You’ve pictured the scenes from your story 1,000 times, and you know exactly how the climax is supposed to play out, and it’s amazing. You know your main character inside and out, now all you have to do is write the novel. No problem, right? You sit down to write and…crap. It’s crap. It’s meandering. It’s unfocused. What is your character doing? You toil for hours, days, weeks even before this amazing story idea (as well as the outfit you envisioned wearing to the award show for the novel’s film adaptation) becomes another living example of writer's block. Weeks go by and soon you forget the story. When you decide to return to it, the original vision seems trite, so you decide to write something new; you're back to square one.
Plotting vs. Pantsing
Square one could be that you’re an aspiring author with no novels under your belt or you’re a novelist who has completed one or more works but said novels are in “awaiting revisions” status. As a writer, I feel your pain; I’ve started many a story with awesome ideas that have eventually become unfinished beginnings because…I’m not a pantser.
Pantsing essentially means “winging it”; some authors are great pantsters. They can sit down and craft a strong first draft with little or no free writing, prewriting, brainstorming, outlining, etc. It took a while to realize I’m not that type of writer, and if you’re finding that you get stuck every time you start a project, you may not be that kind of writer either. You might be a plotter.
Why Outlining or Plotting is Awesome
Plotters rely on careful planning and outlining before sitting down to write their novels. As one who hated outlines in school, my knee-jerk reaction was to boo team outline. I hated outlines for their tight structures and for having to figure out the right subtopics and content for those subtopics; doing that to a novel seemed like creative heresy.
Thankfully, outlining your novel is nothing like those essay outlines from middle school; novel outlines can be fun and can save you time and tears later. What I mean by that is for those who have pantsed their way through a novel, you know that not every scene makes it into the final draft, and God-forbid you have a character or an entire plot line that needs to be removed, heavily edited, or added. At a moment you thought you were almost finished, you’d only just begun.
Outlining doesn’t spare you from having to make revisions, but outlines do help cut back on the level of editing you do after draft one is complete. The more detailed your outline, the better you know your story before you write it, which can be fun and can enable you to focus more on how it’s written as opposed to what happens next and why.
Outlining Your Novel: Map Your Way to Success by K.M. Weiland
I wasn’t fully convinced of how great outlines could be until I read historical and speculative fiction author K.M. Weiland’s Outlining Your Novel: Map Your Way to Success. No, I don’t know Ms. Weiland, but I do know that her book made a lot of sense. For an experienced journalist, content writer, and editor who slogged through her own plots as a pantser, Weiland’s step-by-step approach to outlining was exactly what I needed.
Weiland’s short book (also available on Audible) advocates for:
- Starting with a premise, making detailed story notes, developing your characters’ back stories, figuring out your characters, laying out the scenes you already know, and then filling in the blanks.
- You’re advised on how to ensure your story has key structural elements so that you’re not wrapping up draft one only to realize the central conflict doesn’t make sense or that your protagonist has no clear motive, etc.
Before I even finished Weiland’s book, I started laying out story ideas in a notebook. I was able to see things and to develop things in a way that I hadn’t when I was pantsing. I found freedom in outlining, which is an ironic statement given my previous position on using outlines.
If you are a new novelist or are stuck or if you find you keep getting stuck but you know you want to be a writer or you know your book needs to be written, then what you could be missing is the right approach.
Neither my master’s program nor my years of professional writing experience helped my approach to storytelling the way Weiland’s short and sweet book on outlining did.
While plotting isn’t for everyone, it might just be the thing you need to break through the dam and to get those ideas and your novel flowing.
In addition to her book on outlining, Weiland has other guidebooks on character arcs and structures as well as free eBooks available on her website. In addition taking advantage of available author resources, new novelists should also consider workshopping their novel to gain hands-on experience throughout the writing process.