Where Am I Going, Anyway?
“On account of dragons, yes dragons, I must say that it is almost unfortunate that the beastly creatures have to stay hidden in the mountains.” That sentence was how I began my very first novel, as a teenager, somewhere around the late 1970s or early 1980s. While the book itself is nowhere near worthy of being published, that first line serves as a suitable introduction to this blog post. Among writers, a common point of discussion is how different people approach structuring their novels. Often when November rolls around, those participating in NaNoWriMo will identify with one of two groups, the “planners” and the “pantsers.” (The latter term is in reference to writing “by the seat of their pants,” i.e., without advance planning.) In this blog post I’ll explain how I started, how my approach has evolved over time, and what my approach is these days.
Several years ago I bought a used copy of The Screenwriter’s Workbook by Syd Field, who unfortunately passed away a few months ago. While that book is obviously focused on writing screenplays, and although I still have yet to finish reading it, some of the concepts in it influenced how I approach writing a novel. But let’s go back to the beginning, probably in 1979, when I first put pen to paper with the intent of writing a novel, which I entitled The Sword. I completed the first draft a couple years later, somehow managing to write a novel-length work that I would guess is around 80,000 words long. That first novel was written entirely off-the-cuff, i.e., pantsing it. My planning process, if you could call it that, amounted to little more than thinking of the opening line of the new book I wanted to write. As I wrote the book, I would make some notes about story elements in the margins, but those notes were very unstructured too.
The line above, “On account of dragons,” was almost the entire extent of my planning for The Sword. The sequel, The Second Time Around (clever, no?) was “planned” with the opening line — “Marth had grown up with his father, for his mother had been kidnapped when he was a very small boy.” — and the basic idea of continuing the story of the eponymous sword from the first book. This time I was sensible enough to write the date I started it: May 29, 1982. I did not have the sense, or at least the desire, to do any more planning, apart from notes in the margins. Yet, on May 31, 1984, I finished the draft of that novel, which was probably a bit longer than the first one. Almost no planning, just stumbling along after conceiving the first line.
By the time I started my third novel, I was beyond the point of merely coming up with a first sentence and plunging forward. For that book, my first science fiction novel, I had a basic idea of where I wanted the story to go, with some vague notions about the ending. I didn’t think about it at the time, but in retrospect I think this is one of the factors that allowed me to compress the writing process into a matter of weeks, while the earlier books had taken a couple years each. Back then I was still writing in spiral notebooks, and on the inside front cover of the first notebook for my third novel I wrote a very brief synopsis dated March 4, 1984, which is also the date I started the story itself. (There was a bit of overlap in writing the two books, but the bulk of my third novel was written in late summer or early autumn of 1984.) This was a far cry from an outline, but it was a solid step forward from purely off-the-cuff writing.
That was all a long time ago – last century, even! Two influences in this century have brought me a lot closer to actually planning the entire book. One influence was participating in NaNoWriMo, and particularly my project in 2008. That book was written as a prequel to my 2006 project, and when you’re writing a prequel, you know it must end at the right point to fit in with the larger story. This requires planning! The other influence was The Screenwriter’s Workbook because my NaNoWriMo project in 2009, later published as Lesson One: Revolution!, was originally going to be a screenplay. I used the story structure concepts from that book to develop the story before I even decided to write it as a novel.
So do I have a complete outline before I start writing a new novel? Definitely not. However, I will often have at least a list of the chapters that I expect to include, and normally those are expanded with bullet-point lists of important story elements (typically events) that will be covered in each chapter. This is not carved in stone; often I will have to update the outline when the story changes as I’m writing it. This might be from new directions that I pursue, or it might just be that the story felt too rushed with the original structure and a reasonable story flow demands a bit more space.
In addition to doing more pre-planning, I'm also making more extensive notes. Sometimes this is in the form of half-baked ideas jotted down in an unstructured note, while other times the "notes" are more like flash fiction back stories of characters and/or settings. When I was on jury duty recently, I found myself doing a lot of waiting (which is normal), and I used that time to flesh out how magic works in a fantasy series I'm developing.
I believe the net result of this more thoughtful approach to writing is the ability to write a better first draft, with the story closer to its final form. I don't think I'll ever get to the point of having highly-detailed outlines, but who knows? In the early 1980s I wouldn't have expected to write any kind of outline at all!