A Truant Disposition

"I must be idle."

Plans, Pants, and Discovery

Written By: Ainy Rainwater - Oct• 21•14

It’s generally thought that there are two types of writers, discovery writers and outliners, or as they are sometimes called “planners and pantsers”. The pants refer to “flying by the seat of your pants”, in other words, making it up as you go along. I consider myself a discovery writer, aka “pantser” even though I outline. Here’s why.

First a brief relevant announcement…(Cue warbling comic fanfare)…I’m temporarily setting aside work on the series to do something completely different for NaNoWriMo, which begins Nov. 1. Today I started organizing my ideas into something resembling an outline. At least, it resembles all my outlines…

I’m a discovery writer, but it’s not like I have no ideas before I start writing. I know the events that start the ball rolling, I know the end (usually), and I know some important points in the main plot, as well as bits of subplot. I usually have certain scenes in mind. For me, outlining is organizing those thoughts.

My outline is usually a simple list of scenes, events, & information, sorted into a rough order in which they should be presented to the reader. This is not necessarily chronological order because sometimes characters don’t find out things in chronological order and also some pieces of information that predate the beginning of the story will be referred to as needed, when needed, if needed. Nor is this rough outline or list necessarily in the order I will write things because I often write scenes out of order as they come to me, knowing I’ll need such a scene later. For instance, while writing one scene I may get a much more vivid idea of how a later, related, scene will play out, such as dialogue or some slight change in the way I’d envisioned the circumstances. In that case I’ll go ahead and knock out a rough draft of that scene and the dialogue, too, if I have it in my head, maybe note this or that which would be good to include in that scene so I don’t forget it. It’s not unusual for a scene I’m writing one day to spark something for a later scene which I will either go on to write or make highly detailed notes for.

So, the outline is mostly chronological, but really in the order the reader needs to get everything (which is often the order the characters relate things or discover things) and it’s not a rigid order of scenes in the order I write them, but is in the order the story needs to be told. Typically, lots of detail is missing (though if I have details in mind, they are included), and there’s usually an item or two with question marks after them, or a “maybe”. I include possibilities, as well as definite ideas. It all gets sorted out when I’m writing. I’ve written books which had a handful of general points — not more than a line or two each — plus a few details, and I’ve also written books which had big chunks of text for each of a couple of dozen points. I can’t say that either makes any difference in what the finished book is like. Often books which had copious notes ended up not using most of them because they were thin, uninteresting, and ultimately off the point. Sometimes books with just a few plot points unfold like magic and develop into complex stories. Even so, it’s impossible to make generalities about the book or the how the writing will go based on the plot. (Though if there’s a huge number of points with question marks that can be a sign of some rough going, unless inspiration kicks in and saves you.)

I expand and reorganize my “outline” as I write. (My idea of an outline is so pathetic compared to people who really plan their books that I feel like I ought to put the word inside quotation marks.)  As I write, it is rewritten, recording story changes and additions to help me keep track of the material as it expands and becomes more detailed. This is why I consider myself a discovery writer rather than an outliner: a lot changes between the first point on the list (the beginning of the book) and the last point on the list (the ending). When I start writing I have an idea of the story, but the story develops as I write it. No matter how long and hard I think about a book before I start writing it, much of the book — including vital parts of the story — cannot be anticipated until I am immersed in writing it. Sure, I need the cold rational logic of a “planner” so my plot makes sense and I don’t contradict myself. But “pantsing” gives me the material I’m organizing. I can’t do much planning until I have something to organize. The more I write, the more I have to organize in the outline. Though I sometimes produces pages and pages of notes when I’m brainstorming, that’s nothing compared to the number of pages of a novel. Which is why my “outline” of a half dozen plot points at the beginning is usually a mess of notes and changes that’s several pages long when the book is done. (It should be noted that this is a working outline, not the sort of outline an editor ever sees.)

Much of story-making is intuitive. It’s daydreaming. When I write I drop into a state of mind in which I make connections and realizations about the story that cannot be forced from the logical rational part of my brain. They have to come bubbling up on their own. I can then apply critical thinking to these ideas and scenes to make sure they are consistent within the greater context of the story. But that isn’t usually a problem. Much more often the act of creation reveals flaws in my existing assumptions and ideas, and improves upon what I had originally started with. I’ve never written a book that turned out to be something utterly and completely different from what I set out to write, but the books always end up being more than I had initially imagined. The depth comes from the state of Flow as I write my way into the story.

My initial outline is just a crudely drawn map from point A to point B, with a few interesting features sketched in. Once I’m on the trail, I can see the landscape for myself, correct mistakes on the original map, and map it with more detail and accuracy as I go.

I’m a discovery writer, an explorer of the unmapped places in the plot.


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One Comment

  1. heathertsmith says:

    We are very similar writers, fellow pantser!