plan that things we couldn’t possibly anticipate happen.  And then we have to adjust.  And then we have to rewrite our plan.  And then we have to figure out where we go from there.  Life isn’t a plot but a maze we have to navigate.

So, the other day I just said, “Screw it,” and stopped thinking with the plot.  Instead, I started thinking with the story, with the characters, and with what was happening right then.  And things started to shake loose.

By letting go of the plot I can now see how to get to the end and what’s going to have to happen to get there.  But it’s not carved in stone.  It’s not etched in indelible ink that defies erasure.  It’s a sense of direction, it’s an understanding that like life, we can never predict with total certainty what direction things will take or how we’ll react when life or characters veer off.  It’s just being okay with the fact that vigilance and persistence gets you through to the end.

So, I’m through with plotting and back to writing

I mean no disrespect to any writer who does outlines and loves them.  It’s just that I’m not one of them.  Maybe you aren’t either.  Maybe your passion for the story gives you the instinct to follow the path that leads to the end without having to plot the course first.  Life is an adventure and so in my mind, is writing.

What do you think?  Outline or not?  What’s your process?

Writer Chick

Copyright 2013




A funny thing happened on my way to the outline

outlining a novel

Okay, so a while back, I wrote a post about being a proper writer and completing an outline before jumping into the new novel.  Well, I was true to my word and I completed the outline which clocked in at 50 pages.  And it has all the bells and whistles and outline could want to have; character profiles, menus, pictures, recipes, common Cuban phrases, red herrings, manner of death, autopsy results, sub-plots and of course, a chapter by chapter summary of what happens.  Truly, a thing of beauty.  And I have to admit I was quite proud of myself for sticking to the plan committing this blueprint to paper.

And then I started writing…

Except something happened as I began to write.  Something I didn’t expect but probably should have.  The characters have refused to stick to the plan.  Now how do you like that?  After everything I’ve done for them, they are going off in different directions and saying things I didn’t want them to say and doing stuff that was not in the script.  And no matter how much I ask them to behave and try to convince them that my plan is better, they clearly have plans of their own and really it’s like herding cats.  After a while, you just realize that cats can’t be herded and you have to let nature take its course.

Surprises can be good when you’re writing

In the past my ‘process’ was to create believable and likeable characters, give them a premise and then let them figure it out.  It seemed to work well but then I would get notes on how I really should stay inside the lines and follow proper protocol on novel writing.  So, I decided I would give that a try and though I don’t regret the time spent on the outline and it will certainly help, I’m starting to see that though in-depth outlining may work for other writers that’s not really my way.  In fact, it kind of takes the fun out of it for me.

Oh, for sure, I’ll use the outline because It gives me the framework of the story and I have my clues and details noted so I don’t lose my place and can remind my characters of the direction they should be looking in.  But you know what, surprises can be good when you’re writing.  It can keep your interest high and makes you look forward to the task everyday.  Like, “gee I wonder what the girls are going to do today,” you know?  And I really believe that it doesn’t really matter how you get there, but that you get there.  And also, if I’m having fun while I write the story I don’t think it’s a leap to believe that my readers will have fun while they are reading the story.

My focus has been wrong

You know for years I’ve studied writing, writers and writing methods.  There is a ton of conventional wisdom out there and I’ve done my best to obey that.  Even to the point of forcing myself to conform to what the ‘experts’ say you must do.  Naturally, I want to succeed as a writer.  I want to be the best writer I can be and so it seemed logical to listen to those who knew, who had succeeded, whose books everybody reads.  And yet…maybe not.

The thing about conventional wisdom, in any field really, is that it once was not conventional wisdom.  It once was unheard of and a flagrant violation of the rules.  But the people brave enough to break the rules became the leaders of their fields later on.  And I’ve spent a lot of time chastising myself for breaking the rules and my biggest sins are:

  • I write a lot of fragments, not proper sentences
  • I’m in love with the use of dashes
  • I write far too much dialogue
  • My narrative and is fast and dirty
  • My character descriptions come in dribs and drabs as the story progresses
  • I’m in love with slang and use it often
  • I leave a lot of prepositions hanging
  • Adjectives are my best friends

But now I think, “So what? So what if I break the rules?  So freaking what?”  And I’ve realized that my focus has been on the mechanics of writing and that’s wrong.  Yes, mechanics are important, they make things work but they aren’t nearly as important as the message or the story.

