People often tell me I should outline before I tackle a novel, but I’m perfectly happy with my habit of just making the story up as I go along. But I hate the “pantster” as in “flying by the seat of your pants” label because I’ve found that it tends to give a false impression about the process. I’ve actually run into a writer who believed that “pantster” was the opposite of “plotter” so that if I am a pantster, my novels have no plot. Oh, I’ve also had a writing coach insist that since I don’t outline, I can’t have written in completed novels. The misconceptions I run into in writing groups never fail to amaze me.
So, how do I build my story out from nothing? Or next to nothing? Well, I do need a starting point. This can be a simple as a character and a situation or conflict. Now, here’s the critical point — I don’t have to start with the main character and the overarching plot of the novel. I’ve noticed that is what causes a lot of writers to stall before they even get started. Start small.
For “Love is Blond” my starting situation was — Patrick comes back to the inn having been bruised and beaten. What happens? Now, instead of writing this on a mind map or an outline, I draft a scene with Patrick and Rafael going through this. Essentially, my characters act out the scene. Now from that, I have two directions to go. One is — what led to this happening? The other is — what follows this happening? The reason I like writing out the scene is that one of my characters is likely to say or do something that helps me figure out the answer to one of those. So, then I write that scene. And that leads to another scene, and so forth.
After going back and forth and loosely writing scenes for a bit, I usually find I have a fairly good idea of where the plot is going. Often I’ll jump ahead and draft out a possible ending so I have an idea of what I should be heading toward. If I’m writing a mystery novel, I want to know who the murderer is going to be, even if I don’t know exactly how that will be revealed. I’ll even jot down some ideas for scenes along the way, even if I don’t fill them in yet.
And this is the point at which someone yells at me “but that’s like outlining!” Well, yes. See I told you the term “pantster” was often misunderstood. Now I could “think” my way through all of this and jot ideas down and then organize them into an outline before I start. Perhaps I’d eventually end up in the same place. Perhaps not. By working this way, I usually have a good portion of the story written by the time I’m pulling anything like an outline together. It also lets the characters talk to me during the process.
For me this method has a few other benefits. It takes away the pressure of needing to have the whole novel thought out before the writing starts. This means I get to start on a project while I’m still excited about it. It also helps me identify false starts or ideas that just aren’t ready to be fleshed out fairly quickly. I keep a file of random ideas where I’ve written a scene and then thought “well, that doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.” I can always look at those sketches later if I think I might be able to work them into a story. I also keep files with rough sketches of the stories that are in the queue waiting to be written. I’ve found that reading a scene draws me back into the story idea much more fully than just reading an outline would.
Now, I don’t expect everyone to enjoy writing from nothing as much as I do, but if you’re the type who just likes to jump in and see where the story takes you, go for it! Novels aren’t finished until they’re published, so you have plenty of time to make changes along the way.
Do you outline in advance or write as you go? Let me know. I’ll be giving away a free ebook from the Lucifer’s Boys series (naughty M/M erotica) and a PDF book from the Cassadaga Mystery series (Cozy mystery). Just let me know – Naughty or Cozy in your answer.
See who else is participating in the Random Writing Rants Blog Hop.