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Why outlines are invaluable tools for pantsers

And so yes, I did it!

Well, at least I succeed in NaNoWriMo. I wrote just over 50.000 words in the month of November, which turned out to be my entire story. What I didn’t succeed in doing is keeping you guys posted. The truth is that, between work and social commitments and NaNo itself, I barely had hours enough in a day to do everything.

But it’s done. And that’s what counts!

Outlines: a Wrimo’s Best Friend

Every year there is this debate on the NaNo community: should we plan our story or should we just write from the seat of our pants?
I’ve always believed it is possible to do both things… well, I mean, that’s what I do, anyway.
Having an outline will help enormously to get to the end of the project. An outline is a safeline to get back to when we feel lost.

NaNo time is a very particular moment, usually very different from our everyday writing schedule. Still its roughness can indeed teach us something that we can then use in our normal routine. Most of this involves motivation and strategy.
Sometimes we stop writing because we don’t feel inspired. It’s perfectly normally, no creative person is inspired all the time. On a normal schedule, we can just stop and wait for the Muse to come back to us. It is a way to do it. I do it myself, sometimes, because there are moments where pausing and forgetting about the story is the best thing to do.
But we can’t do it on a regular basis if we want to do something with our writing, and we certainly can’t do it during NaNo, because it’s only 30 days and most of us can’t afford to lose days of writing waiting for inspiration if we really intend to write those 50.000 words. So we need a plan B to fall back to when our Muse is not cooperating.
That, in my opinion, is the outline.

For me, the outline it’s just this: a sequence of major points in the story, a kind of compass that will always tell us where we are in the story and where we need to go. When we know these two parameters, most of the times we’ll come up with an idea to move from point A to point B. Granted, it may be a very crapy idea. It may be written horribly. It may not be what we actually want to do. But consider this:

  1. If we write, chances are something with click when we least expect it. Every story has its own heart and life, it will move toward its goal whether you realise it or not, because it wants to go from the inciting event to the conclusion. All stories have this inner need.
    When the story first comes to us, that’s one of the most exciting parts in the process. In that special moment, the drive is very strong and often we’ll have a vision – rough as it may be – of the entire story. That’s when the need to write and develop will be stronger. Whether you’ll write it down and plan it, or keep it in your head and pant it, this is the moment where the story talks to you the strongest.
    My suggestion is to write it down, even if in a few points, because there will come days where we won’t even remember why the hell we thought to write this story. When we won’t know what to write. When we’ll feel extremely confused and think we’ll never get to the end. Trust me. I know.
    Those are the days where an outline may make all the difference.
    Happened to me countless times (last November as well) then I looked at my outline, I knew where I needed to go but felt I couldn’t possibly do it, I felt zero inspiration, and I thought, “Fine, just a few words. If it doesn’t work, I’ll stop.” And I ended up writing an entire episode.
  2. As crappy as your first draft may be, it will always be better than nothing. At the very least, you’ll know what you’ve written sucks and you don’t like it, and most of the time you’ll know why you don’t like it. Which is how you start planning the improved version. If you don’t like what you’ve written, try to write the exact opposite and you’ll be onto something.

Some writer friends of mine told me they are not trying NaNoWriMo because they can’t force themselves to write when they are not inspired.
I do have great respect for inspiration, that’s the blessing of any creative person, but I can guarantee anyone that we’ll hardly achieve anything on a creative level if we just work when we feel inspired. Inspiration doesn’t just happen, it creates itself. And just like with everything, creation happens better where there is movement. Ideas move ideas. When we stop, inspiration is very likely to die out.

That’s why I think having an outline is a good idea whatever we are planners or pantsers.

Will you always follow it? Well, if you are anything like me, most times you won’t.

Why I don’t think outlines stiffens our creativity

Risultato immagine per creativity quotesI’m very surprised by what writers who don’t use an outline think of writers who do. They seem so think that in the moment we jot down the outline, we have basically already written the story. I often heard pantsers say that if they write an outline, the excitement goes away and they won’t be able to write the story anymore.

