A Guest Post by Nann Dunne
For just a few minutes, instead of thinking of yourself as a wannabe writer, think of yourself as a wannabe world traveler. You’re standing in your hometown, smack-dab in the middle of Kansas City, Missouri, with a map in hand. You must decide which way to go to achieve your goal of traveling the world. Perhaps these thoughts pass through your mind:
• If I go east, I’ll have to travel through the crowded eastern corridor and then to Europe or Africa. Those are large continents where people speak different languages from mine and I won’t be able to understand them. Not sure I want to start that way. Maybe do it later.
• If I go west, I have to travel through deserts and high mountains. From there, I’ll have to take a ship, go across a number of islands, and then hit the oriental countries whose customs are so different from mine. I’m not sure I’m ready to try that route.
• If I go north, I’ll go through Canada and have to cross over the Arctic Circle and the North Pole before I land in civilization. That sounds pretty difficult to set out with.
• If I go south, I have to go all the way through Mexico and South America, and like north, I have to cross Antarctica and the South Pole before I get on real land again. I think that way’s too cold to put at the beginning of my journey.
Too Many Choices?
So there you are, map in hand, with plenty of choices and directions on how to get there. But you know what? Too many choices have stymied you. Suppose you narrow it down and decide to first go to New York City. Your map shows you hundreds of ways to get there, and still you hesitate. The choice of routes is overwhelming. You decide not to move until you know exactly WHERE you want to go and exactly WHICH streets on the map to follow to get there. So you sit in your hometown and puzzle over the answers, hoping somehow they’ll be revealed to you.
Suppose, instead of sitting there thinking about it, you get moving and keep heading due east. Eventually, you’ll near New York City and then you can aim directly toward it. You might take a wrong turn or two, but as long as you recover your direction and keep traveling toward the general area of your destination, you stand a good chance of getting there. Doesn’t that sound better than sitting there waiting for answers that might never come?
Now Switch to Writing
Let’s look at you now as a wannabe author. You’ve read tons of books on writing, plotting, theme, characterization, setting, pacing, revision, etc. You’re overwhelmed with information. You keep hearing that before you begin to write, you should know your characters intimately; you should choose a memorable setting; you should know your beginning, middle, and ending; you should know your First Plot Point, Midpoint, Second Plot Point, and Pinch Points; in fact, you should know the end of your story before you begin it. And the only way to achieve all this is to outline your story ahead of time.
That’s what all the outliners say. (Larry’s note: well, not ALL of them, and certainly not me, someone who does advocate outlining in some form; while I may have sounded like that’s what I was saying in the past — pantsers are a very sensitive lot — that’s NOT what I mean, then or now… find your story HOWEVER you need to find it, that’s what I mean, and on that count, Nann and I are on the same page.)
And you know why they say it with such authority? Because that’s what works for them. They don’t seem to fully comprehend that any other way of writing could be as efficient or as rewarding. The big flea/ flaw in that ointment/argument is that the wannabe writer who doesn’t have all those answers in hand and doesn’t know how to puzzle them out ahead of time is in danger of giving up in frustration.
Maybe You’re a Pantser
I believe most writers are pantsers. Outliners tell us that pantsers wander all over the place in search of their stories. Maybe that’s true of some pantsers, but by no means is it true of all of them. I know many pantsers who have written tight, concisely written, well-plotted stories—perhaps while outliners were still searching for answers to put in their outlines. And no one will convince me that many outliners don’t also write and delete parts of their stories that wander beyond the outline. Some admit they change their outline as they go, sometimes even their ending—and doesn’t that sound similar to pantsing?
I’m not putting down outliners. My point is that if you’ve tried outlining and can’t make it work for you, DON’T GIVE UP. Maybe you’re a pantser at heart, and your story will unfold as you write it. Maybe using parts of each method will work for you.
A long time ago, a writer whose work I respected, and still do, had words similar to these to say about writing. “You want to write a story? Pick one or two characters, put them in a setting, and start writing.” (Larry’s note: be careful here, this is a viable way to SEARCH for your story… not a way to write a draft that works; that ONLY happens — to ANYONE — after you’ve FOUND your story.)
I tried that simple advice, and it has worked for me. In the processes of choosing a character and deciding on a specific setting, my brain swirled with many ideas of conflicts—and other characters—she might run into. The more I wrote, the more ideas that came to mind. I kept all the scenes connected to either the plot or related subplots that occurred to me along the way. About halfway through each story, a possible ending came to me and I aimed all the threads toward that end.
I still write that way. But I believe writing is a constant learning process, and so I tried outlining my current Work In Progress. When I finished, I had lost interest in the story and couldn’t write it. I kind of felt I had already told it—only to myself, of course. But to me, part of the joy of writing is “discovering” the story as I write it. I literally deleted that outline and have been writing the story from scratch. But that’s me, not necessarily you.
Either Method Can Work
My method suits me. I currently have five works of fiction published. They’re not Pulitzer Prize winners, but a lot of readers have told me they enjoyed them, and all of them, including the first two that were published eleven and twelve years ago, are still selling at a regular pace.
Pantsing works. Outlining works. Whichever method feeds your need, write, write, write. Don’t just sit there over-thinking it. You can’t finish if you never start.
About Nann Dunne
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