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Seat-of-the-pants or outline writing?

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Ronald T., Oct 21, 2015.

  1. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

    I think there's a slight misunderstanding. We're on the same page on this. When I said we take the path of least resistance, I didn't mean the MC. I mean authors. Instead of having the MC make the hard choice, the choice that, to sum it up, throws the crap into the fan, the author has them make the easier choice. Why? Because it's easier to write, for what ever reason. I'd wager a lot of times it's fear.

    This is not to say the easier or simpler choice is always the wrong choice, but it should be chosen because it's the right choice for the story, not because it's easier to write.

    For example, put a MC in a no win situation, they have to choose between saving their spouse or their child. To me, the safe and easy choice is save the child. It's the simpler one to write, specifically in the justification. But what if the MC saves the spouse instead? That's a little more tough to write and justify.
  2. Ronald T.

    Ronald T. Troubadour


    THINKERX -- I wish I had that envious option. On our new cars with warranties, I was happy to let others do the work. But on our older vehicles, like this 1995 Dodge V-10 2500 pickup, I had little choice. Parts and machine-shop work cost almost $600. Labor would've been more than an additional $1000. We didn't have that much extra discretionary cash available at the moment. That's been the case more than once over the past forty years, and out of necessity, I've saved my wife and I more than $20,000 doing the work myself. The problem is...it's much harder to do now that I'm older. I pay a much higher price in pain. But thanks for the response, X.

    SPECTRE -- I assume you're referring to the terminology of 'pantser' and 'outliner'. If that's the case, then, yes, you have it right. A pantser makes it all up as he or she goes along, at least for the most part. And I think being an outliner is self-explanatory. But you don't have to have a college degree to be a writer. The truth is, I wasn't much of a reader before I married my lovely wife, Jane, who was a devout reader. With her encouragement, I became a reader. But when it came to writing, I didn't know whether to shit or go blind. My education regarding the art and craft of writing was a choice I made because I wanted to understand how an author could pluck the strings of my emotions with such power. I eventually began to study writing with a vengeance. And after thirty-five years, I'm still studying. I once had a professor say that if I were to spend at least two or more hours a day for four or five years, studying almost any subject, I would have the equivalent education of most college graduates -- at least on that particular subject. So that's what I did. However, I became obsessed, and that four or five years has turned into more than thirty-five. I hope that helps. And thanks for the great post.

    PSYCHOTICK -- A variation of my own technique. However, I have a fairly solid idea of how my book starts and where it will end. Although, sometimes the story dictates an ending I hadn't anticipated. If that happens, I go with the flow. But what's between the beginning and ending is always a mystery to me until I actually write it. And like you, I'm often pleasantly surprised. Twenty-three books published! Well done, Greg. Thanks for the input.

    GOSPODIN -- The more I read these posts, the more I believe I might be closer to a 'hybrid' than I imagined. Your process is quite similar to mine, but with personal variations, as it seems all these techniques tend to be. Truly fascinating. Thanks for your input.

    BRIAN SCOTT ALLEN -- I agree, Brian. Two ends of the same spectrum with a myriad of subtle combinations between. As they say...'as long as it works, do it'. Thanks for your post.

    --to be continued--
  3. Ronald T.

    Ronald T. Troubadour


    EVOLUTION_REX -- I think I can see your problem here, and it's not an easy one to solve. But I believe it can be done if you're willing to do the hard work.

    First, ask yourself why you want to write your story and what you hope you might achieve. If your desire to write any particular story isn't strong enough, then you will probably always come up short in finishing anything. Motivation is all important in almost any major undertaking. And I can promise you, writing a novel is one of the most difficult undertakings you will ever invest yourself in.

    Now, I must admit, I don't know how you can write a story if you don't have at least a small idea of where you want to go with it. You can always decide where to start, but you must have a rough idea of where you want to go. It's like taking a long trip in your car. You have to have a destination. Even if it's only rough map of the journey, retained only in your minds-eye, you must have a final goal in mind. Otherwise, which direction do you take? Without that destination in mind, that's how many writers begin to ramble aimlessly. That's a fast way to make a reader toss your book aside. They may not have any idea of where the writer is taking them, but they must have the feeling that the writers knows, or they stop turning pages.

    I think it might help if you sit down and ask yourself what sort of stories you enjoy the most. Once decided, I believe that is the kind of story you should write. Then ask yourself what it is about that kind of story that thrills and peaks your interest. Make a list of those aspects. Nothing fancy, just a list. I think deciding on the type of story you want to write and why, is your first chore. This list is something you can refer to as needed.