And the truth is, the reader doesn’t give a flying leap if your i’s are dotted or your t’s are crossed.  They give a damn if your characters are real and your story is compelling.  They give a damn if you take them on a journey that makes them feel, makes them laugh or cry, makes them care.  And if that’s what my readers care about then that’s what I need to care about.  So there.

If you knock it out of the park, who cares how you did it?

Although, in the possible future, some English teacher is going to care about how you wrote the story you wrote – parse the sentences, find the symbolism and break down your brilliance and then teach it to aspiring writers – that really should have no bearing on how you approach your story.  The thing  you should be concerned about is knocking it out of the park.  Writing the very best story you can write and let nothing and nobody from deterring you from that goal.  Writers write.  That is the purest and simplest truth about writing.  And if you’re a writer that is what you should be doing.

If you need an outline, write one.  If you do better flying by the seat of your pants, then do that.  If you need to research beforehand, go ahead – but Google is always there if you don’t want to.

The rules are great and they serve as guideposts for us to help us from losing our way, but the point is the journey, not the road map you use.  Just take make the trip in the way that you can.  Who knows, if you decide to just jump in and break the rules and follow your own process you might find others following your lead.

Writer Chick

copyright 2013




To outline or not to outline, that is the question

outlining a novelOkay, so out of the blue I came up with (what I think is) a great idea for a mystery series.  Color me excited.  It’s especially exciting for me because I never fancied myself a series writer but the idea is just one of those that lend itself to several books coming out of the main idea.  Anyway, I digress…

I’ve always considered myself an ‘organic’ writer, which is not to say that I’m a vegetarian but that I let my stories evolve naturally.  Which is really just a nice way of say I write by the seat of my pants.

It’s been good and I’ve enjoyed it.  But I’ve been reading a lot of writers’ blogs lately and got especially hooked on the Newbie’s Guide to Publishing  and Joe makes a good case for outlining.  In fact, he writes incredibly fast.

Now, I want to write books incredibly fast and that’s something I’ve never be able to do.

What’s an outline look like?

So…I’ve decided to outline.  Then of course the next thing that comes up is: What does an outline look like?

Apparently there are many ways to outline.  Who knew?

In fact, just a very short Google search yielded these results:

Here’s a free pdf download of what I’d call the standard approach to outlining

This article includes a Sherlock Holmes Mystery template  (I may have to try this one – too intriguing not to)

This link offers a voluminous list of downloadable templates for genres and subgenres.

I have a plan

I’m pretty new to this whole concept and so I have a general idea of how I’m going to do my outline.  For anyone interested, I’ll just note it down here:

  1. Write a general description of the story line
  2. Determine any research that needs to be done and sources for the research.
  3. Write character profiles for main and secondary characters
  4. Do an extensive character profile for the victim, important since I write mysteries I probably have to know more about him than any other character, even though he never actually appears in the story.  Because of course I need to know why someone would want to kill him so that I can profile
  5. The killer – also very extensive – must really understand what motivates the person, what would drive them to murder, and how they do the deed.  Obviously, profile will also provide red herring clues and misdirections that can be planted within the story.
  6. One – two page summary of each chapter, noting what characters appear, the main action, and the climax of the chapter.
  7. Work out subplot and write a general description of how and when it intertwines with main plot
  8. General description of how the story resolves

Of course this is just what I’m thinking I’m going to do.  Some writers spend weeks working out lines; others hammer it out in a few days.  Not sure which category I may end up in.  Or if this outlining thing will be a good idea for me, but I’m going to try it.

What do you do when you approach a book?  Do you outline?  What method do you use?

Writer Chick

Copyright 2013