Anyone who’s serious about writing fiction has read those books on how to write a novel—the ones that say we should sit down and create character profiles and answer 25 questions about our characters including physical description, religious affiliation, rents or owns, home décor, pets, early riser or late sleeper, favorite color, prejudices, commonly used swear words, tea or coffee, regular or decaf. We need to know what they would carry in their pockets and what they are afraid of.
After that, we’re supposed to write a chapter outline, or at least a synopsis, including opening, major conflict, crisis, and resolution.
I’ve tried it that way. It doesn’t work for me. By the time I’m done with all that, the juice has been wrung out of the story. It’s like an old piece of tough meat I’ve chewed on for too long.
When I began writing The Warrior Heir, I had no idea what would happen. After five years of revision, it barely resembled the work I’d started with. The Wizard Heir process was similar, though a bit more efficient, because I’d already built a world and a magical system.
This is so unlike me. I am very much a planner. I don’t even like to go shopping without a plan in mind. I mean, I was the kind that always did the index cards for the term paper.
I can’t stand the idea of Wasting Time, backing out of blind alleys, cutting chapters, undoing and redoing. It’s just so inefficient—all that grumbling and gnashing of teeth. “Well, if I’d known this was going to happen, then back at the beginning I would have….”
But I’ve had to accept the fact that, when it comes to fiction, I am very much a plunger. I have to keep writing in order to find out what happens. Connections, motivations, and relationships surface that I never anticipated.
Characters? My characters reveal themselves as the story unfolds. I do keep character tables, with descriptions, etc. so my brown-eyed person doesn’t turn blue-eyed in the third book of a series. But I do it after the fact.
Full disclosure: there is a character who has different colored eyes in each of the Heir books. Unintentionally.
When I began to write The Seven Realms series, my agent wanted to sell it as a three-book deal. It was the first time he tried to sell books that I hadn’t written yet.
I gave him forty pages. My agent said, great, now just give me an outline of each of the three books. And I’m like HAHAHAHAHAHA as I see the taillights of the three-book contract dwindling in the distance. And he said, well, how about a paragraph for each book? And I said, Do I have to stick with what I write? And he said, No once we get the money, do whatever you like.
I love my agent.
So he made the deal and I launched into the three books, and now, finally, at the opening of the third book, I’m using the forty pages I submitted.
I often ask writers I meet—do you outline ahead of time? And most don’t. In an extremely unscientific poll on an e-list I’m on, I asked accomplished writers if they outlined ahead. After I sorted their answers, out of eight, only one described herself as an Outliner, though she referred to it as a plot skeleton. Four were middle-of-the-roaders—they had some kind of framework, even if it was notes written on a matchbook cover. Three were total plungers.
There are exceptions. I heard Bruce Coville say at a conference that since he began outlining, he has fewer unfinished books. And James Patterson apparently outlines his books and hands them to a stable of co-writers to complete.
For me—no outline. Yes, it’s messy. Yes, it requires a lot of revision. (Shrugs.)
Do you need to know how it all ends before you begin? I usually do, but not everyone agrees. E.L. Doctorow famously said of writing, “It's like driving a car at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
Well, maybe. But you still have to have a destination in mind. I usually know where I’m going. I just don’t know how I’ll get there, or how long it will take.