When writers first meet, a question they often ask one another is "Are you a planner or a pantser?" That is, do you outline and plan your story, or do you jump in, blissfully ignorant of where the story is headed?
It's a way for us to identify one another, like asking if we write poetry or children's books or memoir or all of the above. Because writing is usually such a private, solitary act, I think that we're all a bit curious to get a peek inside one another's writing process.
It seems that the way a writer answers this question is a window into how they live their life. Do you plan out a vacation, knowing exactly where you'll be at 10 AM on Saturday, or do you book a plane ticket and figure out the rest as you go? Are you following a specific career path, or are you completely open to whatever job and opportunity comes your way?
Me, I'm somewhere in between. I think most writers are.
My answer to the above question is that I'm a planner. An outliner. I like to see my route on a map and have a general idea of where I'm heading. In terms of travel, I find that if I don't plan, then I waste a lot of time trying to figure out where I am and what I'm doing, and that's no fun.
That said, I keep an open mind as I head down the road, and I'm willing to take a detour and step off the beaten path.
With my writing, whether it's a short story or a novel, I begin jotting down notes in a journal. I have a conversation with myself about the possibilities of a particular piece. I lay out possible plot points and character arcs. Like doing a jigsaw puzzle, I arrange and rearrange pieces to see what fits. Is there a scene that will fit together with another scene nicely? What characteristics are at the edges of each piece that might make this happen? Is there an object that can tie the scenes together? A mood? A detail about the weather? A piece of dialogue?
Where should the story begin? What's the hook? The tension? What's the desire? The obstacle? What's the time-frame and who else is there besides the protagonist? It may sound formulaic, but to me, this process feels very organic and free.
Then I get to work.
But I allow myself to explore detours as they arise. As I sketch out the scenes, maybe some aspect that I thought was going to work well turns out to be flat. Maybe another aspect that I thought was going to be minor ends up demanding more attention and rises to the surface. I've had minor characters push major characters to the side. I've had characters merge with one another to create a whole new persona. When this happens, you have to trust that your outlining did it's job: it got you to this point.
The creative process is work. It's hard work. It takes time and energy and persistence. It takes showing up even (especially) when you don't want to. If you wait for inspiration, you'll be sitting a long time. Believe me, I've been very successful at waiting for months and even years. It sucks.
When it comes to a novel, outlining is more complicated than with a short story, of course, and it comes with a lot more challenges and potential for complications. I compare it to building a house (vs. building a birdhouse. And just like building a house or taking on a major renovation project, I want to work from a blueprint. If I don't, the roof will end up in the basement, none of the plumbing will connect, and the whole process will take ten times longer than it should.
Of course, even the most detailed blueprint can have unforeseen issues. Will your outline lead to a perfect, tidy story that requires little revision?
Things happen. The paint colors you picked out end up clashing. The tile shipment is late. The kitchen cabinets get damaged during delivery. Some punk steals power tools from the job site.
Whether it's building a house or building a work of fiction, you'll be faced with challenges along the way. And your best defense is good problem-solving skills. Assess the issue, brainstorm ways to address it, choose the best solution, and execute. Then, deal with the next issue. If you throw your hands up in frustration, your project will sit unfinished. Just keep moving forward.
What's the difference between two equally 'talented' writers, one who is successful and one who isn't?
So, stick with it, no matter how you approach writing. Plan, move forward, deal with challenges, move forward, reassess, move forward.