Three Dirty Birds and the Dreaded Outline of Doom

The Dirty Birds are back with a new book! K.M.Weiland and her advice in Outlining Your Novel: Map Your Way to Success.

Zoe: So this will be an interesting book given the range of pantsing/plotting we have among us birds.

Ana: Yes, I think I’ll take the role of the skeptic.

Kate: I’ve already been cheesed-off by someone in the second chapter. (Not Weiland entirely)

Zoe: I should probably actually read those interviews at the ends of the chapters, huh?

Ana: I don’t think you’re missing too much by not reading them.

Kate: Nope, not a thing. Grrrrr!

Zoe: I looked at the interview questions asked, realized they were the same for every chapter…realized I didn’t much care. The actual chapters though have some decent stuff.

Kate: Yeah, the chapters themselves aren’t bad. When I go through them, I remember doing some of this stuff for Bite Me Tender, and not really thinking of it as outlining. But I guess what that comes down to is–outlining is what you make of it.

Ana: I have to say reading these chapters it sometimes felt that the assumption she was working off was that pantsers don’t know ANYTHING about what’s going on in their books or what’s going to happen.

Kate: I found it kind of dismissive of anything that wasn’t linear. (Why, hello, big red button. Who’s pushing you today?) The fact is, as a very happy pantser, I still know most of what’s going on in my story before I start. And I like jumping around in the story, creating puzzles for myself, having new ideas pop up that I never considered. That’s not to say I wouldn’t like to have an outline for one story and have it all mapped out before I start. Except I have a sneaking suspicion that my brain would be all “okay, we’re done now. Next plot bunny!” and that would be it. So, I’m in a Catch-22–do I try it with a good story idea that I’m eager to write and risk losing that story, or do I try it with one I don’t much care about and risk my own disinterest sabotaging me? Or do I just say, “Stuff it!”

Zoe: I don’t feel so much like I’m all done now when I outline (though I don’t actually use the word “outline” when I’m doing it). It’s more like a really short first draft (really short–maybe 10-15 pages) where I’m just telling myself the story. Then I do the real first draft, where I fill everything in…and completely change what happened in the outline. 🙂

But you could try outlining an idea you don’t even have yet, so there’s no bias either way. Just start with the premise chapter and work your way through something from utter scratch. Maybe you’ll wind up with a story you want to write; maybe you won’t.

Ana: I’m probably going to try the things/methods described in this book to outline, or try an outline for my paranormal. Right now, I’m somewhere between outlining and pantsing. Where spending 3 months on an outline makes me want to go hide in a cave somewhere and give up writing all together, while not having any idea at all before I start? That seems daunting too.

Zoe: She spends longer writing an outline than I spend writing a first draft.

Ana: YES.

Kate: Lol, me too! But I love that first part.

Zoe: I just don’t know how I’d take that long to plan something.

Kate: I think she must like a really detailed outline. My outline for Bite Me Tender was more of a brainstorming session that lasted about fifteen minutes, scribbled all over the page, and then the story I actually wrote had nothing in common with it except the names and Levi was a werewolf. Go figure.

Ana: That’s often how it goes for me. I have this amazing idea for this brilliant story! And then by the time I’ve written it, the story has very little in common with that original idea. (In fact, I could probably write the story I’d first thought of too, and sell them as separate stories and no one would know!)

Kate: Two birds with one…word processor?

Zoe: I think not using what’s in your outline isn’t a bad thing—you eliminated those things by thinking of them first.

Kate: And I think that’s part of my process. I know, doing the rewrite on Knight, there’s a lot of changing happening there. Every rewrite makes some fundamental changes in the way I present material, and what scenes I use to get my points across.

Zoe: I have a new book to start on the first. And no idea what’s supposed to happen in it, so I’ll be using this book and the next two weeks to try and get a handle on it.

Kate: That sounds like a plan. You can keep us updated on how it’s working for you.

Have we actually talked about what’s in this chapter yet? 😛

Zoe: Ha. So, chapter one covers the misconceptions of outlining, which we all have heard (or held), and the benefits of outlining. And…I’ll admit I just skimmed because I don’t need to be sold on it; I want to get to the meat of doing it.

Ana: I highlighted a part where she talks about how much she hates discovering that she has to do rewrites. I love discovering that I have to do rewrites, but mostly, because for me that goes hand in hand with realizing how I can make my story stronger, so I’m initially all excited.

Kate: Me too. I rewrite all the way through the story.

Zoe: That’s how I feel too. Writing a story (including the rewrites) is kind of like doing a puzzle. Or a painting, I suppose. You keep going back and figuring out how to make it even better. (Actually I think I have that backward: you keep figuring out how to make it even better, and go back and do it.)

