Planning for Pansters: Writing a Novel without an Outline

I envy those writers who outline their whole novel before they even begin chapter one. They sit down at their computer, begin typing and already know what they’re going to type. A little expansion here, a little fleshing out there. There’s no fretting as they try to pick out their story’s path one step at a time.

O boy, do I wish ….

But no, I’m a panster (as in I write by the seat of my pants). I’ve tried outlining, but except for a handful of scenes, I simply cannot tell what needs to happen in a story until I start writing in my characters’ voices. One scene leads to the next.

But as J.R.R. Tolkien famously said, “All those who wander are not lost.” If you’re a panster, trust yourself to discover your novel’s path as you write it. A little wandering is likely to give the story a few surprise twists. There are, however, a few tips that will shine a light on your path though, so you don’t get so far off the track that you have a mess on your hands when you’re done.

Tolkien

Keep your premise firmly in mind as you write each scene. It may take you a hundred pages to truly discover where your story is going, but you should have a strong premise from page one, and each scene should build and deepen that premise in some way. Follow tangents as you wish, as long as you keep this in mind, and you’ll still have a coherent story in the end.

Before you write, choose two or three comparable novels to the one you intend to write as loose guides. That is, select novels you’ve read that have the type of structure and audience you’re aiming for. The goal isn’t to copy other plots, but to give you solid ideas for your story’s structure as you go.

Know what your characters’ goals are and put obstacles in their way. In every scene. Don’t be shy. Stir up the waters and create lots of trouble for your characters. Ultimately, if you write most scenes to make your reader worry, you’ll end up with a story that stays on track.

End each scene with a hook. This may simply mean that you’ve moved your character and his or her goal further apart. But anything that makes your reader want to read on will do (i.e., a mystery that is laid out in the last paragraph). Incidentally, ending on a hook may make it easier for you to know where to start when you come back to the computer as well.

Aim for the finale. Although I don’t outline, I generally have a fairly strong image of the catastrophe at the end, that great battle that makes it seem all is lost, but ultimately brings the character to his or her reward. If you know the finale, you’ll faithfully build to it.

compassIf you follow these guidelines, you don’t need an outline to make sure your story stays on route. But what about coming up with the story itself when you have no outline to refer to?  

Last but not least, leave time for your story to stew. If you’re not following an outline, you must give your muse time to dream up new scenes. For me, that means taking long walks or doing mindless activities (dishes or laundry) alone, while my mind drifts. When I let my unconscious mind free, I usually find images or snatches of dialogue that will take me through the next scene or two.

 

Advice from the Experts

I love browsing around writing boards on Pinterest with words from the literary experts. When I’m feeling discouraged, I find short, pithy quotes that remind me what my meandering plot is missing or quotes that encourage me to stay the course even when things aren’t going as well as I’d like. In any case, to start off the new year, here are a few I’d like to share with you.

Experts

You can’t use up the creativity. The more you use, the more you have. – Maya Angelou

A story is a letter that an author writes to himself, to tell himself things he would be unable to discover otherwise. – Carlos Ruiz Záfon

I can fix a bad page, but I can’t fix a blank one. – Nora Roberts

The difference in winning and losing is most often in not quitting. – Walt Disney

I’m writing a first draft and reminding myself that I’m simply shoveling sand into a box so later I can build castles. – Shannon Hale

Love the writing, love the writing, love the writing. The rest will follow. – Jane Yolen

The key, the crux of the whole matter, is to FINISH YOUR MANUSCRIPT. You must learn to see this as the goal. Not the perfect word or the polished paragraph. A finished text. – Davis Bunn

The bigger the issue, the smaller you write. You don’t write about the horrors of war. No. You write about a kid’s burnt socks lying on the road. – Richard Price

When I used to teach creative writing, I would tell the students to make sure their character wants something right away, even it’s only a glass of water. – Kurt Vonnegut

When in doubt, make trouble for your character. Don’t let her stand on the edge of the pool, dipping her toe. Come up behind her and give her a good hard shove. – Janet Fitch

