WORKING WITHOUT AN OUTLINE: FIVE IDEAS FOR PANTSTERS
How does an author go from a cursor blinking on page one to a full-fledged manuscript? Some writers swear by outlines. They plot out the story – start to finish – then write it, taking detours as necessary. Others are pantsters – they have a general idea of a storyline but no outline. The characters tell them where the story should go.
I am definitely in the pantster camp. This surprises me more than anyone. I am a type “A” person. I won’t go to the grocery store without a list. I plan out vacations and trips. I’m almost never spontaneous. In fact, I once even scheduled blocks of time during which I planned to be spontaneous! How crazy is that?! (it would make for a good character trait, though. Look for that in a future book….)
I would love having an outline all done in advance. That makes sense to me. Here are the characters, here is the plot, here are the scenes. The problem for me is that these things don’t come to me until I start the physical act of writing. It can be nerve-wracking to stare at a blank page and think – OK, now what? Here’s how I help myself through the agonizing blank page:
1. Work backward: I typically have some future event in the novel I am working toward. In my debut, The Language of Divorce, I had the idea that the couple would end up on a reality television show about divorcing couples. I worked backward from there. First, I needed a couple. Then that couple had to have a marriage heading for divorce. Then they had to hear about the show. When I started answering those questions – and writing about them – the book started to form.
2. Write consistently: When I am working on a novel or story, I try to make a habit of working on it every day. By doing this, the characters are always in my mind and ideas will come to me even when I am not writing. I wrote The Language of Divorce (a 100,000 word novel) in increments of 500 words a day. I am using the same process for my current novel.
3. Don’t be Afraid to Cut: My book changed a lot as I wrote. In fact, I think only about a quarter of what’s in the published book was in my initial draft. I am ruthless about cutting scenes and characters. If I really love a scene but have to cut it, I save in a folder for a future work. I have a scene in my current novel that I cut from The Language of Divorce.
4. Use Placeholders: If I really get stuck with a scene, I just write something like – add more details about encounter or relate funny memory from the past. If I don’t really know how the characters get from point A to point B but I can see point B, I write about that. I find that the story fleshes out the more I work on it.
5. Write through it: If I am really stuck, I just start writing something. Having the characters do something mundane almost always leads to them doing something better. Then I delete the stupid first thing they were doing.
This is how I’ve helped myself to date but I’m always up for tips. I need them!
How do you get through the agonizing blank page? Drop a note in the comments below.