Vast amounts have been written about the process of writing, and one of the most contentious issues is that of outlining or discovery writing. Plotting or pantsing, in more colloquial terms. Outlining means planning every stage of the book according to whatever theory of structure the author subscribes to: the three act principle, or the twelve step hero’s journey, or whatever it happens to be. Character traits, plot points, sub-plots, dramatic twists, big revelations – all are set out ahead of time, before a single word of the book itself is written. Discovery writing is the blank sheet of paper system: the writer simply writes, following ideas wherever they may lead.
Now there are benefits and pitfalls to both systems. Outliners may find themselves too constrained by The Plan, so that when an interesting idea occurs to them in the middle of chapter 17, they feel obliged to ignore it, for fear of deviating too far from the straight and narrow. Discovery writers may find themselves with a vast mess to disentangle when it comes to the editing stage. Neither is right, neither is wrong.
There are innumerable books out to guide a beginning writer through the process of outlining. There’s even a software system (the Snowflake method) that allows you to start with a one line summary of your plot. Then you expand that to a paragraph, then a sequence of paragraphs roughly equivalent to chapters, then each chapter is expanded to scenes, and so on. Each iteration brings the work a little closer to a finished draft. It sounds so simple, doesn’t it? From one line to a polished book, and for many people it works brilliantly, I’m sure.
The difficulty with the plotting/pantsing debate is that it’s not a binary arrangement. No writer has to be one or the other. How you write a book has as much to do with the nature of the book as anything else. A linear story with a single point of view character and not too many sub-plots – the average romance, for instance – may not need much plotting beyond a few key turning points. Post-it notes, rather than a spreadsheet, will be fine. On the other hand, a 200,000 word fantasy novel, part 1 of a trilogy, needs a bit more advance planning. There might be more written in the backstory and world-building notes than in the book itself, and you’re looking at a shelf of box files, or an immaculately organised computer file system.
When I started work on my first proper story (Work #1: The Incursors), as opposed to the more or less random burblings that had preceded it, I decided to outline it. I had Scrivener, so I filled in all those little corkboard notes for each chapter. I had quite a few chapters worked out in detail, the main plot points and the ending (I was a bit vague about the middle), but it seemed like enough to be going on with so I started writing. And almost immediately my system fell apart. As I wrote, things got changed and I dutifully updated my outline. Some days I spent more time tinkering with the outline than writing. Often I forgot to update it, so it got stranded like seaweed on the beach after the tide of the story had swept round it.
One thing I never had a problem with was ideas. I never, ever got stuck and thought: well, I’ll just check what was planned for this chapter. There were difficulties, of course, but it was more a question of reconciling the vast bloat of backstory with the need for a leaner book. Could I leave out swathes of characters? Locations? How could I hint at how my main characters met and fell in love without stuffing the current story with huge amounts of info-dump or not-really-relevant flashback? But as I struggled on, the outline became less and less meaningful, and eventually I got rid of it altogether. Looking back on it, I’m not sure it would have helped, even if I’d planned to the nth degree.
Then along came Work #2: The Plains of Kallanash. This grew from a single idea: what would happen if a marriage comprised four people rather than the usual two? What would it be like to be the junior wife in such an arrangement? And there, out of nowhere, was my main character, in her setting. The other three sprang up behind her, and the first chapter simply coalesced in my head. I’ll just jot this down before I forget it, I thought. I started writing and I didn’t stop. I had no outline. I didn’t have any idea where the story was going, what the significant plot points were, how it would end. I just wrote. And wrote. It flowed in a way that was a revelation to me. It was true discovery writing. People died and I didn’t know why, until the explanation was revealed later. There was a tunnel, and I didn’t know what was down there or where it led until my characters went there. My male protagonist unexpectedly went into battle against his own people. My villain disobeyed orders and fell in love with my female protagonist, but when I got to know him better, I completely understood. My characters explored a tower and found things that were as much of a surprise to me as to them. And although I hadn’t intended it, there was a dragon (sort of). It didn’t feel as if I were making stuff up; more like gradually uncovering something that was always there. Discovering it, basically.
It took me a year, but I eventually got that story finished, the first novel I’ve ever managed to complete. It’s still in first draft form waiting to be edited, but it’s done. I’m now working on Work #3: The Fire Mages, on the same principle. This one started with the first line, and grew from there. I still have no idea where it will end up, although I have a few possibilities. Now, I don’t know, since no one but me has ever read these stories, whether they are any good or whether they are just a steaming pile of poo. I like them, but what do I know? So I can’t say whether discovery writing works for me or not, because the process is still under way. They’re a long, long way from being ready for public viewing.
Still, for me, discovery writing has been a success, because it enabled me to finish a book, to write ‘The End’ for the first time. And the ride has been a blast. With outlining, I found writing a slog, like walking uphill the whole time. Pantsing, for me, is like tobogganing downhill – fast, exhilarating, fun.
Why does it work for me? Because it suits the way I like to work. When I write, I’m not really writing blind, not knowing what the next word will be. Even without an outline, I always have a good idea of what the scene I’m writing is all about. As I write, I keep notes of important backstory – characters, significant details I need to remember, a timeline when things get complicated. I already have a huge amount of world-building done, so that helps. And in between writing times, as I go about my everyday chores, I’m wondering what comes next, so I’m usually a few steps ahead of myself. I also edit as I go, rereading the last chunk of writing before I start the next and sometimes revising a whole chapter or three from earlier sections. If I find I need an established character or item in a later chapter, I’m quite happy to go back and fit in references earlier on. Essentially, I outline in my head, as I go.
Lots of people say that’s unlikely to work. Come back in a year or so, and I’ll have a better idea whether they’re right. But there are two aspects of outlining that I really dislike. One is the time it takes. One book I read says chirpily that the outline will likely take three months. That’s before a word of the actual story is written. Of course, the actual writing should be quicker once the story is plotted out but still – three months developing the idea without any actual writing? No thanks.
The other off-putting aspect of outlining, for me anyway, is that it leaches all the joy out of writing. I found it a total thrill to discover my characters and everything that happened to them as I went along. The idea of extracting all the significant points and listing them in a spreadsheet or in bullet points horrifies me. It’s so soulless.
I’ve noticed in my reading that there’s a certain kind of writer, usually a prolific genre or formula writer, who writes books by rote, following the best practice of structure, character development and conflict, but without any passion. The opening line is usually a humdinger, designed purely to entice. In some cases, I suspect the whole book is constructed around it. Each character has a laundry list of strengths and weaknesses, quirks and flaws, and a backstory designed to make them sympathetic. Each chapter ends on a cliffhanger. Adverbs and passive voice are avoided, active verbs are preferred, everything is shown not told. All as the experts suggest. Yet it comes across as flat, devoid of genuine feeling.
Personally, I’d far rather read a flawed book written from the heart than one devised solely to make sales on Amazon. As for my own writing, for now I’m sticking to discovery writing. I reserve the right to do things differently in future. And if I presumed to give anyone advice, I would say: don’t be constrained by the so-called experts. Use industrial-strength outlining if it works for you, pants it if that works, or find some happy medium. Every writer is an individual, so write the book you want to write in the way that you feel is best.