Novels are forged in passion, demand fidelity and commitment, often drive you to boredom or rage, sleep with you at night. They are the long haul. They are marriage. – David Leavitt

Be yourself and readers will follow you anywhere. Try to commit an act of writing and they will jump overboard to get away. – William Zinsser

Plot is people. Human emotions and desires founded on the realities of life, working at cross purposes,  getting hotter and fiercer as they strike against each other, until finally there’s an explosion – that’s plot. – Leigh Brackett

Write even when the world is chaotic. You don’t need a cigarette, silence, music, a comfortable chair or inner peace to write. You just need ten minutes and a writing implement. – Cory Doctorow

Dialogue is action. It’s not characters making talk. A character’s words are tools he uses to get his way in a scene. – James Scott Bell

Write a little bit each day. One page a day means 365 pages in a year. – Francine Rivers

One should be able to return to the first sentence of a novel and find the resonance of the entire work. – Gloria Naylor

If there’s a book you really want to read but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it. –Toni Morrison

We are cups, constantly and quietly being filled. The trick is knowing how to tip ourselves over and let the beautiful stuff out. – Ray Bradbury

 

Creating a Vision for Your Writing Career

No doubt you have a vision for your writing career, but have you ever put it down in black and white? Taking some time to sort through and pray over your writing objectives can provide focus and direction for a solid future. If you do create a vision, here are a few pointers to help you brainstorm.map

Why Do You Write?

Make a list of all of the reasons you write. Write about the joys that come with writing – the way your senses sing when you’re in writing mode, the enchantment of building a story world, and the satisfaction of carving away the dross as you edit.

What does writing do for you as a person? Has it strengthened your work ethic or made you a better communicator, for example?

What does writing do for your loved ones? For a long time, I struggled with whether I should write when I had a family to take care of. But I finally accepted that though I have more time when I don’t write, I’m a more satisfied and centered mother when I do. Likewise, how does your writing impact your spouse, your siblings and your parents?

What does writing do for your readers? Even if you’re not published, maybe you’ve touched others through a blog entry or devotional. If you are published, think of some of the reviews and reader emails you’ve received.

Writing about your motivation might not seem essential, but it gives you something to come back to when you’re feeling discouraged, especially if you tend to second guess yourself. And it’s a good way to count your blessings.

What Holds You Back?

List everything that gets in the way of writing – other priorities, fear of failure, dry creative well, etc. Evaluate the obstacles and work out ways to overcome them, whether with self-talk to overcome doubt or jump-starts for writer’s block. Also, think about how you can honor your other God-given priorities, such as family and health, while being true to your calling as a writer.

What Is Your Writing Style?

Set out some basics, such as genre and style. List authors you admire and would like to emulate. Do you want to write spare or with a literary bent? Are you writing to the masses or to a niche? What kind of topics do you want to engage?

But don’t simply stick to the descriptions that define your writing for the market. In your heart of hearts, what do you want your writing to be about? Think of the nerve you want to touch in your readers. Bringing beauty alive, illustrating aspects of God’s character, or simply entertaining people in their harried lives can all be things that could go on your list.

What Are Your Goals?

Think of goals that are measurable and within your power, goals you can clearly illustrate that you’ve met. For example, finish a novel in a year or submit a proposal to twenty agents by March.

This is also the place to plan over time. How much writing will you do in a given period?  If you’re not published, what are you going to do to move toward that end? If you are published, what actions are you going to take to develop your career in the next year, over the next five years, the next decade? This is where plans for your future get laid out, so the more specific you can be about writing, marketing and networking, the better.

What Are Your Hopes?

In the writing world there is so much beyond our control. As long as you realize that there are no guarantees for some things, it’s okay to set your hopes out too.

So write out the dream agency and publisher you want for your career. Talk about the kind of sales numbers you’d like to see and whether you’d like to write full time as your only career. Write about how you’d like your books to be remembered. Then plan out ways you can encourage those things to happen.

