Tag Archives: outlining

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 New, Great, Challenging Work-in-Progress

As those of you who have read my posts in the last few months will know, I’ve been struggling to decide what idea to choose for my next novel – I had a few that I really liked (and still do like them all). But I have since decided on one – it’s the one both my agent and I were leaning towards – and have been hard at work on it. All I’ll say about it at this point is that it is set in Renaissance Italy, but it’s very different from The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence. It’s very dark and political, and it sticks very closely to actual historical events for the most part.

It is also, without a doubt, going to be the most difficult and challenging book I’ve written to date.

I thought that this book was going to be the second book of my two-book deal with St. Martin’s Press, but it just wasn’t ready yet (and so, of course, I wrote The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence). Once I turned in Most Beautiful, I thought it was going to be my third book, but it still wasn’t ready: my agent liked what I had so far, but felt like it was maybe missing something. So I wrote a different book (which I hope to be able to tell you all more about soon) instead.

I have always intended to write this book, and now, finally, its time has come. I found the missing piece of it in, as it happened, a short story I’d written in college. Then everything clicked and I was on my way. I couldn’t not write it. It’s time.

I wrote about 10,000 words (some of which I had originally written years ago, when I first started playing with this idea) before I realized I needed to face that thing that I’d been avoiding: an outline.

I’m a pantser at heart, which isn’t always conducive to historical fiction. With The Violinist of Venice, my narrator and heroine was a fictional character, so I was able to do plenty of pantsing in having her life take whatever course it wanted and that seemed natural. With The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence, I had just a few facts about Simonetta Vespucci to use as a framework for my story, but I did end up outlining the last third of the book as I approached it, as there were some actual historical events that I was planning to intersperse with scenes of my own invention, and I found I really needed to plot out how all that would happen. But, to this point, that was the extent of my outlining.

For this project, though, I knew right away that I would not be able to write it WITHOUT an outline. As I mentioned above, the plot is largely comprised of actual historical events, and while I know a very great deal about this time and these particular historical figures, I did not know exact dates and chronology off the top of my head. No, that would have to all be written down and mapped out beforehand in a way that I could easily reference as I wrote. Add to that the fact that one of my two point-of-view (POV) characters is a fictional character and that I needed to decide what she was doing and how she fit in with the history, and it was obvious that an outline was necessary.

So I’ve spent the last few weeks – when I’ve had time and wasn’t busy with promotional pre-release things for The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence – pouring over history books and biographies for the chronology of events I was including in the novel, and writing an outline that incorporated all this with my fictional character’s actions. I’m planning to write a separate post about my thoughts on the outlining process a bit later, once I’ve had a chance to actually start writing from said outline, but suffice it to say that this process was both less terrible and more tiring than I thought it would be.

So now the outline is done, and in looking at its sheer length and complexity I find myself more aware than ever of the herculean task I’ve set myself, and the laundry list of challenges I’ve created for myself. I have more history to grapple with and get right than ever before. The events my characters cause and experience are incredibly varied and tumultuous (as anyone familiar with the political history of Italy in the Renaissance will know) and I must capture all that on the page in a way that is compelling and makes for a good story, as well as what seems now like dozens of plot threads and relationships to juggle. I have to make sure my characters develop in the arc that I want across all of this. This is the first time I have attempted to write two POV characters; one is fictional and one is historical, one is a woman and one is a man. It will absolutely be the longest book I have written to date. Oh, and did I mention that this is book 1 in what I am planning as a duology? Something else I have never attempted before.

It is something of a comfort to know that many, many authors other than myself have conquered these challenges in the past. What I am attempting is certainly nothing new in the world of historical fiction, but it is a new challenge for me. I have, since starting, certainly been intimidated at the size of the challenge ahead – I still am. But at the end of the day, that is what makes this project worth pursuing. I don’t want to write the same book, the same arc, the same type of story over and over again. I WANT to challenge myself, because it’s only when I do that I will truly grow as a writer. Each book that I’ve written thus far has been a new challenge for me in some way, and this is just the next one. It is the biggest challenge I’ve set myself to this point, and because of that I know that, if I can get this book right, it will be the best one I’ve written yet.