Just read a terrific post by Jami Gray on outlining and why she doesn't do it. Ms. Gray writes urban fantasy and paranormal suspense romances. Her post got me to thinking again about how I write.
A good book I can recommend that speaks to this subject is one by James Scott Bell, "Write Your Novel From the Middle: A New Approach for Plotters, Pansters, and Everyone in Between". In his book, Mr. Bell describes the three categories of writers - pantsers, plotters and tweeners - and how each category has merits of its own.
When it comes to a new project, I tend to be a more of a pantser than a plotter - or maybe tweener would be a better description. Meaning, I do a little of both. I'll write by the seat of my pants most of the time, but there have been times when doing a brief, non-obligatory outline has helped. I've also done complete outlines that were later discarded because the story had gone completely another way.
When an idea first strikes me, I will mull it over for a bit before writing that first word. The ideas can come from anywhere. From something as obvious as a news story or as unlikely as seeing or hearing an interesting name. I once got an idea for a story from seeing the last name of a football player printed on his jersey. A scene flashed in my mind where the hero had been captured and was being ruthlessly interrogated. That led me to wonder what this hero did for a living and how what he did would result in the seen I'd imagined. All this led to a story idea that is still in my archives but one that I would like to further explore one day.
Once I have the spark of an idea and I've thought up the characters who might inhabit the kind of world the idea inspires, I will write a scene or two involving the main characters just to see how they'll get along. Will there be immediate sparks or will their relationship take some time to grow? Who will be the antagonist and how will he or she wreak havoc on their lives? Who will be the secondary characters who influence their lives? What is their world like? What do they do for a living?
The answers to those questions become the beginnings of the new world where my story will take place. So, in a way, I do a bit of outlining to start with. I might also write a bit of backstory for my main characters, how they came to be in the place where they met, any drama from their past that might influence their future, that kind of thing.
Once I have all that in place and have some idea of the direction the story will take, I like to write the ending. It always helps to know where the end will be and if I can make that ending written in stone, so much the better. Knowing how the story will end makes it easier to keep things on track toward that ending when my characters decide to go down a rabbit trail. Rabbit trails are fine, fun and even enlightening but can also derail a story pretty fast if the writer isn't careful. Then again, rabbit trails can reveal elements in a character's personality that might remain hidden otherwise. I've had new characters show up on rabbit trails and even had characters I thought I knew to show me they are something completely different from what I originally made of them.
One that comes to mind is a character from my current project. He started out as a peer of my hero but as I wrote one scene between the two, he began to sound more like a father than a peer. That's how the foster father of my hero came to be and he's been a well-loved character ever since. I've even met him in real life. Well, I met a man who looked and acted just like him. Really freaky experience, too.
My thoughts on outlining are that outlines can be useful tools at the beginning of the writing process but don't be so tied down to an outline that you miss those interesting plot twists that take your story in a different and possibly more interesting direction. Always be open to new directions while writing your story but don't let a new direction take you so far off track that you lose your way back to the path toward the end you had originally envisioned. Unless changing the end will enhance the story that comes before. In other words, know where you're going but be willing to alter that destination for something better.
Now, back to what I had intended to do today when I got sidetracked by a post that led to writing this post. Is real life imitating art?