By R.J. Harlick
"Are you an outliner or a seat-of-the-pantser? Have you ever tried to do it the other way? What happened?"
I slipped my gloves on with a snap, pulled my toque down tightly over my ears and headed out into the blizzard. No wait a minute, my outline said it was supposed to be a sunny day. But a storm creates more suspense, so I’ll go with it. The wind had knocked my skis over, half-burying them in the snow. I cleaned them off and clicked my boots into the bindings. Though drifts had almost obliterated the trail, I had no choice. I had to take it. It was the only route to the cemetery and to Ivan. I know, the outline said it was supposed to be a cabin, but a cemetery has more possibilities and who knows, maybe Ivan is no longer alive when I get there.
Okay, so I’m exaggerating, but I imagine you have probably guessed by now that I am a pantser. I tried doing an outline for my second book and it lasted for two chapters without any detours. By the time I reached the fifth chapter the story bore no relation to the outline.
I don’t completely start cold. I always know what the setting and the underlying theme of my upcoming book will be. I also have a fairly good idea of the opening scene and the main characters in addition to Meg and a rough idea of where the story is going. But that is about it. I more or less let the story and Meg take me where they feel it needs to go. I never know whodunit. Sometimes I don’t even know who the victims will be.
But it can be a painful and slow process. I throw balls into the air not sure where they will land or even if they will land. I invariably hit the proverbial brick wall and end up slowing to a crawl with my writing. I take a lot of long walks with my dogs trying to figure out how to smash the brick wall.
But you know what, I enjoy the uncertainty, the not knowing. I like the surprises, the twists that suddenly materialize. They keep me interested in my story, in wanting to know what will happen. I love taking this unknown journey with Meg. I worry an outline will make the story too predictable and I’ll get bored. And if I get bored, so will my readers.
But that’s not to say that I won’t completely give up on outlining. With the latest and seventh Meg Harris mystery about to be sent off to my publisher, maybe for the next book, I’ll try my hand at outlining. It might help to reduce the timing of its publication to one year rather than the usual 1.5-2 year interval.