Monday, June 29, 2015

Tips for Writers Who Don't Work Well With Outlines

by Stephanie Morrill

Stephanie writes young adult contemporary novels and is the creator of GoTeenWriters.com. Her novels include The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt series (Revell) and the Ellie Sweet books (Birch House Press). You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and check out samples of her work on her author website including the free novella, Throwing Stones.

(This post is part of the Writing A Novel From Beginning to End series. You can find other posts from this series on the Looking For Something Specific? tab.)

Jill and I had an awesome time last week at the One Year Adventure Novel Summer Workshop in Olathe, Kansas.
I've adored this T-shirt for a few years, but this is the first time I was able to snag it in my size before they sold out.

The auditorium where we did a lot of our talks.

Jill, me, and the DeGisi sisters.

I chased Emily down for a picture since last year she had Jill sign one of my books using my head on a stick. (See last Monday's post for clarity.)


Catsi and me!


It's always so fun to be around young writers, who are so full of creativity and passion. I spent more time on stage than I was comfortable with (of course any stage time falls into that category for me), and I enjoyed interacting with the writers after my classes and during one-on-one mentoring appointments. It was fun to meet so many writers who I know from the Go Teen Writers community.

One of my favorite things about gatherings like this is learning about all the different ways writers go about writing their novels. The One Year Adventure Novel curriculum (which is designed to be used in a home school settings, but there are kids from public and private schools who do the course as well) is very structured. So structured, that I wonder how I would have done with it as a teen.

As a teenager and in my early twenties, I was a hardcore pantser. (Meaning I didn't outline my stories but instead just wrote it as it came to me.) I had tried plotting my stories a time or two, but inevitably I went a totally different direction than I had intended, so I stopped trying to figure out ahead of time how it was all going to work out.

If by nature you work best with no outline, there's absolutely nothing wrong with that. Sometimes as a pantser, I felt like I should have more of a plan if I wanted my book to be any good. That's really not true at all. So don't feel like you need to become more of an outliner if you want to write a well-thought out novel.



There are, however, some unique struggles to being a discovery writer. Here are some thoughts on how to deal with them:

Be ready for edits.

This is a huge one. When you discovery write, or write by the seat of your pants, your story tends to flow a very organic way. This is awesome. But it will often leave you with a meandering first draft with a variety of plot holes and aimless characters.

You will find sections that don't seem very well thought out (if you're like me, it's because they weren't!) or massive plot holes. Sometimes you'll find that characters are inconsistent from page to page because you hadn't figured them out until you finished the story. You also might come upon random tangents that never went anywhere and need to be cut.

Another thing to watch for is that your ending might be TOO much of a surprise. By which I mean, you didn't know what it would be, so you weren't able to lay the proper groundwork throughout the book to set up your awesome surprise.

Turning out a first draft that requires a lot of edits doesn't mean you did a bad job or that you needed to plan more. It only means that it's a first draft. They're supposed to be like that!

Beware of the never ending rewrite.

This was a huge struggle for me, particularly in my early days. I would write the first few chapters of a book, not quite knowing where the story would head. And then when I stalled out, instead of pushing forward I would instead rewrite the chapters I had already written, positive that I could make them "perfect" this time.

Don't let yourself fall into this pattern or you'll be stuck in a never ending rewrite. It's important to press on with the rest of the story.

Watch out for back story. 

Because I was discovering the back story of these characters as I wrote, it all worked its way into the narrative. But you really don't need that much, so keep an eye on that in edits. A character's background is a great thing for you to know as the writer, but a little goes a long way with the audience. Critique partners are great at noticing back story that goes on for a bit too long.

Wait ... it's missing something.

My discovery written novels have always been the ones where I have to go back and add an entire character or a story line. In a different blog post, I've talked about my process for adding a subplot or plot layer after a first draft is written.


Double check your calendar.