Let me tell you this: the outline isn’t the blueprint of the story. It’s more the directions of a recipes. It is very good to start with, it will guide you to the end if you follow it faithfully, but most of the time you’ll change things in progress to get to the same result.
I believe you can be a pantser even if you use an outline, that’s how I consider myself. The outline will tell me before I even start writing that there is a story to write. It will give me an idea of the shape of that story, the most important plotpoints, the beginning and the end. Everything in between is fair game, and sometimes even the basic plotpoints change while writing.
The ending of my NaNo project isn’t the ending of the short story and it isn’t the ending that appears in the outline either. It is a completely new ending that came to me the very last day of NaNo, just before I wrote the closing episode.

Outlines don't stiffen your #creativity, they may rescue it in times of confusion #writingtips #NaNoWriMo Click To Tweet

The outline is just a tool, like many other we have. It helps us move our ideas, so to come up with something  new and more effective. We don’t need to follow it, but if we do use it, then we’ll have a tool that will bring us through the rough, uninspired moments.
Don’t you think it’s worth trying?

My NaNoWriMo 2017

As I mentioned in my previous – and only – NaNo post, my project this year was to expand on The Frozen Maze, a short story I wrote back in January.

I’ll tell you what I planned: I wanted to keep you posted on my NaNo experience, tell you how the story was progressing, post once a week so that you would know what I was up to. I even wanted to create visual of the story a was writing, because I saw a fellow Wrimo do so and I loved it. I wanted to get involved in groups and forums of other NaNo participants and take part in a few sprits. I thought I could do it, November is usually a quite month.

This is what happened.
Week One: NaNo went by more or less as I intended. Didn’t do any sprints, but I took part in a couple of FB groups, had lots of fun, wrote a post on my blog, wrote lots of words because I was just expanding on the original idea of the short story.
Week Two: I realised my outline wasn’t going to work. Not because it was bad or I didn’t like it, but because the story wanted to go a different way. I had to reevaluate the plot, but I didn’t want to lose days of writing, so I kept writing, trying at the same time to take a few ideas I had back in January and put it back into the story. At the same time, I was preparing a little conference with my Tolkien group in Verona and I offered to create all the visuals for publicity. I had to find the time to do that too. And at work things got wonky unexpectedly and I was asked to work overtime.
Week Three: One of the character in the outline morphed from a domineering middle age man to a mysterious young man and another character I never expected came into the story. I stopped pretending I had an outline. The last weekend was a disaster in terms of time, I worked 10 hours both Friday and Monday and on Sunday there was the conference, so I had to give up half day that Sunday. I seriously thought I was going to fail, especially considering I feared my boss would ask me to work 10 hours again on Tuesday.
Week Four: But she didn’t!! So I had three days to catch up on some 10k words, which I wasn’t sure I could do, because my average is actually 1200. I normally don’t function very good over that wordcount. But I was going to be really pissed if I failed the NaNo for a few hundreds words, and beside the story was coming to a conclusion, I wanted to finish. So I rolled my sleeves up and went down to business. On Tuesday I wrote more than 3000 words in one morning! Never happened to me. But I have to admit that writing the climax really helped, I just didn’t want to stop writing. On Wednesday and Thursday I wrote more than 2000 words per morning, breaking the 50k NaNo goal just at the end and finishing the story. It felt soooooo good!

The new The Frozen Maze is completely different not only from the short story I wrote last January but also from the story I devised in the outline, although everything I wanted to be there is there.

So what about my The Frozen Maze?

Since the beginning, The Frozen Maze was intended to be some sort of Snow White retelling. It isn’t a hard and fast retelling, elements from Snow White are mostly intuitions, but researching the fairy tale (which is apparently one of the most ancient there are) I discovered it addressed the power of women in a world of men. In the traditional story, this power is asserted with beauty. In my retelling, I wanted to substitute the idea of beauty with the idea of health, and so I wanted the story to be mostly about healing.

