Outlining "Planning" vs Discovery Writing "Pantsing"

One out of every three of these pens will lead to discovery writing...
Photo by Kelly Sikkema / Unsplash

If you're an aspiring author yourself, and done a fair bit of studying on different creative processes in writing, you've probably come across these terms. Planners are the writers who plot all the major points out on paper before they begin writing. The Brandon Sandersons, who devise the overarching structure of the narrative, almost like a scaffolding, before any brick and mortar are put down.

Then there's the other type. The closeted-insane, the Muse-riders, the strike-while-the-irons-hot hitters. Those who keep pounding--keep writing--until something comes into rough shape.

I rode the elusive wind of the Muse for my first draft, and I evolved into an outliner for my second...

This may seem counterintuitive... how something as nebulous and organic as ones own creative process can be shifted from one style to the next... but in holistic view of my development as an author, there were a number of intentional decisions that I had to make with my own process in the writing of Book I that led me to shift gears along the way to where I am now (wherever that is... I'm still figuring out).

I very much see it like a basketball player with his shot. I'd spent the better part of two years formulating my shots' release, getting myself to the free-throw line and building a methodical means of production. I pumped out 130k+ words this way, in fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants fashion (the reason they are called "pantsers"). I strung my story along from one element to the next. I pushed and I pushed until the story formed itself into something, until the narrative reached its end, until I set my pen down and stepped back, and I look on what my chase of the muse had built.

I was left sorely disappointed.

I wasn't disappointed because the muse had lead my astray. My chase of it had rather been anything but. So much of what is Book I is because I went with my gut, I let my release fly as it may... I wrote what I felt needed to be written. The story elements of Book I that came into shape by the end of my first draft had what I felt to be strokes of brilliance (of course, I'm biased here)... the problem however, was that there were monumental gaps in the story arcs of multiple characters, chief of these one of my two main.

As I wrote, one of my characters just flowed. His story almost told itself, to the point that when I was writing from his eyes, I very much felt carried on by his story. His actions. His motives. I was led through its ebbs and flows until I reached the end of the book. The challenge here was that there was another of my main characters--one who took up more than 40% of the book--who I saw did little to add to the tension and conflict of the book. In retrospect, I see it simply now. In getting caught up with the muse, it inevitably flowed down an avenue led by one character. It was his fire that burned the story into its rough shape. His narrative current that forced the story to completion. But from here, I realized that this character alone wasn't enough for the entire novel, and in his wake I had another character who did little, added little, and fell a little flat. Where I wrote one character with all of the fervor and brilliance brought by the elusive muse, the other I strung along from one chapter to the next between these fiery, creative frenzies, more or less giving him lip-service just so I could pat myself on the back that I'd given him some forward plot progression.

And that's when I decided I had to break apart my entire novel. That's when I decided I had to employ some of the tactics of a planner.

At this point, I had hand written the first draft, and typed up what I can now probably call draft "1.5". Draft 1.5 was draft 1 with an eye for improving prose, grammar, and fixing any semi-truck sized inconsistencies. The diagnosing came as I typed up 1.5. My process was to print out draft 1, going through it with a red pen, highlighting and amending, and in so doing tabulate 1.5 on the hard copy, and proceeding to type what I'd hand corrected and get it all digital. The process took several months, and at the end I was left with the 130k-ish novel that had serious character arc problems. I knew the issue was that one character was neglected, and so I turned the problem around in my head for several months more, looking at the chapter flows and trying to figure out how to fix it.

I looked up how to use outlines at this point, and I came across this gem, used by J.K Rowling for her fifth book, The Order of the Phoenix. Book 5 was her longest, and arguably most complex with its story arcs.

Here's another that's easier to see:

I should be completely transparent here, and tell you that to be honest, I can't remember precisely when I employed this sort of rubric. Part of my process was to backlog any chapters I'd already written before I came across it, but a fair amount of Book I was developed with such a structure as this, which I used as a sort of story survey tool to get a big picture of my book, and decide which characters and events needed to go where and when. When exactly though that this tool came into place is difficult for me to tell, as the whole process was so organic, so constant, and so variable at every moment.

Nevertheless, even though I think it's not comprehensive enough to reduce complex things to steps or linearity, my process for Book I was something like this:

  1. Vague, hardly connected ideas/drawings/genealogies/totally fabricated glossaries of my newly created map/ intellectual and/or creative fomenting
  2. Seminal/precursor prose/scenes to Book I; envisioning of larger scenes/ideas of Book I (figuring out the big ideas that would drive the book from opening to ending)  
  3. Haphazard writing of approximately 50-70 pages of narrative of Book 1 (there were many false starts to this "draft 0"... but at some point I just put pen to paper and forced myself to get somewhere
  4. Scrapping of this copy in a storm of tears of proportion enough to rival Ron Burgundy after Baxter was punted
  5. Following of the big ideas, the muse and the wind-chimes through to the end of Book 1: Achieved Draft 1
  6. Story diagnosis through typing from written original, introspection, assessment, obsessive discussion with my wife and anybody that listened
  7. Rewrite status-post this diagnosis, with mountains of additions (the novel doubled in length at this point): Draft 2
  8. My own editorial pass after this point: Draft 3
  9. Hired my copyeditor, worked through multiple microscopic and macroscopic passes: Draft 4

