Thursday, May 04, 2006

Outliners and pantsers

This started as a response to E is for Editrix's comment in a post on another blog, but then it got huge, like I was downloading the whole Cherry writerly consciousness into one overloaded comment pane, so I thought I'd bring it up here instead.

So Editrix mentioned that she's an outliner - that she needs to be able to see where the action is before writing the book. I get that; I wish I was that way. Sadly, I am a pantser.

A pantser is a person who writes by the seat of her pants - and then revises, revises, revises. Often as I'm working through a first draft, I'm getting to know my characters - and I find myself seeding stuff into the beginning and middle as I work through the middle and end.

If I outline first, I cheat myself of the chance to get to know my characters - and often as not, I find I kill the story by forcing it.

But when I'm on Draft 2 (or, say, 5*), that's when I work up an outline: so I can spot the weak parts of the story, the saggy middles, the plot threads that meander into nothingness. And then I fix. And I look for layers, for theme, for meaning.

And then I beat my head against a walll and stop writing for another month because I am drinking too heavily to see the screen.

Writing a novel is an overwhelming thing. (Somewhere, three writers I know - at least three - are all drinking and nodding their heads.)

So why wouldn't I outline? Wouldn't that save me from the head-beating and the alcohol poisoning?

Girl, I have tried. I've written two extensive outlines for books, with turning points, dark moments, all that - and once I finished the outlines, I felt like the story was done. Why write it? I know what's going to happen. There is no more room for surprises.

Perverse, I know. I so admire people who can do that.

Other people manage to write outlines and then deviate from them and it's all cool, but I haven't figured out the knack yet. It's like my subsconscious is run by Ayn Rand: all anal, all the time. "You can't possibly change that now, it's in the outline!"

It's only when I let the Girls in the Basement** roam free, in their belly tees and flip-flops, smoking their little Cuban cigarillos and passing around a bottle of hooch, that they really surprise me. So, no outlining.

I do, however, have to go into a book knowing, more or less, where my characters have to be at the end of it, which gives me something of a roadmap. I'm getting better about using that to spin up reversals and twists.

* Long ago, when I was just a young and innocent girl, I truly believed that best-selling novelists wrote one draft, maybe two, of their books before shipping them off to an adoring publisher and taking off on the yacht to cruise around the Caribbean.

Well, don't you believe it. Through associating with my betters, I am finding that in fact, the better the novel, likely the more revisions it's been through -- and the more bloodletting the author has done over it. Nothing good comes easy, except of course for love and pie.

** See Stephen King's boys in the basement - his muses.

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