One of the complaints you might hear about being a “plotter” – which is to say a writer who carefully plans a piece and then writes from an outline – is that it sucks all the creativity out of the writing process. If you know what’s going to happen (goes one version of the argument) then where’s the fun in writing it?
I used to believe that. I used to be a “pantser” all the way. My creativity could not be contained by rules and structure and roadmaps, man!
Eventually I figured out that never finishing anything (and also getting lost a lot) is strong correlated with a lack of planning, so I started using outlines more. And lo, I did start finishing things, and so stumbled on the hitherto hidden truth that, you know, outlines can be useful.
The thing is, I never stick to the outline.
Even when it’s very detailed, even when I know precisely what I intend to write and how I intend to finish. I can’t stick to the plan. Something always comes up during the writing process that I never accounted for in the design phase. Whether it’s a small character note or a huge plot development, the unexpected always seems to emerge during the act of writing.
Either because I am by nature inquisitive or because I have the attention span of a golden retriever in a squirrel pen, I have to chase these ideas down. It doesn’t seem to matter that they lead me leagues off course, even when I can see the reefs and shoals a mile away. I can seem to resist pursuing them.
Sometimes it’s a good thing. When I was writing my short story ‘The Nature of Monkey’, I had a definite final scene I was working towards, and reasonable clarity about the scenes I needed to get me there. I had a plan: straightforward plot, a couple of zingy one-liners and bam! Story done!
Instead, the personality of my protagonist, General Monkey, emerged as I wrote – and as I fleshed out his story and began to understand where he’d come from, I suddenly realised that my plot, my conclusion and above all the point of the story I’d planned were all wrong. I rewrote my beginning and reordered the beats, changing what had been something akin to a light-hearted political drama into a somewhat ruthless heist story.
The story was much better for following a side track down a rabbit hole, if you’ll excuse the mixed metaphors.
(It also ended up with a much better title, which I appreciated. Titles are hard).
It doesn’t always end that well.
Take the novel I’m editing, A Flash of Black Wings. During the writing process, I found I needed a bit of background to explain who a couple of the supporting characters were, so I came up with a little project they were involved in.
As I wrote on, that background detail took on more weight, tying in to other story elements. Over time it expanded to fill the spaces between the plot I started with, so much that it essentially choked out the plan.
(You will have to come up with your own analogy at this point about untended gardens and prolific weeds. It would be too depressing for to me to do it, because when I finish this post I need to go outside and do battle with our overgrown herb beds).
The primary editing I will have to do on the manuscript will be to cut back that subplot so that it takes a supporting role to the main plot. I don’t want to cut it entirely, because it’s a good idea that deserves its own space, but I also can’t let it crowd out my lead character’s story.
I’m not complaining, mind you. There’s enough there to provide a solid backbone to at least two planned sequels. Not bad for a glorified dandelion.
What’s my grand conclusion?
Not sure that I have one, except to repudiate all extremism and affirm my position as a dedicated moderate in the Great Pantser-Plotter Contretemps. I still feel the draw of pure freeform writing just to see where it takes you. I have a healthy respect for the speed and focus that comes of a well-structured outline. But in practice I surely fall somewhere in the middle.