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.

 

For the Love of Writing

Have you ever been around someone who loves Christmas? I can’t quite rival Santa, but I love this season. I love the scent of cider as we decorate the tree and the chaos of Christmas decorations. I love the music, lights, winter clothes, the Christmas parties, and my dad sharing a devotional on Christmas morning. I love time with extended family, laughing and making memories. I love reading the Christmas story and imagining it from the perspective of the people who experienced it. And I love being around people who love Christmas, because their joy is contagious.

It’s the same way with our writing. When we love the story, our readers love it, too. My third book, Surrendered, comes out December 26. It’s the end of a series, the end of an era, the end of a contract, and a beautiful beginning (I hope) to many more stories to come. Under the pressure of deadlines, pursuing a contract, and learning to market, I can forget the joy of this calling. So this month, I’m falling in love with writing again.

Write what you love

Write what you love.

This year, Christmas also comes with a book release. I can’t wait to share Surrendered with readers. I loved crafting the romance that made me swoon, conflict that made me cringe, and action that had me scratching my head to figure out how to rescue them.

Now it’s time to begin again.

I have a couple of different manuscripts going, but I’m also working on one just for me.  A fairy tale. Even if it never sees the light of day, it makes me remember what I loved about my favorite stories as a kid and what I still love about romance, magic, and characters as an adult. The new manuscripts, the ones editors have requested to see are experiencing new life, as well, as I read and remember all that I love about Francine Rivers’s Mark of the Lion series, Karen Kingsbury’s Baxter Family series, and Dee Henderson’s O’Malley series. I look at what other people love about those stories, too. Then I add my own creativity, a new story idea, and something I love is born.

Write because you love it.

It’s taken finishing the Heart of a Warrior series to finally own the fact that I am a hopeless romantic who happens to write romance. But once I fully accepted that, I was able to embrace my new manuscripts in a greater way. I write because I love it, because I have a story to share, because I love bringing a character to life. I love tossing them into trouble and watching them come out shining like gold because they wrestled and emerged victorious. I love writing scenes with courage, heart, and emotion. I write because that’s how God made me. This month, I am writing for the love of the craft and not for the deadline.

Others will love it, too.

It’s important to hole up and remember to write because I love it, to write a heart story, but the beautiful benefit is that even when I close the door to my writing closet and let everything I love and am passionate about spill out on the page, I’m writing something that others will love, too. People connect with emotion, with stories that make them think and dream and imagine. They connect with vulnerability. When I write for me, I  am ultimately writing for them. Out of the overflow of what I have learned as a writer, as a person, as a woman made in the image of Creator God, my experiences, quirks, and imagination pour onto the page and the creativity of the reader is captured.

In this Christmas season, a time of joy and celebration and thanking the God who sent His Son to earth, I’m celebrating in a different way – with the gifts he’s given me. I truly believe when we write what we love because we love it, then others will love it, too.

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.

Finding the Fatal Flaw

It is the core of every struggle. The root cause of many reactions. It is a constant enemy lurking below the surface, waiting to rear its ugly head.

It’s the fatal flaw. Everyone has one. Every character has one, too.

I would argue that fatal flaws never completely go away. They just manifest in different ways as we grow and change and conquer certain circumstances. But what does this really look like?

Kariss Lynch Heart of a WarriorTake Superman. I would say his emotional fatal flaw, or one of them, is a deep desire to belong. It shapes his decisions and actions to blend in at the Daily Planet, settle down with Lois Lane, but still seek the true identity of his parents. We all know his physical flaw is kryptonite. Or Lois Lane, depending on how you look at it.

Choosing and shaping a fatal flaw proved an interesting challenge as I finished out my Heart of a Warrior series. I noticed there are multiple factors I need to account for as I select flaws for my characters.

Timeline

All three of my books take place over the course of fifteen months, which made it a challenge to have a fatal flaw that never disappears but consistently morphs. Kaylan, my main character, struggles with fear. Since our fatal flaws never really go away, I had to figure out how to cause this kryptonite to reemerge as she grew. In Shaken, she fears letting people close to her because of the loss of people she loved in the Haiti earthquake. In Shadowed, she has to learn to love a man she could lose at any second, Navy SEAL Nick Carmichael. In Surrendered, she will learn to accept Nick’s career and the constant danger, and not only accept it but thrive in his absences. The root of every one of her struggles is fear of losing a loved one, but as she accepts growth, the flaw manifests differently. Still always fear.

Complementing Characters

If you are writing romance, what fatal flaw will most threaten the relationship and will cause the characters to have to fight together to overcome? In Shadowed, Nick struggles with anger and detachment. This creates a challenge when Kaylan needs reassurance in her fear and Nick needs her to get over it and let him deploy in peace. Both characters grow as they learn what it looks like to merge two lives into one.

