Sunday, April 19, 2015

Do you Plot it or Wing it?

Indy, making it up as he goes...

Do you plot, plan, outline? Or, do you just go where your characters lead you? Why?...

...Seems like a straightforward set of questions, doesn’t it. But in truth, the answer’s not so simple. On more than one occasion, I’ve overheard established authors referring to their novels as “their babies.” That said, if I were to use the baby analogy to answer the question of are you a Plotter or a By-the-seat-of-your-pants author, I might say, Like my three kids, two of them were planned out ahead of time, from conception, to gestation, to setting up the nursery, to birth, to diaper service, to weekly babysitting, and everything else required of the first full year of a little baby’s life. It took a lot of thought, time and effort, but in the end, planning things out made for a smooth and happy experience.  

The second child required a bit less planning, but still, we made sure to plan ahead to a degree where we were confident that all would turn out smoothly. But by the time we got to the last kid, well, we weren’t even sure we could get pregnant, so we just sort of winged it. When we found out we were pregnant we just sort of went with the flow, allowing things to happen naturally. After all, we’d been through it twice before and realized that sometimes over-planning can take the fun and spontaneity out of the process. After all, life is a process of discovery if nothing else. So should writing a novel.

Okay, perhaps I’m pushing the baby metaphor to the breaking point here, but by now I’m sure my motive is obvious. When I was younger and just out of writing school in the late 1990s, I didn’t have the confidence or to be perfectly frank, the skills required to write a novel by the seat of my pants. Even if my characters were strong, their voices already speaking to me, I needed to plan out every plot point, from inciting incident to first conflict, to conflict resolution, to the epilogue. Not only did creating a clear plan help me construct and flesh out my novel, it also allowed me to go on the next morning without being stuck. 

As time went on however, and I became more comfortable with the novel process, I found that I was able to write a full length, 60K word piece of work by outlining only a few chapters at a time. I found that by planning anything beyond that would take away from my protagonist’s ability to make it up as he or she went along. Because life is a lot like that isn’t it? Often times, we find ourselves adapting to unforeseen circumstances regardless of how much we attempt to stay in control. You know, someone sideswipes your new car at the intersection, or you find that your wife’s been cheating on you…Life isn’t perfectly scripted by any sense of the word. This new method of semi-outlining allowed the novel to develop organically as opposed to one that’s built by connecting the dots. 

These days, after writing 17 novels, all of which are in print, I have enough confidence to sit down at my laptop with just a shred of an idea and in turn, build a novel out of it. That’s not to say I don’t spent time jotting down notes, or little bits of story outline, or even a page-length character synopsis or two. But what I don’t require anymore is a detailed outline. In fact, I purposely avoid it. With experience comes confidence. With confidence comes the freedom to allow your story…your baby…to take itself where it will.