Few issues are as divisive among novelists as deciding whether ’tis nobler to suffer through an outline or to attack the blank page without a plan.
Unlike some aspects of the craft and process of writing, analyzing the propensity of mega bestsellers doesn’t offer any answers.
Take this live video conversation between two of the most popular writers of commercial fiction over the last fifty years, Stephen King and John Grisham.
The former, who as sold more than 300 million copies of his seventy works, is a pantser (meaning he writes mostly by the seat of his pants). Grisham, who’s tallied more than 100 million in sales of his twenty-two titles, is a plotter.
So, who’s right?
The answer, though it’s not what beginning writers may want to hear, is both.
And this issue is also not as black and white as it may seem.
I doubt I’m alone in claiming to be a plantser — a hybrid pre-writer who falls somewhere on the spectrum of plotting and pantsing.
I didn’t begin that way. Because my goal was to write a mystery or thriller, something with a puzzle to solve and a twist at the end, I was sure I had to have a detailed, chapter-by-chapter outline that spelled out each clue and revelation.
I completed this outline, and it got me started down a path.
I did not stay on that path.
I kept three or four scenes from that original document. But what I ended up with was better and I am glad I didn’t feel the need to stay rigid in my thinking.
And I’m glad I had something to reference as I started the manuscript. The pantser’s lament tends to be a longer writing process and more rounds of revision as they hone their plot while writing scenes.
But for my second novel, I ditched the chapter-by-chapter (or beat-by-beat, or scene-by-scene, etc.) outline and developed a different approach. I learned through querying agents for my debut that having synopses of various lengths was required.
If I was going to have to write a synopsis for my next novel, why not work up a draft of that before sitting down to write the manuscript?
I’m so glad I tried it. Writing the synopsis for Let the Guilty Pay was still a multi-day affair. I laid out the major points. Then I discovered something else would be better and revised.
It was essentially the same process as writing the novel, but in miniature.
When I got the synopsis where I wanted it, I sat down to write the manuscript.
I still deviated from the synopsis, and had one major revelation hit me more than three-quarters of the way through that made the first draft much more compelling and helped keep me excited about the impending revision process.
But the finished first draft was much closer to the original idea that I’d already workshopped.
Though I was not required to produce a synopsis for the prequel novella Live with the Truth or the sequel, The Price of Silence, I went through the same process. I then refined this process when writing Divided States, which was recently nominated for a Silver Falchion Award.
I feel like I’ve found a system that works for me.
For those who haven’t yet found their preferred pre-writing strategy, I suggest finding a middle ground between plotting and pantsing.
It doesn’t have to be mine, but I hope you can find a way to break beyond that binary view.