Plot and Theme

Shadowed_AUG 1 (1)Each book in this series, had to capture the overall theme: Anyone can develop the heart of a warrior if they are willing to have courage and commitment in the face of insurmountable obstacles. My fatal flaw for each character needed to threaten accomplishing this goal. Kaylan’s fear has the potential to stunt the relationship. Nick’s anger prohibits him from being a strong leader in his home and confident and in control in war. My villain’s flaw causes her to sabotage others in an effort to obtain what she secretly desires most but also never wants to have.

The fatal flaws is one of simplest yet most complex aspects of your character. Which flaws will create complicated conflict? How does that flaw force your character to respond? How will your character grow through the flaw?

One of my favorite ways to identify character growth and a consistent flaw is to follow a specific television series. Over time, you will notice a core struggle emerge. This helps me understand how to develop a character over the course of a book and over the course of a series. I’m still learning, but this is becoming one of my favorite parts of creating characters.

How do you identify your character’s fatal flaw?

To Write a Book Someday, Share Your Writing Now

8139708904_9a1d1783d4_bSome people will tell you the defining characteristic of a writer is that he or she is someone who writes. There is truth to that perspective, but it fails to offer a complete picture. It also gives many “aspiring writers” an excuse to be nothing more than journal keepers: diligently plucking away at Moleskine memoirs or first-novel manuscripts that have zero chance of getting published, ever.

The point here is not a matter of quality. It’s about privacy.

The reason why many written works-in-progress will never see the light of publishing day is that they are stowed, always and forever, in a drawer or on a hard drive where they have no risk of being evaluated by a second person. The writers of these works will never be writers because they will never have readers. They exist completely outside the writing market, and the only critical eye they allow to view their work is their own.

If you think that one day you’d like for people to read your writing, then you should begin by inviting people to read your writing now. Here are five ways readers can strengthen your writing and make it even more worth reading:

Readers help you get over yourself. It’s not uncommon for writers to feel uncertain or insecure about what they’ve written. Will this technique work here? Am I being clear? Am I using a marketable concept? Does anybody else care about the subject? Without readers to help confirm where and how a piece of writing is hitting its target (and where and how it’s missing its mark), these uncertainties and insecurities often grow and fester. But when you prioritize feedback, typically you get it. As a result you might find that your sinking suspicions will be confirmed. Some of your assumptions might be challenged. Maybe you’ll be pleasantly surprised by rave reviews. Whatever the case, you won’t be stuck wondering anymore, and that will help light a clear way forward.

Readers identify strengths in your work. Encouragement and affirmation give extra fuel when you’re trying to produce a manuscript. So ask your readers to note the places where they laugh out loud, hold their breath with anticipation, get caught by surprise, can’t stop turning pages, or are struck speechless. That paragraph you’re thinking about deleting? It might be your readers’ favorite part. Give them a chance to tell you so.

Readers identify weaknesses in your work. That poetic metaphor you’ve taken days and months to craft? It might be so complex that it’s confusing your readers. The story you’ve built a whole chapter around? Your readers might be bored out of their minds.

As the writer of a work, you will undoubtedly feel more attached to it than your readers will. Because of your heightened emotional attachment, you’ll probably miss seeing some of your writing’s flaws. You might even be blind to enormous holes in the work. Let your readers open your eyes to the problems you don’t see, so you can take the opportunity to fix them.

Readers expand your perspective. You are only one person, so your outlook on the world is limited and skewed. You have strange views about certain things, and some of your views simply haven’t been challenged in a way that forces you to clarify them well or charitably. Readers can help you identify the odd little points in a draft, the ones that either are or seem arrogant, stingy, dismissive, hyper-emotional, you name it. Points like these will jut out in unseemly ways, always subtracting and distracting from good work, unless someone will be so kind as to call your attention to them, so you can know to improve them.

Readers make the process realistic. If your writing aspirations are real, then you’re going to have to accept the reality of readers at some point. Get used to feedback now, and critiques won’t make you crazy later. Write with readers in mind now, and it won’t feel strange when they’re a part of the process later. Start learning what readers are interested in now, and then when your defining moments as a writer come, you’ll be prepared to deliver for your readers.


YOUR TURN: Respond in the comments: How have readers helped your writing? What kind of readers give the best feedback? What keeps you from pursuing readers?


Photo credit: cogdogblog cc

The Power of Story

It was pitch black as my car slowly followed Micah’s along the winding mountain roads, our tires kicking up dust in our wake. My adrenaline sizzled, preparing both my mind and body for the next hours of our night hike up Pike’s Peak in Colorado Springs.

