Outlining: A Pantser’s Lament
When I teach my college freshmen to write academic essays, I always tell them to start with a loose outline of what they’re going to do. Break it down paragraph by paragraph, I say, and make sure it will make sense before you start. This is, I believe, good advice. Too bad I rarely take it myself. Well, to be fair, I also don’t tend to write academic prose; I have an easier time outlining those kinds of things, as it happens, than I do outlining say, a story or a novel. But still, I’d rather eat tacks than outline sometimes. I’m winging this blog post as we speak, for instance.
It isn’t that I don’t see the utility of outlining – I very much do. I just don’t like doing it. When I started out writing novels (and, like many novelists, I have written way more novels than I’ve actually published), I started out by trying to outline the book first. Weirdly, I found it really difficult to make any headway if I did this. Something about making the outline robbed me of the motivation to actually write the book. I may have spouted some nonsense about outlining “robbing the book of its magic” or something, but what it comes down to is this: it is more fun to write a book without an outline. You get to preserve your sense of wonder at your own book. Like the readers, you are along for a ride which has an ending you can only guess at. This is called “pantsing.” As in, “by the seat of your pants.” Just sitting down at a computer with the barest sense of an idea and then writing it. Just going. You become the Lewis and Clarke of your own work; you are pathfinding the Oregon Trail to the promised land of “perfect novel.”
The problem is there are significant drawbacks.
For one thing, much like the Oregon Trail, there is very little guarantee that you will actually make it to the end. Your book might crash and burn halfway through and then you look back and realize “oh, crap – I’ve got to rewrite that whole thing!” So you go back and rewrite it, this time resolved to take lefts where you took rights. Except that doesn’t work, either. Next thing you know, you’ve rewritten the entire book a thousand times and have had a miserable time of it. There is no magic, there. It’s nothing but thick forests, craggy mountains, and snake bites.
Now, with an outline, you can (theoretically) circumvent many of those hazards before they crop up. You can look into the future and ask yourself “will this actually sustain a whole novel, or am I writing a novella?” You plan and you re-plan and you re-plan again. Granted, you are rewriting things just as often as the pants method, but outlines take a lot less time to rewrite.
But what about the magic? What about those glorious little surprises that can creep into your plot? Don’t outlines kill those things? How are you going to get your butt in that chair if you already know how everything is going to go? I can’t understate the obstacle that creates. As much as I know making a detailed outline is a wise activity, so much of me just wants to dive right in, you know? I want to be inspired by my own work!
These, though, strike me sometimes as the wishes and complaints of a child. I hate magical discussions of the artistic process. I don’t believe in the “muse” and I don’t accept writer’s block as anything other than fear of making mistakes. By that metric, I know that the so-called “magic” of pantsing a novel is just me being lazy. Outlines are work, whereas drafts are fun. But these days I have deadlines and very limited writing time. I can’t spend 2-3 years entirely rewriting the same novel five times. You know what kills the magic? Draft seven. That kills it dead, believe me.
So, for this next novel, I’m rolling my sleeves up, biting the bullet, and outlining the damned thing before I start. You know what should keep my butt in my chair? The idea that I’m a goddamned professional, that’s what. The fact that I’ve got 9 months to write a polished novel and four of those months will be taken up by my day job, and so I need to write this thing in one. It’s time to grow up, be responsible, and make a plan before I wander off in the wilderness and crash and burn yet another 100,000 word draft.
Or so I tell myself now.
As I write a blog post to procrastinate from outlining.