When I was a teenager, I tried to write the way my teachers (and most professional authors and editors) said you had to. I created outlines and tried to write stories from them.
And failed. My problems boiled down to one of three things:
I couldn’t write the story. I got bored and couldn’t continue.
I wrote a story that veered drastically from my plan and became something that did not, in any way, resemble the outline.
I forced myself to write to the outline and it came out stilted, contrived, and boring.
I spent a long time thinking there was something wrong with me. If we had to write by outline and I was unable to, did that mean I wasn’t a writer? Was I not meant to be one, as I’d always thought?
It turns out writing is a lot more complicated than, “This is how you have to do it.”
A few years ago, I got serious about writing and started learning about craft, and I thankfully came across two things: YouTube videos of Brandon Sanderson’s creative writing classes at BYU, and Stephen King’s book, On Writing.
From BS, I heard a hugely important quote: “There are as many ways of writing as there are writers.”
And from the Master of Horror himself, I learned there are, in fact, other writers who write the way I do. Even some really big names. King himself, George R. R. Martin, and many others.
Most writers will tell you there are basically three types of writers.
Pantsers (GRRM calls them “Gardeners.” BS uses “Discovery Writers,” which I find more accurate)
Plotters (or outliners, or as GRRM calls them, architects)
But how is that different from my approach?
In my opinion, all writers (yes, ALL writers) are hybrids. Do you heavily outline every aspect of your novel? Still a Discovery Writer. Even if you never write a single word that isn’t your story, you’re Plotting.
I know what you’re thinking, but hear me out.
Where does a Plotter’s outline come from? Has it always been there, waiting to be written? Nope. Plotting is simply keeping your discovery-writing phase minimal by limiting it to your outline.
Even though you’ve outlined every scene in your novel, the details of those scenes are discovery-written. And every time you veer away from your outline to add an extra subplot, a character moment, or a surprise twist? Yep, that’s discovery writing. Go ahead and revel in the joy that is writing without a plan!
This may shock you, but even a Discovery Writer who proudly resists keeping a single note about their story and writes everything as it comes is outlining, though perhaps only on a subconscious level.
That’s right, Pantsers. Read that again so you can really take it in.
Think about it. Do you just “stream of consciousness” write whatever comes into your head and call it a story? No, of course you don’t. You’re strategically choosing what to make a part of the story and what not to. And I’d be willing to bet you let ideas germinate in your mind for days, weeks, maybe even months or years, before you start to write them.
Guess what? That’s outlining. That’s a plan.
Personally, I never write out an outline anymore. But I do plan things in advance. I typically have at least three or four points I know I want to hit before I start. I know, at least superficially, who my major characters are, and I usually have at least an idea of how the story will end.
Yes, I frequently end up being wrong about that ending. But I’m also frequently right.
So where am I going with all this?
Writing is not the perfectly even, square box we have always been taught it is. It takes all kinds, and we come in all shapes, sizes, creeds, and methods. Just because you identify as an Outliner, or a Discovery Writer, or somewhere in between, doesn’t mean you are tied to that.
As a thought experiment, whatever your natural inclination is, I want you to try doing it the other way. If you naturally outline, I want you to come up with a character that’s in a stressful or dramatic situation, with no forethought to her goals or history and no plot in mind, and just write it out. See what happens.
If you’ve always discovery-written everything, I want you to write a short 1-page outline. In it, detail who this character is, a few key moments in their past, decide where they are in life and what it is they’re after. And for bonus points, you can give them a flaw or quirk to make their life more difficult. Once you have your character, spend the rest of that page outlining a plot with at least 6 plot points and 1 or 2 subplots. Now write your scenes to go with this outline.
Now, I’d love for you to email me what you wrote and how it went for you.
And why do I want you to do this?
Going outside of your comfort zone will help you achieve greater success. Not just in writing, but in every aspect of life. Challenge your beliefs, test the limits of what you can handle, push beyond your boundaries and do something unexpected. You never know what you’re capable of until you challenge yourself to do more and do it differently.
And you never know, you may find that after a lifetime of doing things one way, you’re actually better at it another way. I can’t tell you how many “Discovery Writers” I’ve known who actually do far better as outliners. Or how many self-professed introverts end up thriving when they push past their comfort zone and start acting like extroverts.
So push those boundaries. Test those limits. See just how far you can go if you put your mind to it.
Kevin Potter is an unapologetic discovery writer. When not masquerading as dragons, orcs, trolls, and other unusual POV characters, he enjoys collecting medieval weapons and obscure heavy music. You can learn more about Kevin and his fiction at http://kevinpotterauthor.com
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