 

Evaluating a Writing Career When Life is Busy, Complex, or Just Plain Hard

If yowatchu’ve read many writing blogs you’ve seen the advice: writers write, period. They write because they can’t help it. They write through thick and thin. And if they’re not writing, they probably don’t have what it takes to be a Real Writer.

Maybe. On the other hand, nobody has to write. Writing is compelling. It may even be a calling. But no one is chaining you to your laptop. You can walk away from a writing career. And sometimes walking away is the right choice (at least temporarily).

There is a cost to pursuing a writing career when the timing isn’t right, and it can be steep. There are a few reasons to consider delaying a writing career, or walking away entirely.

When life sends an emotional tsunami your way, consider taking a break. Louise DeSalvo, author of The Art of Slow Writing, wrote through her sister’s suicide and a variety of other hard knocks, but when she was diagnosed with cancer, to her surprise, she couldn’t put pen to paper. Divorce, death of a loved one, catastrophic illness and the like can leave even the most determined writer too numb to write, not just for a few weeks, but for a year or two. If writing is therapeutic, then by all means, write. But if your creative well is dry – and it might be – give yourself permission to take a sabbatical. Chances are, your publisher will understand once you explain the situation.

When your phase of life is not conducive to writing, consider delaying your writing career. If you have kids at home, are you able to give them enough undivided attention while you write, market and do whatever it takes to make a living from your writing? When they think of you, are you a back slaving away at the laptop or someone there for them to confide in, cuddle with and ask for help? You won’t get a second chance to be a mom or dad, but you might get a second chance at writing once your kids are independent.

If you have a day job, are you able to devote yourself to your work, or is half your mind mapping out stories instead of doing what you’re paid to do?

I understand what keeps drawing you back to writing. Seeing characters and storylines take shape, falling into the words, going into that writing zone – there’s an exhilaration to it that doesn’t exist in “real life.”

But you can always blog, write short stories and vignettes, or spend years writing a book at a more leisurely pace. Consider putting aside marketing and seeking publication until there’s time. You may even find those years of leisurely writing add up to something incredible. The Far Pavilions, The Help and The Thirteenth Tale all took five to ten years to write. Time gave the stories extra layers, which is likely what made them bestsellers. And some bloggers have unwittingly developed a large following. Once they were ready for primetime, they had that elusive platform publishers are always looking for.

Last, consider whether writing is helping you avoid something that needs your attention. I hate to say it, but many writers are so determined to write because they’re avoiding something – social anxiety, unhappy families, addictions, character vices and mundane lifestyles. For all of the challenges of writing, it seems easier than trying to fix a deeply flawed life. But please hear this: healing your life is far more important than anything you will ever write. It will be difficult and scary and will take at least as much time as it took to become a proficient writer. But in the end, changing your own story may be your true calling and offer the most joy.

24 Ways to Develop Your Muse

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Dickens_dream

Charles Dickens’ Dream

The muse that lives deep in your subconscious is something of a sprite. You can write without her of course, if you don’t mind being methodical. But when the muse shows up, she takes your writing to a whole new level, offering plot surprises, adding in soulful wisdom you didn’t know you possessed, and giving your story a dreamlike quality.

The problem is that your muse is not easily tamed. She comes and goes at her own will. She is notoriously right-brained and knows nothing of schedules and deadlines. And yet, like the stray cat in your neighborhood, she can be lured in.

Over the years, I’ve learned a few things that work with my muse. Your muse, I’m sure, has his own personality, so your mileage may vary.