    Then, if you're hesitant to sit and write an entire outline, perhaps you could simply imagine each scene, starting with the first, as a 'pantser' might do, but don' write the entire scene -- only visualize it. Write only the most important parts of that scene down on a single piece of paper and set it aside. Still visualizing where your MC's are and where you think they must go, visualize the next scene. Write that on a single paper and set it aside. Most importantly, continue that process always with the final goal in mind until you reach the end of the novel. And this is key -- do not look at any of those previous pages until the story is finished. The refinement process comes later. Finally, put the entire set of pages away for at least two weeks and do something else; preferably, not writing. Give yourself a break.

    Then, when you go back to what you've written, you might use a bit of Svrtnsse's technique, which is to add layer after layer of interesting detail to a structured outline. Begin an outline with what you've accumulated, recall each scene in increased detail, and start filling out your story. Do this as many times as necessary. It is less likely that you will now come up against a blockage that will prevent you from finishing your story, because you already have the essence of the entire story on those individual pages. It is now simply a process of editing and refining what you have; something all writers must do.

    There is no end to the possible paths you might find in reaching the end of your story. But the most important thing to achieving any goal is -- never give up.

    But what do I know? I'm just a hermit in the woods.

    My best to you, Rex.


    --to be continued--
    Last edited: Oct 31, 2015
    evolution_rex likes this.
  4. Ronald T.

    Ronald T. Troubadour


    BRIAN SCOTT ALLEN -- I believe you have the basic essentials to writing any story or novel. You must have a good image of your MC's and where you want you story to go. All else can be made up as you go, whether you're a pantser or an outliner. But the key is having an eventual goal for the story and it's characters. If not, then the story begins to look like the meanderings of a blind dog in a meat house. The dog knows there is something there to be had, but has no idea of how to get to it.

    So, to me, knowing where you want your story to end is more important than any other element. You can start a story in an endless number of places, and you can have thousands of details between the first page and last. But you must know where you're going, or how do you know when you've reached the end?

    Knowing your final destination is essential. Figure that out, and the rest will come much easier.

    KENNYC -- Thanks, Kenny. I just wish the quality of our writing could be so easily compared. But for now, being a hermit in the woods will have to suffice.

    And thanks for the well-wishes on my truck repair. If this old body holds out, I'm certain I'll be successful in the end.

    STEPHYN BLACKWOOD -- I've never heard of the 'SNOWFLAKE' method before. But it seems to be working for you, so stay with it. I think your earlier problem arose due to the same issue I spoke of in my previous posts. And that is in not having an adequate ending in mind for your story. Without an en ending in mind, a writer is doomed to meander and wander with nothing to show for the effort. If you're going to lead a reader on a journey, you must first have a destination, and you must show the reader some sort of progress. If there's anything I've learned so far, it's that readers are an impatient lot.

    MPGOODWIN -- It sounds like your process is very much like T. Allen. Smith's quote by E. L. Doctorow, about driving at night. I like it. I hope it works well for you.

    --to be continued--
  5. evolution_rex

    evolution_rex Inkling

    I really appreciate the thought out answer, thank you very much.
    Ronald T. likes this.
  6. kennyc

    kennyc Inkling

    Me too! We're Twins!
  7. Ronald T.

    Ronald T. Troubadour


    SKIP.KNOX -- Although I could easily be wrong, I think I detect a structural set-up problem here. Hopefully I can explain what I mean in a helpful way.

    From the sound of it, you're being dragged in too many directions at once in your story, and in the process, you eventually lose your focus. In any story, there should be only one primary MC. No matter how close or beloved another character might be to the MC, they are always peripheral support characters. Each story should be one person's tale, and everyone else must become secondary, no matter how important to the story they might be.

    Think of THE WIZARD OF OZ. There are many important characters throughout the adventure, but it is only one person's story --Dorothy's. Everyone else is there merely to fill out the tale. The same is true in HIGHNOON. There are plenty of characters in that story, but they're nothing more than a reaction staff to Gary Cooper's MC role. The same can be said of Luke Skywalker in STARWARS. He is the primary character, and everyone else is simply there to flesh out Luke's story. And it doesn't matter how powerful the other characters might be -- it is still Luke's story.

    As I've mentioned in earlier posts, far too many problems arise due to a loss of focus. So, right off the bat, it's very important for a writer to establish who their MC is. Once they have that aspect solidly locked in their minds, it's much more difficult to lose focus. Of course, focus also requires that a writer be aware of where their MC is going. And that requires having a rough idea of the story's end, as I mentioned earlier, as well. To my mind, both elements are vital aspects of solid story telling.

    But what do I know? I'm just a hermit in the woods.

    All my best to you, Skip.

    MYTHOPOET -- I love your Gene Wolfe quote. It hits the mark exactly. Each book has it's own set of problems, and I doesn't matter if it's part of a series or not. The writer's primary chore is to overcome those problems.

