A few years ago I was preparing to embark on a new writing project – another suspense novel. I had done some preliminary freewriting and knew who my characters were, the main conflict of the story, the opening scene, and how it would end.
I was about to begin my usual involved process of creating a scene-by-scene outline of the plot (a stage that generally takes me about 2 months) when I got talking to another author friend about how she writes her novels.
This author, a confirmed ‘pantser’ (preferring to fly by the seat of her pants), described how wonderful it was to write a story without having any idea where it was going, what an adventure of discovery it was.
This author listened to what I already knew about my characters and said, ‘If it was me, I’d just jump in and start writing.’
Her suggestion sounded so wonderfully liberating, her process so creative, I decided to try it. Again. Even though I had tried the ‘pantser’ approach before and hadn’t had any success with it.
Perhaps I’d moved on as a writer, I thought. Perhaps it made a difference what kind of story you were writing. If the method was as great as pantsers all say, wasn’t it worth another try at least?
With no disrespect to that author (or any other pantser for that matter), my decision to follow her advice was a mistake. In the end that story took me months longer to write than if I’d taken the time to plot it first, and I floundered and second-guessed myself the entire way through.
In my novel writing journal I recorded my frustrations at the time: ‘I can see now what the problem has been. I have no road map to follow. The biggest upside to doing a detailed outline first? It’s a hell of a lot easier to fix if things go wrong.’
What I learned from this experience is that outlining doesn’t stifle creativity, in my case it frees it. As an outliner I’m not deprived of the thrill of discovery, I simply have it in a different place then pantsers do.
And really, when you think about it, is there all that much difference between my detailed outline and a pantser’s first draft?
Please understand – I am NOT saying that my way is right and pantsing is wrong. I’m simply saying: be true to your process, whatever it is, and never let anyone else talk you out of it.