Tuesday, September 02, 2014

This Writing Life 7: Outliners vs. Pantsers or The Many Ways to Write Stuff

There is big debate over which way is the best way to write a novel. This debate divides the writing community into two main camps: “Outliners” and “Seat of the Pantsers.” Outliners outline their books before they write them and Seat of the Pantsers don’t.

And I’m pretty sure the Outliners named the groups.

And if one of your big questions as a writer is, “should I outline or not?” read through to the end because that’s where I put my opinion on the matter. Before that, thought, I’m going to explain each type.

I’m also going to rename the two types Explorers and Engineers. Because, really, who wants to be a “pantser”?

Explorers and Engineers

Both the Explorer (Panster) and the Engineer (Outliner) have the same job. There is a mountain (the novel) in front of them and they need to make a path to the top (the end of the novel).  Nice metaphor, eh? And so original…

The Explorer’s Journey
Explorers will say, “Right, I have to go that way,” and start walking. They may find themselves with false starts, they may find themselves backtracking and they may find themselves wandering into completely different territory, but at the end, they will discover what is, for them, the best path up the mountain.

For the Explorer, writing is a very organic process. They most likely know the beginning middle and end (some don’t), but how they will get there is completely open to possibilities. They explore and learn about their characters as they write. They find the situations and scenes and moments as they go.  And while they may have false starts and false directions, the Explorer feels that, by the time they get to the top, they have found the best possible path up the mountain.

(They are wrong of course, but that’s the subject of next week’s blog.)

Some explorers: Stephen King, Meg Cabot (who wrote a great article about why) and Erik Buchanan.

The Engineer’s Journey

The Engineers will say, “Right, I have to go that way,” and start planning. They’ll survey the mountain, measure out the best distance and create blueprints, and then build a road that takes them to the top of the mountain.

For the Engineer, a lot of the creative process happens before they write the book. They figure out who the characters are, from their birthday to their favourite colour in some cases. They know what the story is going to be about, and they decide what actions, tensions, conflicts and resolutions will best serve the story.  Then they sit down and write.  They have fewer false starts because they already know where they are going.  They’re less likely to hit dead ends. And when they are finished, they are confident that they have built the best possible road to get up the mountain.

(They are wrong of course, but that’s the subject of next week’s blog.)

Some Engineers: John, Grisham, J.K. Rowling, and Erik Buchanan.

Wait. You’re In Both Lists

Oh, you noticed.

So Which Are You, an Explorer or an Engineer?

Both, of course.

I started out as pure explorer. I love the flow of the writing, and love the journey of discovering the book.  In the last few years, however, I have incorporated more and more of the Engineer’s path.

Why I went from Explorer to Engineer

Remember the only rule of writing: You Must Finish.  As an explorer, I was finishing, but I was hitting some pretty big dead ends in the process. For Small Magics, I had to re-write 200 pages of the book to fix it.  With Cold Magics, it was 250. Both dead ends took up a lot more time than I wanted, and when I moved to writing professionally, I realized it was time I didn’t have. Add to that, most Ghostwriting clients ask for an outline, and you see why I made the change.

So Which One’s Better?

Remember the First Rule of Writing: You Must Finish.

The one that is better is the one that allows you to most effectively follow the First Rule of Writing. Some people can’t outline because they feel it destroys their creativity and makes the story go away.  Some people feel they must outline because it guides their creativity and brings the story together.

For me, changing from Explorer to Engineer made sense. It allows me to work faster, which means writing more books.  Does it make my writing better? I don’t know. I think so, and when I figure out why I think so, I’ll write a blog post about it.

What I do know is that both ways work. Look at the names beside mine in each group. These writers write good books and make a good living doing it. So pick the method that works for you and do that.

Next Week: Editing and Editors or Just Because It’s Done, Doesn’t Mean It’s Done


Marie White Small said...

Well written, and from my similar experience as a writer, I believe you are spot-on. One must do both to truly succeed.

B.W. Gibson said...

First off, I love your analogy about the novel being a mountain for the author to carve a path to the top. I appreciate that you are the "explorer" when it comes to your writing. I am more of an engineer - however, I find myself exploring new situations and adventures with my characters as I'm developing the outline into the story's first draft. I can definitely appreciate the "blueprint" description of how an engineering author's mind works. I like that you also consider yourself to be an engineer as well. I think that must be true of many writers that they are both. It all depends on the book and how the productive the creative process is moving.
Does the writer have a general idea for the story and so they need to map out details to for development purposes or is a surplus of ideas and situations surging through their mind pulling them to start the writing process immediately - with no time to waste.

Erik Buchanan said...

I think we all have varying levels of the Explorer and Engineer in us. And I think both are equally valid ways of writing.

As I said in the previous post, there is only one rule: you must finish. How you get there is a matter of personal preference.

Thanks, both, for your comments.

Erik Buchanan said...
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