My second novel The Choices we make, is three chapters away from being done, at least in its first draft form, so now I can speak with the experience of having completed two full novels. And I’m saying to you that outlines are not set in stone. They are just a suggestion, a few road markers on the way from the beginning to the end of your story. Or, like Captain Barbossa would say:
Now the pantsers in the audience will probably yell at me, “I told you so!” while the plotters will grumble, so let me explain what I mean by that. I am a plotter. I find out the hard way that I simple cannot finish a story without having written down at least some kind of outline beforehand. All the novels I tried to “pants” lay abandoned somewhere in the 1/3 to 1/2 of the story, because I either wrote myself into a corner, or had no idea where my story was going. So I outline everything, from short stories, to novels. And with Choices, I went even further and did an in-depth chapter by chapter outline.
But I have noticed something interesting while I was plodding through my first draft. While I followed that outline pretty closely in the beginning of the book, I started deviating even before the end of Part 1, I only glanced at it during Part 2, and threw it out of the window completely in Part 3 because my book had very little to do with the original story idea by that point.
If it had only happened with Choices, I would have called it a fluke and found another topic for a blog post, but when I looked back at EVERYTHING I wrote in the past year, I noticed a trend. It seems that I always throw my map away after the first leg of the journey and set off running happily towards the end of the story.
I don’t think it’s a bad thing (hence the title of this blog post), because when the time comes to deviate from the outline, I have spent some time with my characters already and I know how they will react and act, so I’m more comfortable with taking the back sit and letting them lead the story. But if I ever feel stuck or lost, I still have that map with the nearest road marker circled in red, so that I know where to stir my unruly crew towards.
Some of you might say that doing an extensive outline before sitting down to write the story seems like a waste of time if I throw two thirds of it away in the process. I disagree. By doing this outline, I already “write” this story once from the beginning to the end, and I can tell which parts don’t exactly work and need tweaking. So when I sit down and write my first draft, I usually manage to find a better way to tell that story: a better plot twist, a new and exciting way for my hero to get out of a dangerous situation, a more satisfying ending. This in turn makes the editing phase a lot less painful.
So what’s the conclusion of all this? I will still write extensive outlines for my projects, but I will never feel bad about deviated from them. In fact, if I manage to write a whole story that follows the outline to the letter, I will be extremely worried about its quality and probably spend longer on the editing stage.
And what about you guys? Are you a plotter or a pantser? How detailed are your outlines and how closely do you stick to them when you write your first draft?