Tuesday, February 17, 2015

I like surprises

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.


Meredith Cole said...

I completely agree! An outline should always be a very loose plan... But you're right that it helps cut down the time it takes to produce a first draft.

Susan C Shea said...

I love your example because that's exactly what happens along the way and why a book becomes a good piece of storytelling. I was reminded, however, of an entirely different cultural tradition, the spoken, chanted, or sung epic poem/story, in which the teller can't vary anything. The shadow puppet masters in Bali chant in ancient Sanskrit and yet Balinese families sit in the dark, rapt. So many ways to tell a story!

RJ Harlick said...

Yes, there are many different ways to tell a story, Susan. During my research for my current book, I discovered that totem poles are another way to tell a story.

Stephen Morrill said...

Outlines. Extensive outlines. I know the ending before I start the beginning. (And, if you're really detailed at outlining, you can write the chapters out of order. I'm not that detailed.)

And in one police procedural series I'm working on, there may be a major plot and three or four minor plots, all needing to be interwoven. Pretty much MUST do a large spreadsheet/outline with those. But, overall, my attitude is that my characters work for me, not the other way around.

But beneath the whole outline/pantser argument lies the question of: do I (or you) think more consciously or more unconsciously as we write. I suspect that pantsers HAVE an outline; they just don't know that consciously.

But I could be wrong about pantsers, not being one myself.

I also write, not just in scenes, but in layers. That is, I do a rough draft of 50,000 words or so, then go back as many as half a dozen times to rewrite, each time adding color and description and anything that comes to mind. Maybe that's pantsing? But that's put in on top of the basic draft.

RJ Harlick said...

Stephen, that is essentially what I do. I suppose one could say my first draft becomes the outline, although it is more like 100,000 words than 50,000. I usually do two major revisions, in which I add more depth, colour and description, along with considerable story tweeking.