Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Abandoning The No-Plan Plan

I have been working on a new novel for a couple of months now, and I've been attempting to write it without an outline, without any idea of where the story or the characters go. The idea is to discover all of this as I go along. It's an experiment in creativity, wherein I attempt to mimic the techniques of our own Davin Malasarn in the hopes that I'll stumble across the sort of surprising narrative turns that he has in his stories.

I really really (really) am hating it. In fact, I hate it so much that whenever I think about working on the story I get angry. I have no idea what it is so I have no idea what to do with it. In the last week or so, I have managed to write one sentence and it's not a particularly good sentence, either. I look at my notebook and my stack of reference materials and I think about all the other books I could be writing instead, the books where I have outlines and knowledge of the plot and the purpose of the characters. The books that I would enjoy writing.

Because I really really (really) am not enjoying the work on this current project. Yes, some of the bits are the best passages I've written, but I put that down to my having grown as a writer, not to my having no idea what I'm doing on the page. I don't see myself ever getting a finished novel-length draft out of this book, not writing it the way I am. There is nothing compelling me to move forward with the writing because I'm not going anywhere. I am not one of those people who can just go on a wander to see what I'll see; when I go for a walk, I like to know what the destination is and how long the walk will take and where I'll have a pint at the end of the walk. This wandering around through my manuscript is making me terribly nervy and that nervy quality is finding its way onto the page and I don't like that, either.

To make a long story short, I have decided that my plan to write this one without a plan is a bad sort of planless plan. I throw up my hands. I throw in the towel. I throw off the shackles of this prisonless prison, et cetera. Today I'm going to figure out what the hell the story is and what happens when my two main characters meet and how the book ends and why all of it takes place. So there. Otherwise I'm going to throw what I have of this book into the fireplace. Grrr. Argh.

Also, Happy New Year!


  1. I really can't work in the dark like that. Though in my case, I frequently find I need a plan if only to be able to depart from it...

  2. Well, as Henry James said, the actual novel is a terrible damage done to the beautifully-constructed plan, but I can live with that.

    I wanted to write this book without an outline, but it turns out to be impossible. For a while I thought I'd just make an outline and pretend that I was writing by the seat of my pants, but that would be lying and I've been bragging about this project. But actually finishing the MS is more important than conducting this experiment, though I will say that I feel like I've failed in a big way and I'm ashamed of that. But also: huge relief.

  3. Oh Mr. Bailey, you are such an angsty sort.

    I give you permission to throw up your hands, throw in the towel and write an outline. I give you a pat on the back for really trying to do something out of your normal writing style. That in itself took a lot of guts, especially for you.

    But you tried it, and now you know you can't do it. So go back to being who you are, a damned fine writer who needs to work with an outline. You are not a failure, you just tried something and found it did not work for you. There's no shame in that.

  4. I thoroughly plotted my second novel, and after pantsing the first one, I can't believe how much less painful it is to write with a plan. I'm knocking on wood, of course. But this is so much less stressful.

  5. Anne, you don't know the half of it. I see outlining as an important part of storytelling, I guess. I see storytelling as an important part of writing a novel. I can't make a story up as I go along. I really do need to know the ending before I begin the beginning. I see it as a failure of my apparatus of imagination.

    Gail, I wrote the first half of my first novel over a four-year period, without an outline. I wrote the second half of that same novel in six months after spending a couple of hours putting together an outline. It was a very detailed outline. I don't need anything like that these days; I just need to know the ending and I can figure out everything I need from that by reverse-engineering the story.

    Which means, I realize, that I don't come up with premises. Instead, I apparently write about end-states. Not "what happens next" but "how did that happen?"

  6. First, cool pictures in the last post! I didn't see them before.

    Second, I don't see your decision as a failure or the result of can'ting. The fact is, you could write the book this way if you wanted to. You don't want to, and now, most importantly, you know that you don't want to. I think the most helpful things I have learned come from me attempting experiments and then realizing I didn't like the outcome. That answers a lot of philosophical questions for me and lets me get back to the work I like doing. (I also secretly like that we all have different ways of doing things, and I believe that results in different types of books.)

  7. Davin, this experiment has been interesting for me, and I have learned a couple of useful things. First, I think it's a good idea to make my outlines more open than I've been doing, because I do like having to think hard about what's going to happen, and I've had some surprising ideas already for this book that would've been ruled out had I written a tight-knit outline.

    Also, I wrote my last book with a definite ending in mind, and when I got there, I ended up writing a different ending that I think is better than what I had in mind, so the story up to the ending made me change the ending. Part of why the first ending didn't work was because I had a lot of unknown territory in the original outline when I began to write the narrative. So while I still need to know what the broad plan of the tale is, I think that I need to know less about the story than I used to think I needed. In fact, knowing less is a good idea--but only up to a point.

    Also, I don't think I could write this book without an outline. I really felt like I was beating my head against a wall and I hated it with a white-hot burning hatred you can't begin to imagine.

  8. Ahhh Scott, congrats on giving it a go. I admire how much effort you put into your attempt, even if you did decide it's not for you. As others have said though, that's not a failure but merely a discovering of what really works for you. And if you've learned how to let go the tight strictures just a bit and still write the story the way you want it to be, I say you've accomplished a lot. We all write differently, and how we get there doesn't matter as much as the fact that we do.

