Friday, July 13, 2018

Do you outline your books, discovery write, or are you a hybrid? (With Jonathan Friesen!)

Today is our last day with author Jonathan Friesen for summer panels, but you can sign up for his newsletter or email him on his website and also keep in touch with him through his Facebook and Twitter accounts.

Before he leaves, we have one more question for Jonathan:

Talk to us about outlining. Do you outline your books or discovery write them? Are you a hybrid?

Jonathan: I usually write a half-page narrative plan. It’s not much, but hey, it both gives me direction and leaves room for me to get lost along the way, something I consider to be essential when writing a good story. The narrative is short enough that I only get to include the most important aspects of the tale, which helps keep me focused. Now, I don’t get too excited about this brief summary. What gets me going is my other pre-writing exercise. Somebody gave me this idea, so maybe this won't be new to anyone: I ask every main character to write a letter to every other main character. These letters are long, pages long. This is where I discover the unique voice of each character, and the feelings they hold toward other characters in the story. Nobody will ever criticize you for writing a simple story. But you can’t get away with writing stories in which all the voices sound the same. These letters help me create real, unique characters. That’s when I get excited.

Jill: That's so interesting, Jonathan! I've never before heard of an author who had characters write letters to each other. I might have to try that sometime. 

I'm a hybrid author. I start out with a list of scenes for each major point in the three-act structure. Then I write those on index cards, lay them out of the floor, and once I decide how long the book is going to be, I brainstorm scenes to fit in all the holes. When I’ve got a pretty decent plan, I stack up the cards and discovery write one card every day until I have a rough draft finished. Sometimes I have to pause to rearrange the cards or add new cards, but this process usually gets me a descent rough draft to work from.  

Shan: I do not traditionally outline, but I do pen a working synopsis early on in the process and I work off of that. I adjust it as I go, and it acts as a guide when I need direction. Mostly I write by feel, but it’s good to have landmarks to shoot for. The more experienced I get, the less I am willing to waste time on things I definitely won’t use. So while I definitely discovery write my scenes, I’m more deliberate about them than I used to be.

Stephanie: I am a hybrid. I work best when I have a 2-3 page synopsis, and I start writing from that. Sometimes I outline an individual scene before I begin writing it. I have found that helps me to get the writing done faster.

What about you, writers? Do you outline your books, discovery write, or are you a hybrid?


  1. Characters writing each other letters is hands down the coolest thing I’ve heard all week. Definitely going to give that a try.
    I’m a hybrid. I used to be a complete pantser and have a thousand dead end stories to show for it, and then I switched to plotter, and have hundreds of pages of notes that go to stories never written. So now I tend to write a very rough synopsis with just the major points I need to happen, so I have a framework to go on, and then I take off writing to fill in the blanks between those major points. It works really well for me.

  2. "It both gives me direction and leaves room for me to get lost along the way, something I consider to be essential when writing a good story." I love this, Jonathan, and I agree SO much.

    I have never had my character write letters to the other characters, but I can see how that would be really beneficial. I've done character journals, where you ask the character a question ("Tell me about your childhood," or whatever) and free-write in first person. I always find fun surprises in that!

  3. I'll have to try characters writing to each other. That's. . . ooh, yes. I've got a new idea I'm brainstorming which involves a fair number of letters getting exchanged, too.

    Most of the time I write to find out what happens next, and if I know ahead of time, I lose interest. So generally an outline is counterproductive for the first draft, though I do something like one for whipping the second draft into shape. Occasionally with an historical story, though, I'll need to know if certain plot points are plausible before I start, to save myself tears later if the climax turns out to be absolutely impossible given an inconvenient date or something.

    Also, since I usually start with a character popping in to say hi-will-you-write-me-that's-an-order, sometimes I can write down a sort of narrative summary based on what I think is going to happen if they do things which, with my current knowledge, are in character for them. But as often as not, when I get to know them better, or they grow and change, the second half gets tossed out the window anyway.

    I've been told outlining is what mature authours do before they start, and discovery writing is all right for those just getting on their feet, but I'm not sure. It's not the kind of thing which always affects the quality of the final draft, and some find it stifling to have an outline, and others are lost without the structure to climb on; so let's not make one or the other out to be objectively better. . . (Not saying GTW does this --- you've been very good about always giving us both options.)

  4. Super cool idea about the letter writing! I've used journal entries and dreams to help develop characters outside of the story but not letter and to that degree. I tend to work off of a synopsis, but it seems to take me far too long. I recently started outlining based on the three act structure and like your process, Jill, of using notecards. Think I'll try that (after I've transcribe all my handwritten stuff into Scrivener--halfway there!).

  5. I usually consider myself a plotter, but some of these people talking about how they're "hybrids" plot harder than me! I usually have a pretty solid idea of where I want the plot to go in my head. How I get that on paper varies. For one series, I have a lot of relatively short stories, so I have a one-page summary of each sitting in a notebook just so I can keep track (as well as character lists--maybe I'll try having them write letters to each other!) For another, I have a page detailing the plot in terms of three-act structure--"Here's what happens in the midpoint, here's the second half of the second act, here's the third turning point, here's the third act..." I also have a paragraph or two of summary of the later stories in that series, and when I reach them I'll write out their act structure. Everything in between the key points, I improvise, knowing what to build to. I guess that makes me a hybrid, and a pretty discovery-ish hybrid at that. I always thought I was such an outliner!

  6. I usually consider myself a hybrid, but for some reason I’m trying to pants my July Camp NaNo novel?? Not sure why I decided that......

    And character letters? Those sound interesting. I might have to try that!

  7. I absolutely love the idea of characters writing letters to each other! The character interview has never worked for me because I don't know who my character is talking to (I'm not a break-the-fourth-wall person with my characters), and so it's hard to figure out which of their voices they'd use. But I think confession letters to other characters would work really well.

    I'm not working on a novel but a TV series at the moment. I used to consider myself a pantser, but I've been enjoying making a list of scenes for each episode and writing it. Since I'm almost at the halfway point for the first season, I've started working on character synopses to make sure I know where they're going.

    I usually compost characters for a long time before writing, so I think combining that creative, uninhibited process with outlining works well for me.

  8. Cool ideas! I'm a hybrid leaning toward pantsing, but I want to plot so badly. I have a bad case of the "gotta right the story now" which gets me in trouble. I like to write a short overview/synopsis for the story and brainstorm with others over things. I also use pinterest for inspiration. My plan for the project I'm about to start working on is to do a bit more outline work using worksheets, etc. to try to really find my flow. I'm excited.