  • Let your mind drift. When your guard is down, as you take a shower, walk the dog or do dishes, great ideas will surface.
  • Ask yourself tough plot questions before you go to sleep. Your mind will get to work on it without your conscious self even being aware.
  • Flirt with writing challenges that are too difficult for you. Your muse will take the dare, if you give her time.
  • Explore scene kernels. Take a snatch of dialogue or a small piece of action and set your mind to simmer for a few days before trying to expand it into a full-fledged scene.
  • Fire your internal editor. You can invite him back later once your muse has completed her work.
  • Release guilt, self-doubt and worries. The muse likes to play, so be a child at play.
  • Read poetry. It will enrich the word creator within you.
  • Write lists of random evocative words. (See above).
  • Take entire writing days. Send the kids to Grandma’s. Take a vacation from your day job. The longer you immerse yourself in the writing, the more your muse will surface.
  • Take breaks from the writing. Muses need their rest too.
  • Write dangerously. Forget the market. Forget your audience. Break a few conventions. You can always scale back later, but a few writing leaps will give your muse room to expand your story.
  • Do your research. Whether you’re writing about a Viking ship or a modern day heart surgeon, your muse can be more creative if she’s well-informed.
  • Say no. No to committee meetings. No to the internet and solitaire. Writing time is golden, and it has to be protected.
  • Follow rabbit trails. Leave the outline, and see where the what-if leads. Sometimes the muse just knows.
  • Sleep well. A rested muse is more creative.
  • Conversely, stay up late. If you’re on a roll, don’t let the muse leave.
  • Do something you haven’t done before. If you’re not a singer, sing out loud. Cook exotic meals. Dance. Hike. Learn origami. Trying something new, especially something physical, releases another part of you.
  • Let your muse free while you immerse yourself in a new book or movie. She’ll extract ideas that become totally original when they mix in with your story.
  • Put it in writing. Notes have a way of kick-starting your subconscious into action.
  • Twist the story without a clue of how it will resolve itself.
  • Go outside. Sunlight and wind and grass invigorate us, and thus our stories.
  • Live mindfully. Taste what you eat. Turn off the TV and listen to the sounds in your home. Feel the words on your tongue as you talk. Bring your senses alive and it will build new grooves into your story.
  • Be patient. If your story is in knots, work on some other aspect. Meanwhile, your muse will be untangling the story threads under the surface.
  • Most of all, don’t try too hard to design the first draft. Ride the story’s waves. Control has its place, but the stories with the biggest hearts come from a place of freedom.

There is more to the mind than we know. It has multiple levels and works in ways we don’t always understand. Give those deeper levels permission, and your muse will work hard for you.

Writing with a Hook

What will make your book fly off the shelves? A good story, high quality writing or a strong Fish-hookvoice won’t help you unless readers know your book exists.  And for that, you need such an interesting premise that readers around the country are chatting up your book. In other words, you need a hook.

Yes, the dreaded hook word. I’ve heard about for years, but it seemed rather elusive. But recently, I’ve been studying my bookshelves to find some broad categories of hooks, and it’s getting clearer. Here are a few concepts I’ve found.

