I realized this week that I make it sound like I write a lot. So I’m coming out of the closet on that one.
I haven’t been writing all that much.
This is an ongoing problem in my life as a writer. I tend to be all-in. I’m either in a phase of writing a lot or writing very little. It’s easy to make a ton of excuses, and I’m not going to because everybody has those. But it is not uncommon for me to find myself in a phase of life where I haven’t written in weeks…months, even.
And so it was that I tackled my work-in-progress this week.
I have put the podcast on a reduced schedule for the summer in large part to throw myself into more writing, and since that happened almost three weeks ago I have tackled a number of other projects but have been avoiding my novel-in-progress. I knew what was awaiting me, what is always awaiting me when I pick up a project that hasn’t been touched in awhile: rereading drafts and notes and the outline and hoping that I haven’t fallen out of love with the thing and left yet another brilliant beginning in my wake.
I am the queen of brilliant beginnings. I do them so well.
Writers often talk of “Plotters” vs. “Pantsers.” “Plotters” are the outliners among us, those who know where their novel is going because they have it carefully mapped out. The term “Pantsers” is of the “write by the seat of your” derivation. They use rough drafts to figure out where the story is going. They are in it for the ride.
I love planning. When tackling a new major project, my instinct is to immediately start sketching characters. Not in the literal sense (I don’t draw,) but mapping out who they are related to, what their motivations are, and what they like to eat for breakfast. I like creating characters. Plots are more work.
There’s a famous librarian named Nancy Pearl who makes her living recommending books and teaching librarians how to recommend books. She says what a reader likes is not about genre or author or theme, although certainly related authors and themes can work for the same reader. She says there are four doors through which readers approach literature and finding out which doors an individual prefers helps you make suggestions. The doors are: character, plot, setting, and language. It’s worth reading more on her theory, but I will simply say for this moment that I wonder sometimes if writers do the same thing. I approach my projects by character.
For much of my young writer life (I cringe even writing that phrase, thinking of so much time wasted,) I eschewed outlines. I didn’t like knowing where my story was going. I would blurb my own rough drafts before I even wrote them, leaving the endings deliberately vague. My “plans” often ended with a question.
That’s when I started to collect file drawers filled with story ideas and story beginnings. I still have them. More than I will complete in my lifetime, more than I could complete in nine lifetimes. And one day I decided I was a grown-up and needed an outline.
I’m not saying no one can be a Pantser. I’m saying I can’t be. Been there, done that, have nothing to show for it. The first project I did a real outline of was the first full-length project I ever completed, and that was a dozen or so years ago when I was already old enough to have accomplished more than that. And so Kris the Outliner was born.
From the start, Kris the Outliner had major flaws. I especially remember a Nanowrimo project a few years ago. The outline was gorgeous, but halfway through November I realized I didn’t like the story anymore. I finished it, but so what? (If it isn’t fun to write, it won’t be fun to read. Trust me.)
So I’ve discovered a compromise: the brief outline. I do the character sketches and the notes, all the stuff the planner in me loves, and then I do a bullet point outline. It has to go all the way to the end, it cannot end in a question, it works through the major plot points, but it is not incredibly detailed. This makes it modular…it can be cut and moved around as the progress of the rough draft dictates. I am never married to an outline.
Brief has its challenges, though. Like in the outline of my work-in-progress, the one I came back to this week. One of my bullet points just says “Melanie.”
I don’t know who Melanie is. If I’ve written a character sketch on her it must have been on a Starbucks napkin because it didn’t survive. I’m sure she is a secondary character of some kind and I know because of where she is listed in the outline approximately where she fit into the plot. But I have no idea what she was actually doing there. She is a casualty of procrastination. Maybe she is a lost gem that was going to win my my Pulitzer. More likely, she was supposed to redirect my storyline to something I’ll do in a different way.
The good news? I still like this project, so a dust off of the outline and I was right back into it.
Now I just have to keep on going.
From your Queen of the Brilliant Beginnings,