Planning, Plotting, and Plodding

This weeks question comes from Josh Castleman, who was curious as to what my opinion was on outlining v. “discovery” writing. It’s a fairly fundamental question, and one that every writer eventually has to find the answer for himself or herself. Here, I will tell you what seems to work for me, and the potential benefits and drawbacks of each style.


Thanks for the question. I’ll give you my short answer, but since the short answer is never very much fun, I’ll also give you my long answer.

The short answer is this: It’s really an individual question. I know several writers who outline meticulously, and it seems to work for them. They can’t seem to finish a book without one. Other writers feel like planning to that degree robs their fiction of the spontaneity it deserves. There’s a certain organic feel to their work because even they don’t know where the story is going. For them, outlining makes their work stiff and predictable.

And at the risk of sounding redundant, here are the benefits and potential consequences of each style as I’ve observed it in my own writing and the writing of my friends and colleagues.

OUTLINING: My first novel was outlined. I took a few weeks to plan the thing out scene by scene. I never suffered from writer’s block. But, my novel was very stiff and predictable. However, I’d never finished a novel before in my life, and it was paramount to my development as a writer to be able to legitimately write “The End” on something longer than twenty pages. Since then, I’ve completed three novels, co-wrote another, and a collection of short fiction. Each of which was a work of “discovery.”

The writers who swear by the outline insist that they suffer from writer’s block less, and I’d agree. They maintain that they’re better able to keep to a schedule, and that they better understand their characters. For them, the process of discovery takes place in the process of outlining.

The potential drawbacks do exist, but only when you become a slave to the outline. This is to say that if your character needs to be at Point B, and something else comes up through the course of writing that would divert your character from going to Point B, you proceed on as planned, ignoring a potential branch in the storyline because you’re afraid of where it will lead, or afraid you won’t have the time to follow that thread. Of course, you can always come through in the process of editing and cut those out, but often those are the best branches that stories take. Outlining should never be done to the detrement of an “organic” story.

“DISCOVERY” WRITING: This is the process I use now, and I’m sure that part of it is because I’m too lazy to outline. But, also, I find I enjoy the story more when I don’t know where it’s going. I often feel like my stories are much more natural when they’re unplanned like this. But I am also keenly aware that, while the beginning and middle of the stories usually come out strong, my endings all end up being rushed. The stories take on a life of their own and begin to grow beyond my original plans for them.

For example, I planned on writing a 65,000 word YA fantasy novel. The end result was about 165,000. I cut it down to 141,000, but it still was too long. Now, I’m in the process of changing it into a trilogy and cutting it down to three 70,000 word novels. However, in the process of revision, several things are changing—things that need to change to preserve the story’s structural integrity. New plot lines are developing, and I love every minute of it.

I’ve also been stymied by Writer’s Block quite a bit when I “discovery” write. I spend a lot of time away from my computer planning, which might be termed “outlining,” but only in its roughest form. Usually, though, when I break through the block, the writing is better for it.

FINAL WORDS: So which is right for you? Depends. I’d try it both ways. Longer works (epic fantasies and the like) often require more of an outline just to stay on track. Christopher Paolini is a “discovery” writer, and he’s taking about three years to finish up a novel, which is far too long for his fans. Shorter, faster works often benefit from not having a definite plan in mind at the outset. But, as always, these are recommendations and guidelines. Each writer as individual as their process. As with any art, some things work for some, and others for others. The only real rule is: write.

Hope this helps.

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