  • Give beloved fairytales, historical figures, novels or paintings center or side stage. The Beekeeper’s Apprentice (Sherlock Holmes), While Beauty Slept (Sleeping Beauty), The Girl with a Pear Earring (Vermeer’s painting), Dear Mr. Knightley (a love for all things Jane Austen) and The Constant Princess (Henry VIII’s first wife) are all examples. Readers want to spend time with favorite characters and art.
  • Tie the story together with a hobby. Ordinary hobbies such as knitting and cooking can certainly draw in readers who enjoy knitting or cooking themselves, but if you can find a twist, this will make it stand out from the crowd. For example, in The Language of Flowers, two characters with a love of gardening send each other messages not with notes, but with flowers, each delivery carrying a symbolic meaning only they understood. Unique hobbies can give your story a little flash as well – i.e., custom shoe design or wild life rescue.
  • Allow readers to vicariously do something they’ve always wanted to do. I bought Forgotten because it was about a character who, after being stranded in Africa for several months, returns to find that her job, her romance and her apartment are all gone. She’ll have to recreate her life. Spoiler alert: the book did not live up to its promise of the heroine of getting a life makeover, but that promise is what made me buy it. What other deep seated desires will connect you to readers?
  • Create zinger beginnings or zinger twists. When an old man in the prologue of The Lost Wife tells a wedding guest she looks familiar, and at last figures out that she was his wife just before the Nazis invaded Prague, that certainly sent readers to Amazon’s checkout cart (me included). In Half Brother, a boy arrives home to find his mother holding a baby chimpanzee, and that’s interesting enough to catch a reader’s attention. Burying a zinger in the middle of the book is a harder sell, since it’s not something readers will see when they browse. But if it’s good enough, it can certainly get people talking about your book.
  • Start with vulnerable characters at risk. The little boy locked in the cupboard in Sarah’s Key is a great example of this. But even more ordinary risks – a teen without adult love or support (Dandelion Summer) or a Puritan woman being coerced to marry a man she doesn’t trust (Love’s Pursuit) are good draws. Readers only need to hear the concept to feel they need to see the character to safety.
  • Create a character the world depends on. High stakes Tom Clancy type novels where the character must stop nuclear bombs from detonating or bring an end to a plague outbreak, or fantasy novels where the hero/heroine holds the key to the coming war (Lord of the Rings, Blue Sword) are examples.
  • Begin the story with profound emotion readers can connect with. Remember, readers don’t know the story or the characters yet, so it must be something they can easily connect with. In Coldwater Revival, the heroine is apparently stillborn at birth, but begins to breathe with the loving attention she receives from her father. In If You Find me, a girl sees her father for the first time a decade after she was kidnapped.

Think about what made you pick up your last book, or even better, what had you chatting up the book to every reader you knew? Once you’ve found the quality that made it so compelling, you’ve probably found the hook.

Refusing the Writer’s Call

Refusal of the call questis a common element of great stories, fictional or historical. The hero is called to a quest, but, initially, he balks. He says, whether through word or deed, “I’m not big enough for this task.” Or maybe just, “I’ve got better things to do than sacrifice myself for that.”

From Jonah getting on a ship sailing in the opposite direction of Nineveh to Bilbo Baggins telling Gandalf that all he wants is a nice tidy hobbit house with tea served on time, heroes have been trying to escape the call since mankind has been telling stories around the fireside. And for just as long, the stories have been winning the hero over to the adventure.

Why? Few of us see ourselves as heroes. We know we’re not up to the task, whatever the task is, and we’re right. We’re not big enough, strong enough, brilliant enough or good enough for the task at hand. And yet, deep in our souls, we know God made us for more than having our tea on time.

In all good stories, the hero finally accepts the call. After trying to outrationalize his call, Dietrich Bonhoeffer takes on the role of hero as he boards what is likely the last ship home to Nazi Germany, a ship that takes him ultimately to his death.

Having been elected to archbishop because he is quiet and conservative, expecting to make no waves in an El Salvador on the brink of civil war, Oscar Romero finally accepts that he must speak out, as he stands over the bodies of two murdered priests.

Paul accepts what he must do as God calls his name in a flash of heavenly light.

Little Samuel answers God on the third call in his small child’s voice: “Speak, for your servant is listening.”  Not knowing, of course, that he was accepting a lifetime mantle as prophet.

We writers refuse our call, too. Sitting down at the computer and typing out a page is such a small thing, right? It’s tiny in comparison to the heroes that have been written about. And yet, it feels daunting.

There’s the courage it takes to face a fresh scene. Will it be beautiful or fall flat? It’s as if it’s a test of everything inside you.

And there’s the courage it takes to call yourself a writer. The voices are insistent. How many times have you told yourself that you should just concentrate on being a parent, give your talents to your church and your job, and live a peaceful, ordinary life? You don’t have time for this story? Or more likely, you’re not talented enough for the story you want to write?

But if God made you to write, you’re going to be restless until you do. You can play the role of Jonah, and get on the ship going in the opposite direction and fight it out with the big fish. Or you can accept that being brilliant and big-hearted enough for the story is not what’s at stake. If God made you for this writing quest, he’s planning on equipping you as you go. Sit down at your computer and get started.