Tag Archives: drafting

In Which a Pantser Makes and Writes from an Outline

As I mentioned a few posts back, my current work-in-progress is my most ambitious undertaking yet (and if you read my most recent post then you know that I’m actually almost done!). In order to get started with it, I was forced to make an outline, which is something I had never done before (I had never outlined an entire book, at least). For someone who usually falls into the “pantser” category of writers, this was a new challenge in and of itself.

I found the actual writing of the outline itself to be somewhat tedious – necessary though I knew it was, I just wanted to be writing the actual story and digging into the characters and relationships and dialogue. It didn’t help that the outline took much longer to finish than I’d anticipated (though given what the overall length of the book will end up as, that shouldn’t have surprised me). But then once it was done, I was ready to get writing, and embark on this strange new journey of writing from an outline.

I wondered whether writing from an outline would help me to draft faster. I’m told I write pretty quickly, but I would always like to be faster (well, as fast as is reasonable without writing a draft that is a complete and utter mess). This has most definitely been the case; I’m at about 104,000 words right now in something that I started back in March (though, full disclosure: I did have the prologue and a few chapters already written, since I originally started playing with this idea some years ago, so I probably had around 5000ish words to start). That is the fastest I have ever written a draft of this length to this point in my writing career, and I can only conclude that it is because of the outline.

Because, of course, making an outline has removed that element of pantsing wherein I sit down in front of my computer and say “Okay, what next?”. No need to try to figure it out as I sit down to write; I can just refer to the outline. It has prevented me from getting really stuck or hung up on plot elements, since I’d already mapped all that out in advance.

That’s not to say, of course, that I haven’t had difficulties and roadblocks in writing this draft. Oh, have I ever. It’s just that those difficulties have been more along the lines of character arc and development and the subtleties of the characters’ relationships with one another – which run the gamut from loving to tricky to downright dysfunctional. Getting those sorts of things right, of course, is no easy task in writing any novel, whether you’ve got an outline or not. On the flip side, though, one of my two POV characters was being a bit more elusive, and what I found as I wrote the outline is that some of her motivations and the way she thinks became clearer to me. She’s been a bit of a tough nut to crack overall, and only recently do I feel like I finally have all the keys to her as a character. And that is something else that often comes with the drafting process.

And certainly not all of the spontaneity of my pantser’s soul has been eliminated. There were a few events that I originally included in the outline that I decided to cut, both to keep the length of the book manageable and also for the overall flow/arc of the story. Then there have also been events and scenes that I added in that were not in the outline, or scenes that ended up becoming bigger and more fleshed out than I had originally anticipated while outlining. Parts of the story and characters are still revealing themselves to me as I write, which is one of the things I love about pantsing. I like to be surprised (at least a little bit) when I’m writing, and that has still happened in this book.

Along those lines, another of my concerns was that, since I already knew everything that was going to happen and had already sketched it out, would I get bored with the actual writing of the book? The answer, thankfully, has been a resounding no. Quite the contrary, actually: since mapping everything out in brief I’ve been itching to get at many of the scenes and really dig into them. I was very glad to find that!

So, overall, much as it may pain me to admit it, writing from an outline has actually been a really good experience, and I think it has helped me draft this book more successfully in many ways. Do I see myself making an outline again in the future if I don’t absolutely have to (as I did with this book)? Hmmmm…maybe, maybe not. I don’t know that I could make myself sit down and write a whole outline again if the story did not absolutely require it, as in this case. I do still like discovering and unearthing the story as I go along. So while I wouldn’t say I’ve been converted from pantser to plotter altogether, writing from an outline has been a much better experience than I thought it would be.

 

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The Howling

I have that buzz in my veins. That excited, almost anxious fizzing in my blood that comes when I am closing in on the end of a draft. The howling of words that are scratching and clawing and trying to get out and onto the page. It makes it hard to focus on other things (like work, conversations with actual people, etc.) because everything in me just wants to be writing and writing and writing until I’ve finished. I start to resent anything and everything that takes me away from writing.

It’s a good feeling. A frustrating, exciting, energizing feeling. A good one.

I’m forgetful. I leave things behind. I walk into rooms and can’t remember what I went into them for. I can’t always hear the daily thoughts I need to function over the howling of the words in my ear. It’s a miracle I show up anywhere on time, given that while my body might be here, now, in the present, my head is in Rome circa the late 1490s.

Once the draft is finished, once I get all the words out of me and onto the page, the howling will quiet. It will fade away for a time as I finish my research and start to make revision notes and get feedback from my agent and critique partners. Then it will start up again: the sound of the words, now they are on the page, clamoring to be polished, to be gilded, to be made to sing where before they only howled.

All of us writers must hear this, the calling of the words to be put down and placed in a certain order and made to shine. That must be why we write, in answer to this siren song. The urge to tell a story, even when it’s not perfect, because it’s bubbled up within us to the point where we can’t not tell it anymore. And then the clamor continues, urging us to, now that we’ve told the story, to tell it well. Because if we don’t, then haven’t we wasted our chance to tell this story? Because if we don’t, who will?

As I write this, I’m about 96,000 words into my current work-in-progress. If I had to make an estimate, I would say that this one will end up at around 120,000 at this point. (It will probably get longer in revision). That’s still a bit of a ways to go, but I’ve got that downhill momentum going. I’m in the last third, and I’ve started rolling.

It doesn’t feel like this book has gone as fast as it has. It’s been a difficult one for many reasons. And while the buzzing, the fizzing, the howling is always the same, it always happens for me at this point in every first draft of everything, this time I think it does feel a little different, because of the challenges I’ve faced. The ones I am still facing. Because of the desire to just be able to say that “It’s done”, so I can go about fixing it. So that I can begin to imagine what it may finally look like. So that I can begin to imagine what it would be like to achieve what I meant to with this book.