Another issue I always ran into with my discovery written novels was that the chronological order of my story was way off. Mostly because I just didn't want to take the time to think through what day of the week it now should be if it's "three days later." So it's a good idea to fill in a calendar of some sort when you're done with your first draft or as you write.

Understand story structure.

We naturally absorb story structure by reading and watching stories, but it's still a good idea to at least be aware of the basics. This way if something isn't working with your plot, you're better equipped to identify what you might be missing. I blew off story structure for a long time, and my stories suffered for it.

If you write without an outline (or even without much of an outline), I'd love to hear your thoughts on the process. What have you found works for you? Where do you struggle?


33 comments:

  1. Thanks for the suggestions! I generally write with no or minimal outline, so these are quite useful. *nods*

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  2. I'm pretty much a plotster, but it's always good to hear tips from the "other side of the fence", so to speak. Also, that t-shirt. :)

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    1. Pretty fabulous, right? It's taking a lot of self-control to not wear it every single day.

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  3. I agree with Linea! It's an intriguing technique... Hope you had a great time!

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  4. Thank you for the tips on discovery writing, it will really help my writing of the story. I have been using very minimal outlining for my current WIP.
    Congrats on the OYAN workshop.

    ~Fionn Fitzgerald

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  5. I am a complete panster, so these tips are very helpful, thank you! I'm almost done with one of my WIPs and I'm preparing for my massive edits it'll require. What usually works for me is just exploring the world a bit at first, and my characters will get themselves into all sorts of trouble. This can be good for plot reasons, but often I have no idea what is happening or where it is going to lead. I get so frustrated by this, but the only way I can get through it is to just push on and write.

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    1. That's what I found too when I was pantsing. That it started to feel so messy around the halfway point, but it really was best to just push through.

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  6. This was very helpful! Lol. I'm a natural panster trying to reform myself into a plotter. I'm doing a mini-NaNo in July -National Novel(ette) Writing Month? I'm trying to get my outline worked out today. Either way, it's good to know that it WILL be okay if I decide to toss the plan altogether.
    Also, that shirt makes me wish I had a villain. :)

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    1. I hope NaNo goes well for you! I've yet to participate but one day would really like to.

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  7. I am very much a plotter because I'm the type of person that really needs structure in my creative process. However, while I am usually a hardcore plotter, I don't always spend as much time plotting and end up leaning towards the plantsing side. *cough*myjulycampnanowip*cough* That's when I know I have to be prepared for even more major edits because writing something without a really solid plan usually ends in a very rambly story for me. Then again, every story of mine is going to require major edits. Plotting just makes edits a bit easier for me.

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    1. Yes, there's no way to get around edits, unfortunately. Rewriting is just part of writing.

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  8. Great post! I wish I knew about the tip with the calander earlier. During my first attempt at NaNoWriMo last November (A.K.A. the moment I found out I would not survive without an outline. I am absolutly not a pantser) I was writing a historical that took place "during the london blitz in November of 1941" which makes no sense. I think the story jumped 3 months ahead at one point, and yet said it was december or January. Thankfully I reached 50000 words at about the midpoint, but I refuse to move on without an outline
    For all you pantsers out there, you have the strength of 1000 men. I have no idea how you do it.

    ~K.A.C.

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    1. I learned about the calendar the hard way too! Like when my first editor came back to me and was like, "Hey, in chapter 3 in June, and in chapter 4 it's "the next day" but it's also August..."

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  9. The picture of us made me smile. It was so great talking with you at the SW, and I'm really grateful for all the advice you gave me. I can't wait for Camp NaNo so I can get started on this novel. :D

    I'm actually a major outliner--I cannot survive without one, something that spills over into my real life as well; I was the girl with the workshop schedule memorized on Monday last week XD--but several of these tips were really helpful to me. Especially the thing about edits... I intensely dislike editing, for some reason. But it's so necessary, even if you are an outliner.

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    1. It makes me smile too :)

      And, yes. Edits are part of life for every writer. Most of us start out hating them, but for many they become their favorite part. So there's hope!

