This post, by JD Sawyer, originally appeared on his Literary Abominations site on 7/15/11.
You hear a lot of talk of “discovery writers” and “outliners” in the writing world. The “pantsers” and the “plotters,” respectively. It’s true that there are a lot of people that fall into both categories–including many of my friends–and human nature loves dichotomies, but I’ve never fit comfortably either, and I suspect I’m not alone.
Last night, I had occasion to have a long conversation with a new writer who’s vexed and confused by the options before him when it comes to writing process, and saying “you have to find your own way” only left him more despondent. I know that look–I’ve been there many times when faced with a new field of endeavor with so many options that at once feel constraining and non-specific. So, in the hope of letting those new writers who don’t comfortably fit a category know that they’re not alone, I’m going to describe my method.
But first, the reasons why the two popular methods don’t work for me.
Pulling Down My Pants
“Pantsers” are folks that write by the seat of their pants. They trust their subconscious and just fly on from word one, muddling through as they go–and often, they’re brilliant. Many of my favorite short story writers (including Ray Bradbury, Harlan Ellison, and Dean Wesley Smith) write like this, and they are quite often bloody brilliant.
I’ve done this with short stories–sometimes, I’ve done it really well. But for every short story I’ve finished with this method, I have five that started, sputtered, and stopped. Some I’ve gone back and done in a way more suited to my workflow–others I’ve abandoned and think of fondly, like childhood friends I’m unlikely ever to see again.
Why do they sputter? Frankly, it’s because I often write from a milieu, and only infrequently is a milieu sufficient to sustain a whole story. My process often relies on the collision of two dissimilar ideas in my own head, and without those two ideas, the story won’t spin.
With novels, it’s the same problem, only worse. Unless the story itself is a discovery process with a very constrained point of view, there isn’t a lot I can get a foothold on. Even then, I only get so far before I have to resort to other methods.
Which brings us to outlining.