I can’t quite imagine it yet. But soon. Because beneath the howling is a whisper that maybe I can do what I set out to do after all. The first draft is only the first step, but perhaps the biggest one. And so the howls and whispers alike prod me on.

 


Starting a New Project

In the last few weeks, having finished the work-in-progress that I’d spent the last year on, I did two things: 1) I took a bit of a writing break, of about a month or so (one I at times had to force myself to maintain, and 2) when that was over, I started a new writing project.

As I’ve alluded to in previous posts, I was a little nervous about starting something new this time around, having just finished something that I thought was/is probably my best work yet. Would my next project measure up? Would I love the idea, and love writing it, as much as I had my previous project? With writing, though, comparison is always the thief of joy – even if you’re comparing you to yourself, and your work to other examples of your work. And that isn’t productive or helpful. So I tried to remind myself of all of that and forge ahead with a new idea, one that had been brewing for a while. Actually, this idea was originally two separate ideas that seemed to magically come together to form one whole, filling in each other’s missing pieces.

So what is my process for starting a new novel project? Sometimes I make some notes before I actually start writing: character names, dates/timelines, a few lines that may have come to me here or there. Since I’m a pantser, there’s not too much of this, if at all, though I do make lots of notes as I go: reminders for things I need to look up/research, an idea for a new scene, notes for characters that have yet to be introduced, etc. There’s no rhyme or reason to this; I just jot these things down as they come to me.

Usually, though, the first step is to start writing. With this new project in particular, the opening of the novel suddenly started flowing through my brain as I was laying on the couch one night, reading, so I jumped up and grabbed my laptop and started typing until the words stopped. It’s a great feeling when that happens; when you’re just propelled to write, to drop everything and write. That’s what I always look for as a writer, and I’d venture a guess that others do, too.

Then I keep writing for a while. I test the idea out for a bit, needing to give it time to make sure it really has legs. There’s always a certain level of excitement when you first start working on a shiny new idea, but sometimes – and for a variety of reasons, I’ve found – that excitement can peter out, causing the project to stall. So I always make sure to give it a couple weeks of work to see how it goes before fully committing to the project. Am I still excited about working on it? Am I thinking about it when I’m not working on it? Am I still coming up with new ideas for scenes and character development and plotlines? Do I actually make the time to sit down and work on it?

After a few weeks, once I’m feeling like the project is definitely something I’ll stick with, I send what I have so far – usually the first few chapters, at that point – to my agent to get her take. I do this at the beginning of every project for multiple reasons: to make sure she thinks that the project is something that makes sense for my career trajectory as a whole and specifically for this point in my career; to see if she knows of anything similar that has recently sold and which would make my project a tougher sell; to get her take on the writing and story itself; and, quite frankly, to see if she thinks the project is something that she’ll be able to sell. Of course writing is a labor of love for me, but if I want to continue to be able to publish books, I need to be thinking about the market as well. And that’s one of the many things that an author’s agent can help with.

Sometimes my agent does have reservations on one or several of the above counts, in which case we usually get on the phone and talk it out and make sure we’re on the same page. She’s been doing this a long time and has way more knowledge of the business side of publishing than I do, so I always value her advice and insights – after all, that’s one of the things I’m paying her for. Sometimes, though, she loves what I’ve sent her without reservation and tells me to go for it. Then I keep writing to my heart’s content, and she won’t see it again until I send her a finished draft, which we both prefer. I love that she trusts me to get the work done and doesn’t need to look over my shoulder or check in with me about it; I wouldn’t work well that way. I’m sure perhaps some writers do, so to each their own!

Once my agent gives her blessing, I just keep writing – I don’t usually do any revisions until I have a full draft completed for several reasons, though there have been exceptions to this in the past. There’s usually a few mental/emotional milestones that I pass along the way: when I hit 10,000 words, which is when it feels like I’m not just playing around anymore; 20,000 words, when I realize that this is a real project I’m committed to writing and that this is really happening; and 30,000 words, which is always when a project starts to feel like a real novel to me. Then, of course, after 30,000 words we get into the middle of the novel, which is always the hardest part to write, for me; it’s when I’m in the thick of the plot and need to make sure everything is set up, and when it feels like I can’t see my way out and will be writing the book forever. But having written several novels at this point, I know that feeling is coming and am ready for it. It doesn’t necessarily make it any easier to get through, but it’s helpful to know that I feel that way every time and always get through it.

Now, what about research, you may be asking? Shouldn’t research come before any writing gets done? My answer to that is yes, probably. I always do a little preliminary research before I start writing, to make sure the idea works in a historical setting and makes sense, etc. I have been known to do lots of research as I go, which I don’t necessarily recommend (see above note about revising in the middle of a draft) but for the most part it’s worked out for me so far. The period of The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence was something I had a solid background in before I started writing, so in that instance my research before and as I wrote was mostly a matter of filling in blanks.

This new idea is a bit different for me in that it’s set in a period I’ve already written about and researched extensively (though I won’t say just yet what that is). That’s not to say that there aren’t aspects of this new story I’ll still need to research – there absolutely are – but again, it will be more a matter of filling in the blanks, and in this case I already know where to go to find the information I need.

Maybe this new project will see the light of day at some point, and maybe not. That’s the risk we take as authors each time we start a new project – there are no guarantees. That’s why, as long as I love the idea and am having fun writing it, I can usually block out just about everything else.