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  10. I've been a pantster since I started writing, so this was really helpful! I struggle with the never-ending rewrite all the time, but I'm finally starting to get past that point. And I definitely have the calendar problem--in my NaNo novel last year, my characters' quest was supposed to take a week, but at the rate they were going, they'd reach their goal in two days. I did start a little timeline after spotting the problem, and that helped a lot. I also have a lot of trouble finding motivation for characters--I have to change my protagonist's objective constantly, because I can never find one that works.

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    1. Ellie, those are things I've struggled with too. They get better with practice, fortunately!

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  11. First off, I'm so glad GTW is back! I didn't realize how much I missed all of your posts until this one appeared in my inbox :) I say I'm a pantser, but partway through my story I figure out where I'm going and put my story around that. I have issues with the characters not being themselves in earlier parts of the book because I never really know who they are until about halfway through the book. Last NaNo really helped me to be more coherent with my characters because I was writing day after day. I'm looking forward to Camp NaNo and November NaNo to try that strategy of writing a lot day after day again.

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    1. I have that problem with the characters too! Their voices change a lot throughout my first draft, since I never have a clear idea of who they are until I finish it.


      Alexa
      thessalexa.blogspot.com
      verbositybookreviews.wordpress.com

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    2. I also have that issue. Even with planning. I think it's the same as real life friendships, where you can know a lot about somebody, but until you've spent a lot of time with them, you don't really know how they think or where they're coming from.

      We;re glad to be back!

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  12. I'm a pantser to the core (except during NaNo. Then I don't have time to completely pants, so I write a couple of pages of notes, but still no real outline). It's a ton of fun, but like you said, edits can be a beast! I've basically had to deal with every problem you mentioned :p But I love writing this way and it works for me. Just sometimes, it's a lot of work.


    Alexa
    thessalexa.blogspot.com
    verbositybookreviews.wordpress.com

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    1. I'm glad you've found a way to write that works so well for you, Alexa!

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  13. Glad you had fun at OYAN!

    I'm some where between plotter and panster. I have always been pretty organized but I found out when I started writing that being too organized hindered my creative process. So now I make a very vague outline and I know that my MC must make it from point A to point J to point Z. I let my characters take it from there. I have found that there are often many different ways to get from point to point.

    Keep on writing!
    God bless!
    -Megan

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    1. I'm very similar, Megan. Because I love organization and being organized, I thought that extensive planning would be the best way for me to go. Nope! Instead it really interferes with my creativity.

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  14. Pantser all the way! I follow along with the people in the story and write down what happens. More more natural and organic, and the only way I can do it that respects the tale. It does not feel like I am making any of it up but discovering what is already there, and I have the honor of recording so others can know of it. It does not even feel right to call those in the story 'characters' especially not 'my' characters because I am just bringing to light their story, not inventing it myself. Love that T-shirt!

    God bless, Anne Marie :)

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    1. The organic quality of pantsed stories is my favorite!

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  15. A good way to deal with backstory is to have a separate document open for you to write the "Backstory Notes." Then you still have all the information on hand, but you don't clog up your story with too much of it.

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  16. Yes! Finally a post for pantsers like myself! I have always deviated from my outlines, and even then, I'm never certain how my story is going to end. It's cool to see what I'm doing right and what I need to start/stop doing. I totally made the mistake of the neverending rewrite on one novel I was working on, and that's the reason why I stopped writing it! On the one I was working on before this, I was getting really upset about plot holes and not knowing where my story would wind up, which is why it ended. I'm learning to let it go (I bet you're hearing the song in your head right now *evil laugh*) and let my first draft be messy. Anyhow, long rant over, hopefully I'll finish the story I'm working on right now. (-: And epic t-shirt btw!

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    1. *bangs head on wall* Nooo! That song! *headdesk*

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    2. Nononononono WHY DID YOU HAVE TO MENTION THAT SONG????!!!

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