outlining a story
Once a publisher makes the sign of the cross over your work, blessing it and pronouncing it fit for public consumption, a lot of people want to know about your writing process. It’s kinda like being the fat kid who suddenly loses a lot of weight; everybody wants to know how you did it, especially if all you ate were Cheetos and watermelon seeds and your cardio program consisted of dancing naked in the moonlight to a Johnny Cash soundtrack.
Wow. Think I just gave myself a nightmare!
Plotters want to read about how you outlined every nuance; pantsters want to hear how the story grew organically into tightly woven plot. Everybody’s looking for validation or insider tips, the secret decoder ring to success.
For me, the truth is really more mundane. I need a couple of things: a deadline and a target audience. Gallons of icy Diet Coke, bowls of almonds, grapes, or bits of cheese, a lock on my office door, and an excuse to avoid housework all help, but plotters and pansters aside, it’s all about the ability to sit down and work something through to the end.
For short pieces like articles, I keep an idea list on an electronic sticky note on my computer desktop. These are pure pantster exercises where I just think about the topic, consider the audience, and write. Most times they’re completed in one sitting, usually after couple of false starts until it suddenly clicks and comes together.
For bigger projects like novels, it’s all about the pre-production. Since One Boy, No Water and the rest of the Niuhi Shark Saga is set in Hawaii, several thousands of miles away from my current high desert home, I start by reading everything I can about Hawaiian history and culture, mostly dry historical and cultural tomes, the kinds of things I avoided like the plague when I was in school. Though the internet I listen to Hawaiian radio stations as I clean house to brush up on my Pidgin and read the Honolulu Star Advertiser to get an idea of current events. I also watch a lot of documentaries about sharks and try to keep up with some of the cutting edge research. I constantly read a lot of fiction—the great, the so-so, and the truly terrible regardless of genre. It all goes into my bubbling stew of a brain where my sub-conscious churns it all over and over, waiting to get the fermentation just right.
Meanwhile I try to be a good plotter and outline the novel at a very high level, usually using Scrivener’s corkboards. I may bang out a couple of chapters, but no real progress is made until like a circling shark the deadline bares its teeth and grins. I start to feel its breath on my neck—if sharks had breath—and see the dorsal fin slip under the water for the kill. I start to think less about the story and more about the audience. What do they expect? What do they want to have happen? How can I delight and change their expectations? Somewhere in my head the theme to Indiana Jones starts playing. That’s when I clear the decks, stop reading, get ahead on all the little writing projects, stock the fridge for the kids, and check the family calendar to be sure I can lock myself away for the next few weeks and write.
And I do, sometimes for twenty or more hours at a time. It helps that I’m an insomniac. It double helps that my family is pretty self-sufficient, at least in the short-run. Typically it’s a marathon writing session followed by a break of a day or so to recover and ice the tendonitis from typing so much. I’m also guilty of the cardinal sin of editing while I write, so a net day of 5,000 words was probably more like 9,000.
Like a classical plotter I know where the story needs to go, but how it gets there is always a surprise to me. I even work backwards sometimes from one plot point to another, so I never have a writer’s block excuse for not writing, just pure laziness or carpool duty. Or bruised elbows from my desktop. Thank goodness it’s cooling off enough for fuzzy long sleeves!
I’m more pantster than I like to admit, but it’s pretty apparent when you consider the lack of detail in my outlines. For example, my outline for Chapter 1 in book two simply says Kalei finds out about Zader. Not a lot to go on unless you can peek inside my head. (I don’t recommend it.)
A big writing day usually starts in the shower as I figure out how the next plot point is going to develop. You don’t wanna see my water bill. I take a lot of long showers. Life would be easier if I could connect to my inner muse by cleaning house or exercising, but apparently she’s a water muse. Tough when you live in a desert.
Plotter-ish outlines give me a skeleton, off-the-cuff pantster writing allows me to dress the body in ways that keep me engaged and the material fresh, deadlines give me a reason to sit and finish, and the target audience reminds me who I’m writing for, which also keeps the inmates from taking over the asylum. My writing process works for me, but like a diet of watermelon seeds and caffeine, it’s not for everyone. I can’t even recommend it!