To be frank, my process was so organic that the precise time I brought in Rowlings' outline is difficult for me to remember, but I believe it was either in middle to late stages on my way to achieving Draft 1, or as I was typing it into Draft 1.5. I lean toward thinking somewhere on my way to finishing Draft 1, but I'd have to check the dates. In any case, the outline proved immensely valuable, as it gave me a way of organizing the whole book on a macroscopic level. I could look at the overarching story pieces, and get a feel of how the novel ebbed and flowed. I could see visually how many chapters I'd given one character in a row, and it served as a way of viewing my story on a spatial level that allowed me to think of the whole thing differently.

It also proved invaluable as I began to perform surgery on my plot. I could look in on the chapters and craft ways of adding new pieces, new characters, new conflicts and challenges, and new resolutions. This proved immensely difficult, as the earlier on I introduced new elements in fixing what I viewed as major problems, the more mindful I had to be in carrying these changes through to the end. I couldn't just add in a new character in a single chapter and consider a problem fixed. I had to graft in this change through the entire novel. In many ways I began to see my novel like an organism, and in allowing these new additions, they didn't simply come in and stand, but they irrevocably changed the novel from what it had once been.

This was a scary, painful process. But it had to be done.

"Whatever process has gotten you this far is the right one. The difficult question to answer though, is if your process is the right one to get you to where you want to go?"

Chronologically speaking, this "plot-surgery" happened between the month before my daughter was born, on through her first year of life. Whereas it took me 2-3 years to write the original 130k or so words, I doubled the novels' size in a little under a year as I achieved Draft 2. I ground myself this year, working on every one of her naps and in the hours after she'd go to bed, and in this year this outline was an invaluable tool. It served as a map that helped me chart my course out of a forest that I didn't know how I'd gotten in the middle of. I'd been a wanderer thus far, but thankfully, not a lost wanderer.

In hindsight though, I think with a book as large in size as mine, that for Book II I will be a planner from the get go. This is easy to say now, as I am standing with time to reflect, but for my own creative process I don't know if there was any other way to have let it develop than the way it did. I was essentially beginning with nothing, following the whims of a story I had a vague idea was there, running into problems and writing through them when I had to. My view of it all leaves me with some satisfaction, as I don't think there was bad planning from the outset, but merely a lack of experience and learning what in the heck it looks like to write a novel.

My hope is that Book II will be easier. A hope, but one which I've read is a far-off one. Many say the sequel is all the more difficult, but for now, I'll wager that it will be not as bad. Book II will have an army of pre-arranged story threads to pick up from, several years of planning, and hours and hours of thought behind it. My plan is to get Book I picked up, and then after the edits with whatever house are finished, to comb my mind and my notes of any elements I have in store for the next book. So much of it is in my head, but there will have to be several months where all I do is cultivate space where I can nurture the progression of the story threads I left at the end of Book I.

This may all seem like a ramble of thoughts... and it is! But if you've read this far and you are a writer, let me just say first, that whatever process has gotten you this far is the right one. The difficult question to answer though, is if your process is the right one to get you to where you want to go? I can't say if my way will be helpful, but I think what I can say is that a period of self-reflection and "inventory-taking" of your own process IS what will be helpful. I personally reached a point after draft 1 where I hit a wall, and it was here that I had to shift from pantsing to planning. It was this shift that was immensely painful, not just in putting it on paper, but in executing what those things on paper meant. I couldn't just put a bunch of plans on paper and then proceed how I had before. I had to be methodical and intentional to accomplish each of the things Draft 2 needed. This was hard, but I think it was needed. If we go back to the analogy of the seed budded through and taking root into the dirt, draft 1 was a sapling strangled, lying limp on the ground under its own weight. It was only with the lateral girding of a superimposed structure that it could flourish and grow, to become what I envisioned it could.

My hope is that I have cracked my mind open enough to let you in to see how I went through this process. Take what helps, leave what hurts. It's the evolution I've gone through as a creative that has brought me this far, and what I've detailed is just one piece of this evolution. If I can offer a crystalized piece of advice, it would be to do nothing else but throw yourself into your work. Ride the wave, whether it be the curated, structured tour of the ripples and folds of the water, or the deep-water plunge, the midnight, hair-brained foray into whatever the ocean holds. At some point it is my opinion that one or the other may putter themselves out, and if this happens, take stock of what I've said here, and assess if a gear shift is needed.