  9. Eric, I have more respect now for you guys who can make up a novel as you go along. For me it was like having my brain stuck in 'park' the whole time. I just couldn't do it. Which pisses me off, I must say. I hate finding out that I can't do things I have decided to do. But, you know, the real goal was to write another book.

  10. Interesting experiment. I wish that had happened to me. I spent almost a decade on my "plan-less" novel. I ended up with about 3000 pages of unrelated scenes (Some of which ended up in Notes from Underground.) I wish I'd thrown in a lot of towels before I got that far.

    Now, I plan. I don't outline, but I always know the ending and the major turning points. I never want to write myself into that kind of no-way-out corner again.

  11. Anne: Every once in a while I sit down with the mess that is my very first novel and try to organize it into a unified whole. The first half, that I wrote with no idea where I was going with the material, is just a hash that I have no idea what to do with.

    Today at lunch I sat down and figured out where the two main characters end up at the end of the story. Not far from where they start, I am pleased to say. Usually I end up killing everyone off, but I'm trying hard to make this book not a tragedy, to make something more like an indeterminate Chekhovian ending. I think the final scene is good, and because I rejected idea after idea for plot development, I ended up finding a shape that I normally wouldn't have come up with. The story reminds me a lot of Nadine Gordimer right now. We'll see what it reminds me of when I've actually written it.

  12. The story I worked on at lunch today, to clarify, is the new novel, not my first unpublishable/unreadable mess.

  13. Can't say I blame you. I'm an outliner by nature. I typically come up with a premise, then write a 2-3 page synopsis off of it to see where it could go. If I like it, I'll find a starting point and start telling the story, but I need that idea of direction in order to get started.

  14. I suppose at one point you have to stop driving around aimlessly and ask directions. It's a guy thing.

    I was going to ask you if what you wrote surprised you in a good way, but if you threw your hands up, I guess not.

  15. Well, we failed to bring you over to the dark side, otherwise known as being a pantster.

    There are just as many ways to write a novel as there are people writing them. I think it's good to try new things. Hey maybe one day I'll even try an outline. But really if it's not working then go with what does. There's no point in not enjoying it or writing terrible.

  16. Perhaps instead of learning to write without direction, you should first learn to enjoy wandering on walks without having a destination in mind. It will be far less painful than staggering through a story you're not enjoying! XD Of course, if you already know you're a destination, not the journey kind of person, play to your strengths!

    That said, outlining is just a shortened version of your first draft. If you can think your way through an outline, it just takes a bit of a shift to think your way through an unplanned first draft. They achieve the same thing (giving you the basis of a story from which you may shape an actual, finished piece). One key element to remember is, on a completely pantsed draft, sometimes the momentum you get means you need to fill in the barest of information about a scene and write what comes next; the rest of the writing will come later. A lot of people make the mistake of thinking a pantsed draft is meant to be written and whole, all in order. I don't think any successful pantser has ever done that (not the ones I've spoken to, nor myself).

    Good luck with the shift back to plotting and planning!


  17. I cannot imagine creating a narrative from scratch by just writing prose to see what happens next.

    The method I use involves multiple passes through the story, adding depth and detail with each pass. The first pass may begin with only a situation and character, but quickly I decide upon the consequences that result. In the next pass, I envision the steps necessary to get from the beginning to the end. Another pass breaks those steps into finer detail. Admittedly, this results in an outline.

    At some point, as I continue making passes through the story, the narrative takes form. By this time, I have waypoints that lead me from plot point to plot point, from beginning to end, but the pathways leading between the waypoints are sometimes unexpected, remarkable, and exhilarating.

    Regardless of where the story leads me, I always know where I will end up.

  18. I have to have a plan so I can bend it and break it and manipulate it. But I cannot work without a plan. I did that with Monarch and it ended up in a freaking rewrite of the entire book from scratch, as you very well know. I do not work without a plan unless it's a short story.

    My plans aren't outlines as much as a really long rambling synopsis of the book with vague ideas of structure.

    I think you've discovered something very important about your writing and you shouldn't be upset with yourself at all or feel like you're giving up on anything. It was just a trial. :)

  19. Kudos to you for even trying. I don't write with an outline but I always start with the ending. I know how all my stories end, I just don't know how it gets there.

    It's the journey to the end that proves the thrilling ride for me.

    I'm going to blame that one my Prehistoric Anthropology studies. We know what happened to Homo Neanderthalensis, we just don't know how...

    In any case, you should be patting yourself on the the back for even trying a new way of writing. Many don't bother.

    It's perfectly alright to write as you normally do, knowing now that there really isn't another way for you to write.

  20. I wish I could follow an outline. I've tried with every book. I lay out the chapters, scheme and plot, but the characters ALWAYS hijack the book. I've learned to relinquish all control, they win in the end. :S

  21. I think writing an outline makes me enjoy my writing more. It sets me free because I feel I know where I am going. Yet I find myself finding new paths and ideas while I write the story. The discoveries and the flexibility of the creative process are enchanting and fascinating. You never know what the mind will bring up. We need to accept that creativity goes hand in hand with uncertainty even when you have an outline.

  22. "creativity goes hand in hand with uncertainty even when you have an outline"

    Yes! It's also true for me at least that my imagination works harder when I have limits against which to work. An outline sort of creates a set of rules that I have to outsmart.


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