Monday, October 12, 2009

Dastardly plotz

If there is one thing I really need to say before I start: it's that no two writers ever do things quite the same way. There is no such thing as the only right way. What works for you is the right way. And what works for me is seldom the right way twice.
I have noticed a lot of people talking about story ideas... often story ideas that never turn into stories. Now, quite a lot of us are pantsers. Good luck and may the pants of inspiration guide you. On the other hand some of you are dedicated plotters. I tend to fall somewhere betwixt, but I do like to establish something of a plot outline. That varies from a detailed 50 page anal summary, which is missing the dialogue and description - the sort of thing I could turn into a book in three weeks because I've already spent a lot of time and effort on it -to a half a page of broad outline. The latter will probably take quite a lot longer to turn into a book, but for me both of them have followed more or less the same pathway. They've come from a story seed, be it someone telling me that something is impossible, or a spark provided by anything from a nightmare to something I've read in New Scientist (their physics reporting seems reasonable, some of the biological and particularly psychological articles probably need to be taken with a generous pinch of salt. But even pure manure can grow some interesting plants if you mix it with good soil.) It then for me involves reaching some kind of solution - i.e. I'm talking about a probable endpoint. I then work out a beginning. That often means writing a few thousand words which may be entirely disposable, just to get a handle on the setting and characters. It's then that things become much more variable. Basically I can scattergun it with scenes that I can see will have to happen, and try and link those up. That I'm finding seems to work better for me these days. The method I used to follow -which ended up in the 50 page outline which usually didn't survive direct contact with the first three chapters-involved systematically working from the front.
So what works for you? How do you make it from that idea spark to a viable outline? Or do you think outlines are a waste of time?


C Kelsey said...

The last story I outlined was so complex that I *had* to outline it first. Unfortunately, as happens most of the time when I outline a story, it totally killed the idea. Not only did it stop sounding fun after I'd outlined it but I couldn't even think about it anymore. So... no outlining for me if I can help it.

Anonymous said...

I start with the seed, an idea about how a world is organized, or some odd creature. In getting the idea down, I usually find myself moving from explaining about said creatures to writing a scene with one or more of them in it.

At that point, 3k words in or so, I have to firmly haul my cowering logical side out and demand that it think up a problem for the creature to solve. The logical brain points out that since my split personality dragon (All dragons are both Good and Evil) is . . .

ACK! Dave, your Fionn/Finn is to blame for this! I just had to cut (and paste in the appropriate place) the story problem. Somehow I don't think I'm going to be reading slush today.

Ahem. Having found a problem appropriate to the setting and characters, I write them into the problem.

Then I drag the logical mind back out to tell me how they're going to get out of it. At that point I start trying to structure the story, using the hero's journey as a model. First two tries fail, serious rethinking and commitment to the desperate and successful third fight. Not that it's ever that clean, but I do try to keep it in mind.

I've tried outlining from the very start, and always deviated immediately. It seemed like a waste of time. I'll say this works when I sell one.


Amanda Green said...

I am sort of an outlining-pantser or a pantsing-outliner. If my outlines are too detailed, I find it harder to get back into the mood to write the actual book. Sort of one of those "been there-done that" moments. However, when I just pants it, the book goes all over the place or, worse, I leave out things the reader needs to know. After all, I already know it, so they must as well. Sigh.

My solution is to do a brief, 5 - 10 page outline, at the beginning of the project. For one thing, I never seem to follow the outline from start to finish. The story always seems to evolve differently than I expected.

Another thing I tend to do -- thank you, Sarah, for suggesting it -- is make notes at night for the next several chapters I'll be writing. Nothing too detailed, just something to make sure I hit the important things -- including setting out the red herrings -- and that I tie up loose ends when I should.

C Kelsey said...

I have to have my characters tell me the story in order to be able to write it. I know the main plot points, but the characters tell me as I'm writing how they get there. When I outline it goes outside of the characters voice and usually destroys the charcter.

Anonymous said...

I can't speak for books since I haven't gotten that far in my plan to overtake the writing world with my brilliance and style ::grin::, but I do have a general outline that I've adopted for shorts. I usually start a story with a concept. Either the first paragraph has been written in my head and I have to go forth from there, or the climax-in-general has been envisioned. Weird, huh?

When the first paragraph thing hits, it's word for word. When the climax hits, it's very general.

If I have the first paragraph, I proceed on from this introduction to problem to first-failed try to second-successful try which includes the climax to the wrap-up. I can wait to figure out the solution to the problem if I start with the first paragraph, but not vice-versa.

If I start with the climax which is usually a concept fix for the problem, then I must immediately move to the first paragraph. Then I proceed to fill in the middle.

Either way, I must have the first paragraph (or a few) before I move to the middle. These can change later in the story, but for my purposes, they get me started in a right direction.

It is a good thing that we all have our processes, because I certainly couldn't expect anyone else to follow the dark, mysterious workings of my brain.

Linda Davis

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

I don't know. I seem to go through phases. I sometimes outline things so much that, yeah, add descrption and setting and some dialogue and presto, changeo it's a book. Only things change. This approach often ends up with my writing things that don't feel right, because I owe it to the me that sweated over the outline. Then I discard two thirds of the book, and write it as it should be written. Heart of Light was done this way and honest to bog, if I never open that book again, it will be too soon. I don't even know if it's any good.

Then I go through phases where I do a short "Selling outline" which I've completely forgotten by the time the book sells, and then plunge into it with only a vague notion of where I'm going and press unrelentingly forward until it's done. It's weird how often those are the closest I get to the original outline.

Most of the time I'm somewhere in the middle. I write a selling outline (ten to twelve pages) then when I start work, I do a quick ten chapter at a time outline by hand on a pad (seems less final that way) and allow it to deviate from the original plot, if needed. That's how I wrote Soul of Fire and Draw One In The Dark and Gentleman Takes A Chance.

And then there's when the entire novel is in my mind and whether I outline or not, doesn't matter, as the whole thing is already there: DarkShip Thieves, and a couple others I'm working on.

So... plotter or pantser? Yes. And every point in between, too.

Kate said...

Oh heck... I am a serious pantser. I've been known to start novels with absolutely no idea what happens, although something seems to know because nearly all the foreshadowing usually arrives there anyway. I think my subconscious plays footsie with me.

The most detailed outline I've done and then worked from was the outline for Impaler, which was maybe 5 pages. The outline that I'm using to try to sell it was written after the fact.

Usually I start with a general concept, a world, main character(s) and what's in the first chapter. Everything after that is more or less up in the air, although it firms up some as I write. I wouldn't recommend it, but it seems to work for me.

Chris McMahon said...

It seems so much cooler to me to fly by the seat of your pants, but I have to admit to being a pretty confirmed plodder, oh I mean plotter.

My first attempt at a novel was a fly the seat of the pants effort that went totally off the rails and ended in the bin. So after that I pretty much became an obsessive plotter.

I have swung a little back. Now I plot a lot looser than I used to, and spend a lot more time getting to know the characters before I start. It probably adds up to the same investment of mental energy prior to starting, though.

Kate said...


Proof - as if it was needed - that there's no "right" way to write. A large part of the learning process is figuring out what works best for you, then how to best use it.

Sometimes I think those who can do the heavy outlining and figure it out up front are better off - when you're working by instinct and subconscious, it can be very difficult to know what you've got wrong (something my writing group knows all too well when I send them stuff with 'this isn't working but I have no idea WHY!')

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


You're pretty much describing my trajectory, only after novel six or so, it all started going haywire and I write it as it comes to me, and as that individual novel wants to be.