My friend Brad sat next to me in the passenger seat, keeping my mind occupied on our conversation. I shared with him about my last year – graduation, what the Lord had been teaching me at Focus on the Family that summer. As he thanked me for sharing, a response spilled from my mouth without my permission.

“It’s not my story to withhold. God’s writing it. I’m just living it.”

My mind froze as I replayed that comment over and over in my head, realizing both the truth and the responsibility that came with it. Have you ever had one of those thoughts? You know it didn’t come from you because there is no way that you are that brilliant. And it both hits you and spills out of your mouth in the same breath with the unmistakable ring of truth to it. I knew it was a Holy Spirit inspired response. Divinely inspired light bulbs are great, aren’t they?

Kariss mountains

In the few years since that night hike that changed so many things for me, I have come to understand and value the power of story. The more I read and watch, I realize that there are only two stories that matter in life and everything else is a cheap imitation.

1) The story of Jesus Christ

2) Your story

That’s right! Your story is the second most important story in history. Why?

There was a man in the Bible named Nicodemus. For those of you reading this who do not claim to be Christians, you are in good company. Nicodemus wasn’t either, at least he wasn’t at the time he talked with Jesus. He was curious and confused. He came to talk with Jesus in the middle of the night. In John 3:11, Jesus tells him, “I tell you the truth, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen…”

Never mistake that Jesus has the most powerful and influential story in history. But because He made you and gave you life, your story is the second most influential to people in your sphere of influence. Most people do not appreciate a know-it-all. However, your story automatically has credibility because you are standing before them and telling it, physically present and accessible to them. You lived it and they can relate to it, or at least ask questions.

Story is a powerful thing. We live in a culture where we want to hear what the next Hollywood star is up to or which politician created a national scandal. People want to know stories. No matter how nondescript you feel yours may be, you have the ability to influence people mightily for Jesus through a willingness to share what God has brought you through.

My mom has always told me, “Never forget from whence you came.” You don’t have to have a successful career or a story worthy of Lifetime. You simply have to be willing and open to share.

Let your writing imitate life in the best ways. In fiction, no one has to know where some of the intimate details come from, but I have learned that what some of my readers love the most came from experiences I had or watched.

What the Lord laid on my heart to share with Brad is very true. My story isn’t mine to withhold. Listen for His gentle whispers. He will give you the words to say when the time comes, and He will use your story, in writing and in life. The pressure is off of you! So share. You have a powerful story because it was and is being written by a mighty God!

How have you seen God use your story to impact others?

The Story of My Life

whisperingOne of my favorite parts of speaking to audiences is telling them the true stories behind the stories.

When I talk about my murder mysteries, I talk about the incidents in my own life that inspire plot lines and settings. While I haven’t personally murdered anyone (nor do I plan to), my fictional characters’ motives and subterfuges stem from simple human traits we all share. Who hasn’t experienced confusion, envy, jealousy, greed, the desire for revenge? Just because the extent of my envy might be a girlfriend’s new hair cut doesn’t mean I can’t extrapolate that feeling into the murderous intent of a killer, right?

Okay, that might be quite a bit of extrapolation, but you get my drift.

Where the real fun comes in, however, is sharing with readers the snippets of my experience that I insert right into my novels. For instance, in my third Birder Murder Mystery, my protagonist goes on a weekend birding trip to Fillmore County in Minnesota, which is based on an actual birding trip I took to that county many years ago. Spending time with other birders not only gave me a chance to add to my own life list of birds, but it provided some snappy, funny conversation that I then used in my book. I’ve found more than once that real life makes for the best fiction.

Another example: in my fourth Birder Murder, my characters are in Flagstaff, Arizona on the campus of Northern Arizona University. The setting was inspired by a trip I took with my middle daughter to tour the NAU campus when she was making college plans; the hair-raising flight into the city, the conversation with an old hippie cab driver, and the fact that NAU is surrounded on three sides by graveyards, all come directly from my trip. As a mystery writer, how could I NOT set a murder mystery where everyone KNOWS where the bodies are buried?

The most transparent example of how my writing chronicles my own life is, of course, my new memoir about how my dog helped me overcome anxiety, including a fear of dogs. Yet even since the book was published in April, I continue to find nuggets of meaning in my own story that I didn’t recognize while I was writing it: we adopted Gracie on the day before Easter – the eve of Resurrection. So now I tell audiences that my dog not only helped me experience my own spiritual and physical renewal, but the book about her is also changing my career in unimagined ways. Too bad I didn’t know that part already, because it would have been a nice epilogue…gee, maybe that’s the next book.

When I share my real stories with groups, I realize that the writing advice I first heard as a child is true: write what you know. I just didn’t understand how I could make my own experiences book-worthy…until I threw in the imagination to make my own stories part of someone else’s.

In what ways does your writing chronicle your life?