For most of my writing career I’ve fallen firmly on the “pantster” side of the writing world. For those of you who have been living in a cave without wifi access for the last five years (All the best caves have wifi now. Haven’t you heard?) a pantster is a writer who never outlines his stories ahead of time and just writes “by the seat of his pants”. I tried outlining when I first started writing, but it all felt so mechanical and forced that I just hated it, and by the time I finished writing the book I had pretty well run off the rails of what I had planned anyway.
I’ve spent the rest of my writing life just winging it, making up my plot as I go along. Sure, I’d give the my story a lot of thought beforehand, and I’d try to have a general goal of what I wanted to accomplish in the story mapped out in my head, but for the most part I never wrote anything down.
But life as a pantster can be hard. I’m getting ready to go into my final set of revisions for my story The Mulch Pile next month, and I’m already dreading the changes I’m going to have to make. Why? Because about two thirds of the way through writing the story I realized something vitally important about my main character that completely changed the way I looked at the first part of the story. I tried to go in and tweak things at the beginning so that they’d work with my new understanding of my character, but the truth is its going to take a lot more work to fix it.
The problem is this: if I’d made an outline and followed the outline, I never would have had the incredible breakthrough that’s making me go back and revisit all of my early scenes. The rigid form of outlining would have never allowed me to think about the story in such a different way. But yesterday I discovered a technique that combines the best of both worlds. The muntant hybrid of plotting, and winging it. And it was awesome.
Here’s how it happened. I got an idea for a short story while I was fighting off a terrible bought of hives (Yeah, my ideas come from the weirdest places). While I sat in front of my computer thinking about the story, I opened Notepad at a whim and just started typing stuff. Plot points, character details, whatever came to my mind, whenever it came to my mind. It looked something like this:
Older vs Younger
mother a witch
sister’s learning to follow in her footsteps
younger sister not as good at potions as older sister
older sister plays potion trick on younger sister.
younger sister decides she wants revenge
gathers wrong kind of mushroom/at wrong time of day (forshadow)
tricks older sister into drinking it.
itch intensifies to the point that old sister is cutting off skin with a knife
older sister dies from her injuries.
mother comes home and finds the carnage
Younger sister take shapeshifter potion to make herself look like her older sister using bits of her sisters blood
It ain’t pretty, I know, but it worked. Because that line at the end there, the one where the younger sister becomes the thing she hates to escape the consequences of her actions? That idea wasn’t in my head before. It came from the process of writing down all my conceptions about the story on paper. This way, instead of getting all the way through writing the story and discovering that I needed to go back and change something to fit the ending, I can write it with all the ideas I would have found through the writing process in my head already.
I know this approach to brainstorming is nothing new, but it was new to me, and I have a feeling it’s going to be a powerful weapon in my arsenal. Maybe it could help you too. If you’re an incurable pantster like me, and you hate the rigid confines of the outline, then give this free-writing exercise a try. The great thing about it is there’s no pressure. It doesn’t have to look like anything. It doesn’t even have to make sense. After all you’re not going to show it to anyone. (Unless you’re a total doofus and post it to your blog for the whole world to see.) And it might make a tremendous difference and save you a lot of rewrites.
If you’ve got a different way, let me know about it in the comments. Because if there’s one thing I’ve learned about writing it’s this: there’s always something else to learn about writing.