Best known for her aspirations as an epic fantasy author, Rebecca has been working as a freelance writer and editor since 2004. She has covered high school sports for a Los Angeles area newspaper group, published articles and short stories in several print and online magazines, and placed in the top twenty-five in the 2006 Writer’s Digest Short, Short Story contest. She currently blogs Monday through Friday at A Christian Worldview of Fiction.
Her editing credits include non-fiction and fiction alike, most notably four titles in the Dragons in Our Midst and Oracle of Fire series by Bryan Davis and two novellas in the Mission League series by Jill Williamson. You can learn more about her editing services and read her weekly writing tips at Rewrite, Reword, Rework.
Writing instructors often divide novelists into two camps — those who outline and those who write "by the seat of their pants." The latter say they use an organic method of writing. The characters "tell them" who they are and what they must do.
I've long brushed aside such phrasing because it's apparent that the characters aren't alive and the thoughts "coming from them" are actually the author's own thoughts. Why, then, pretend that the story is coming from outside the author?
Well, maybe pretend is the point. After all, we are talking about fiction.
Certainly pretend is necessary in conceiving a novel, no matter what method the author uses to find his way. The seat-of-the-pants writers apparently write in a meandering manner, learning about their characters and discovering their story as they go, though they may complete scenes they will later discard.
Outliners, on the other hand, aim to accomplish the same thing by a simple outline. Some writers claim they cannot outline because they would become a slave to their plan. I can't answer for them, certainly, but I don't think the outline method has to be significantly different from the meandering scene-by-scene writing — just shorter.
When I sat down to write my first novel, I carefully outlined, as I always had with my non-fiction projects. The problem was, as I began telling the story, I added new scenes and unplanned characters. To compensate, I kept changing my outline to fit the new direction my story was taking.
In subsequent novels, I've created a thumbnail sketch of the story but only outlined in detail a scene or two at a time. This approach alleviates any pressure I might feel to slavishly follow the outline and eliminates the necessity to frequently redo the plan. According to novelist and writing instructor James Scott Bell (Plot & Structure) — borrowing from E. L. Doctorow — this outline-as-you-go method is the Headlights System. You shine the light of your detailed outline ahead to the next major plot point, then write those scenes, allowing yourself to make any necessary changes as the story demands.
In my first book, despite all my deviation from my outline, I realized I didn't know my main character very well. He was an arrogant sinner who needed to change. But how did he get to be that way? What were his strengths that would win people over despite his weaknesses?
As I understood my character better, my writing became less generic and more specific, and I revised and revised again. But all that work! If only I'd conceived a well-rounded character before I wrote that early draft. As a beginner, however, not having studied how to write fiction, I didn't know any better.
All this brings to mind some of the writing instruction I heard in a seminar and even taught my own students: writing is 75% pre-writing with the other 25% divided between writing and revising.
Beyond a doubt, I work better putting a large portion of my effort into my pre-writing. Nothing discourages me more than not knowing who my character is or what will happen next. So I outline. After I understand the basics about my protagonist, I sit down and ask myself, what are the logical things that might happen? I make a list. I ask, what are the unusual things that might happen? I make a list. I ask, what are the most likely things that might happen? These things I cross off my lists.
Next I decide what else to throw away and what to keep based on which things move the story forward. For example, I may envision a fun scene in which my male protagonist stops at a burger joint and exchanges flirtatious banter with the girl taking orders. However, if the scene doesn't contribute to solving the over all story question or in some other way contribute to the story I'm telling, it doesn't belong. I'll have to cross it off my list. After I settle on the basic plot points I'd like to include — the keepers — I can put them in order and then choose one at a time to expand.
I'm shortcutting the procedure, but I think you can see how much quicker it is to make lists than it is to write whole scenes which may or may not work. As I see it, working with brief phrases that represent the scenes I've imagined gives me more time to write and revise the story — the one I now know going in, I want to tell.
Author and writing instructor Randy Ingermanson (Writing Fiction For Dummies) created a third, alternative planning method he calls the Snowflake Method, which gives more structure than the meandering seat-of-the-pants intuitive approach but less than the outlining process. According to this third way, a writer starts small, with her premise stated in a sentence, then expands from a sentence to a paragraph, to a page, to several character sketches, to a four-page synopsis, and so on.
In all these ways of envisioning a story, the author is imagining. She's creating characters and a story problem, friends and obstacles, places and inner struggles, a background and a resolution. In most instances, I dare say, the first conception of these elements is not the last, no matter what method an author is using.
The important point is for a writer to become aware of which process works best for her. Happily, the principles in this book are not dependent upon the type of planner you are. They apply to writers of all stripes, from outliner to pantser and all styles in between.
What process works best for you? Share in the comments.
What process works best for you? Share in the comments.
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