    And I agree that there is little or no intrinsic value to the two labels. Their true value lies in their capacity to make us think about our own writing process and decide if there are ways to better improve it. There is no perfect way that suits everyone. But discussions like this give us a chance to see writing in a different light. Therein lies the value of labels. Beyond that, I too see little value.

    Thanks for the quote and your thoughtful input.

    --to be continued--
  8. Ronald T.

    Ronald T. Troubadour


    CHESTERAMA -- Very interesting that you once lived in Grass Valley, and particularly that you did so in a tent. You must be quite the adventurer. And my wife and I agree that this is a beautiful area. We love these foothills, and plan to spend the rest of our lives here.

    Back in 1989, we bout 250 acres on the eastern edge of what used to be an 8000 acre hunting club that was once part of the land owned by Beale Air Force Base. In the early fifties, Beale sold the land to a group of San Francisco millionaires, who then turned it into a private hunting club. In the seventies, the land was split into parcels of forty acres and larger. Fortunately, we were able to buy our land before the prices shot so high.

    Thanks, Chesterama. I'm always striving to improve my writing skills. That's why I joined Mythic Scribes. I have subscribed to Writer's Digest and The Writer for more than thirty-five years, and probably have over 100 books on the various aspects of the craft. And even with all that, I'm still eagerly searching for ways to improve my writing. It is an on-going process, but one I still enjoy.

    As you say, it's ever-changing.

    Thanks for your helpful input, and for the reference to your time in Grass Valley. It was very interesting.

    * * *

    This is the end of my seemingly endless responses to all the great posts. Thank you all for making my first original thread so enjoyable.
    Last edited: Nov 1, 2015
  9. Xitra_Blud

    Xitra_Blud Sage

    I'm a pantser. Same reason as you. I can remember in school when our English teachers would try to get us to do outlines but I never really got that stuff. I think it has to do with the way people's minds function. Some people prefer and feel more comfortable being organized and others like to pour it out as it is in the vision. I'm sure there is a psychology behind it.
  10. Caged Maiden

    Caged Maiden Staff Article Team

    I used to think I was a pantser all the way, but recently, I realized i'm sort of an outliner.

    Basically, I jot down a page or two of notes and highlights I NEED to include in the story, then I start writing and see where it takes me. I called that pantsing, because what else could it be? But then I read a book called, "Outlining your novel" and I realized that what I'm doing is a sort of fluid outline. I always called it first draft, but what the book taught me is that outlines need not follow a format riddled with Roman Numerals and letters. What I do is a detailed summarization of scenes, and that, at its heart, is an outline.

    I totally almost smacked myself in the forehead when I realized this, because I always thought outlining was hopelessly beyond my capabilities. Now, I can take heart in the fact that i'm not incapable of outlining and developing a cohesive story, but that my method requires a certain amount of exploratory writing before solidifying into a concept. I even wrote an article about this experience: Anticipating Story Length
  11. Chessie

    Chessie Guest

    From this book, one thing I've been trying to get in the habit of doing lately is taking a few minutes before I write to:

    -use my outline to determine which scene I'll be writing for the day (my scenes are 2-4k words)

    -write a couple of paragraphs expanding the story beats from my outline

    -use the Emotions Thesaurus to get an idea of what emotional state the characters in the scene are from the start and where they'll end up on that scale

    -jot down actions that stem from those emotions and character flaws

    -note down the rising conflict and tension (the hardest part for me)

    -write down a few words that I want to use to pepper my language

    -add in props, setting, and other world elements to enrich the scene

    -end with conflict

    This has been helping me tremendously. It takes me about 15 minutes to write all of that down. The result has been increased speed, with putting down 2k words in 1.5 hours. That's an improvement for me, so I know this works and maybe some of you will give it a try. Also, the scene has been alive in my mind when I write and I don't spend all of my time staring at the screen wondering what comes next. I just wanted to share this in case anyone wanted to try it out.
    Last edited by a moderator: Nov 7, 2015
    kennyc likes this.
  12. I guess if you want to look at the big picture, I'm an outliner. I try to detail my world as much as possible. I draw lots of maps, design family trees, and write out the histories and politics of my realm.

    But when it comes to my actual story, I just kinda sit down and let the writing just sort of happen.
  13. Helen

    Helen Inkling

  14. Ronald T.

    Ronald T. Troubadour

    You're absolutely right, Penpilot. There was definitely a misunderstanding, and I take full responsibility for it. The fault was entirely my own. There was more than one choice here, and I chose the wrong one (just a bit of humour intended to lessen my embarrassment). I do my best to understand what people mean, but sometimes I fail. Clearly, I did so here. And for that, I apologize. I thank you for drawing my attention to your true feelings on the matter. Now that I know what you actually meant, I must say I fully agree with your point on the issue.

    Thanks for the correction, and for the kind and gentle way you made it known. I will work harder in the future not to repeat my mistake.

    Your hermit friend in the woods,


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