Ana: The next part I highlighted was where she said that an extensive outline was a first draft (which I agree with), but that it only took maybe a quarter of the time. I think that’s a very individual thing. My first drafts certainly don’t take as long as her outlines. (And I cringe to think that her first drafts take a year, when you do the math.)

Kate: Considering the way publishing is going now, one draft a year isn’t a sustainable pace, if you want to make a living (or even a decent part-time job) off writing. We’re not all George Martin.

Zoe: (Thank goodness! The pressure that man is under…)

Ana: Then I think, reading on, that her writing process as a pantser must be very different from mine, because she describes frequently writing 5k word segments only to realize they lead her to a dead end. I can honestly say that usually doesn’t happen to me. I usually think at least that far ahead. (For example, when I get an idea that I want to try following, I make a quick flow chart for myself to see if it even leads to any outcome that would help my story.) Pantsing doesn’t have to mean you never think about what you’re doing.

Kate: See, in my head, my stories are a web of connecting events. Some events don’t show up at first, because I don’t yet that I need them, but once I get to the one they should connect to, it becomes obvious. I’ve never written 5K words only to say “This isn’t going anywhere.” (Actually, I should qualify that. During my complete mental funk this year, when I forgot how to write, I did do something like that. Only because I was writing a sequel, and I left too much time in between the two stories. I reread chunks of the first, but missed some stuff that my subconscious mind remembered. And it blocked me once I got so far. Once I clued to the problem, the ‘block’ went away. I know exactly where I’m going with it now.) When I’m on my game, I never run into that problem.

Zoe: I’ve written 40k, 50k words that haven’t gone anywhere. I’m happy to write even when I have no idea what I’m doing with it. Someday I’ll steal stuff from those manuscripts.

Ana: I have written entire drafts that didn’t go anywhere. But it wasn’t because they led me to dead ends. It was just that by the end of those, I’d come up with a much better story than the one I’d told.

Zoe: Mine were dead ends. 🙂 (Gah, the entire first few drafts of Man Made Murder were dead ends. I kept taking a long running start and ending up in the same unworkable spot.) Once I changed nearly everything—it worked! 😀 😀

Ana: Yay! The next bit I found interesting was her claim that foreshadowing was impossible when pantsing. That doesn’t hold true in my experience. During my first novel I had absolutely no idea what I was doing, but my brain kind of pulled it together in a way that made sense by using seemingly unnecessary details I’d put into the story to tie it up. So when I reread the whole thing there was a lot of unintended foreshadowing.

Kate: I found that weird for her to say. I’m convinced that her definition of pantsing and ours are not the same. If I know a certain scene is coming up, stuff just comes out on the page in earlier scenes. Even my throwaway fantasy already has foreshadowing in the first chapter. It needs tweaking, but the space is there.

Ana: I also had some objections to her saying I didn’t know which POV to use unless I outlined.

Kate: Like you wouldn’t know what the conflict of a scene was, or who had the most to lose before you get into it.

Zoe: Yes, I think she oversells outlines here, and she probably didn’t need to. Outlines do have benefits; you don’t have to make it sound like pantsers can’t do anything to talk people into trying them.

Kate: I really think this comes down to her definition of a pantser. The more I read, the more convinced I am that, to her, a pantser is someone who sits down at the computer with an idea–”Two guys meet at a coffee shop and it turns out one used to be the best friend of the other’s brother.”–and then just starts without thinking about it. I’m baffled as to why she talks about how a story bumps around in her head for a year or two before she writes it. Have either of you ever sat down to write a story the minute you got an idea? I haven’t. Admittedly, mine don’t always take a year, but…

Ana: I have, but only short stories. I have also done two NaNo’s without thinking about either story much prior to writing it. One, I trunked. The other I did a complete rewrite of. (But, the first draft only took a month, so… worth it.)

Kate: I can’t even do that with short stories. *sniffs sadly* No seat-of-the-pants writing here.

Zoe: I used to seat-of-pants stories, back when I was doing fanfic.

Kate: Now I’m beginning to question my membership in the pantser club.

Ana: It just works differently for all of us.

Zoe: Not just for all of us, but for every story. You never know what you’re going to wind up doing to get a story written.

Ana: True, but that’s what keeps it interesting.

Kate: Yes. If it was the same every time, I’d get bored. You know, I was just rereading the part of the chapter where she says that pantsers think that outlining takes too much time. I’m not sure it’s that. If it’s something you don’t enjoy doing, why spend that much time on it? I want to come to my stories with joy, not dread. If outlining isn’t fun, if it doesn’t put me in my happy place, why spend that time? I’d rather go back and revise and tweak and play with my words (FUN!) than trudge through an outline (NOT FUN!). Completely aside from the fact that if you aren’t enjoying doing it, then you’re going to find excuses to not do it. And the story doesn’t get written.

About the author: Kate Lowell

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