The original short story that I wrote in January was too short to address this theme in full. At 6000 words, it barely touched on what I wanted to explore, that’s why I have always known that I would expand that story sooner or later. Already back in January there were many elements I had to leave out: veterans of WWI and their hard coping with coming back to normal life. The link between spiritual balance and health and the possible connection to nature and history. I also wanted a stronger, more recognizable fantasy.

The original cast of the story is all female, which is very unusual for me. I really loved these three. Ingeborg is the young protagonist, coming back to the country estate after having spend the post-war years in Berlin attending university. Dagmar is her aunt, who has stayed behind and who has a very strong connection with the land (especially her ancestral land). Grete is Ingeborg’s step-mother, a war widow and an very business-minded woman as well a one who has embraced the new world completely.
The setting is an estate in the countryside, Ingeborg’s family ancestral home, where a maze had existed for a long time and is rumoured to have some kind of power, though it isn’t clear whether it’s a good or evil one.
Things take a move when Grete asks to meet both her sister-in-law and her step-daughter to discuss the future of the estate. The new world isn’t gentle on big estates like that, they need a new income and Grete means to get it by turning the estate into a beauty resort for rich people. To do this, she plans to take the maze down to make space for different sport commodity. Dagmar is against it from the start since destroying the maze means destroying the connection to the past and so to their identity. But the only one who has a say in it is Ingeborg, because she is the sole owner of Schneezwerg, even if her stepmother is the one who runs the family business. Ingeborg sees reasons on both sides but she is torn between destroying the maze and the past that it represents together with her identity and going back to Berlin where she feels her future is but she may get swallow up by a world that is magmatic and very unstable, especially for a woman.

These three characters are the only ones you’ll encounter in the short story, but in the outline I had already planned more characters, two of them very important. Jean Jacques, who’s a French doctor who ended up in German territory during the war (I wanted to explore through him the theme of strengerness and belonging, since Jean Jacques isn’t just a French in a German environment, but technically he’s also a former enemy) and Florian, who originally was supposed to be Grete’s mentor in Berlin, a middle-age businessman who had taught everything to her and in some way was controlling her. Then, when it was time to write him, he became a young man who’s the factotum and lover of a famous film star and who gave me the possibility I was looking for to make the story not only more fantasy, but also to connect it to my Chicago stories – which I’m very pleased about. Lotte, the actress, came out of the blue and became my main antagonist… and maybe for this I still have to work a lot on her.

The Frozen Maze is far from being finished. In fact, I’ll need to rewrite it completely since some elements found their focus only in the last week of writing. But I’m quite excited about the plot, the themes and the characters and I can’t wait to work with them again.

I’ll also have to research the original fairy tale more in depth so to better delineate some elements. For example, in my story the maze is guarded by seven stone dwarves, and I’d love to expand on their role.

Actually, if you happen to know any resource about Snow White fairy tale, would you leave a link or a reference in the comment section? I’d really really appreciate the help.

So, this is it at the moment.
I’m warning you, if the story comes out nice enough, I still mean to serialize it on this blog, so stay tuned!!

NOVEL OUTLINES Why they are invaluable tools for pantsers - Every year there's a debate about whether it's better to pant our novels or plan them. Me, I think even plantsers may make a good use of outlines
NOVEL OUTLINES Why they are invaluable tools for pantsers
The Frozen Maze - A 1920s Sow White Retelling (first revision) - How an idea transforms into a story


    Posted December 10, 2017 at 23:50

    Congratulations, Sarah! They say the first casualty of war is the plan, but at least a plan gives us something to depart from, to react against, just as the Dalai Lama famously advised us to learn the rules first so we can break them properly! I’m more planner than pantser but I do take detours from and shortcuts through my plans.

    Fairy tales can make surprisingly good bases for adult stories, novels, and movies like ‘SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN’ which I watched on DVD earlier this year, along with its sequel ‘THE HUNTSMAN: WINTER’S WAR’. Both are excellent.

    My favorite ‘SNOW WHITE’ story is the suggestion someone supposedly once made that its title be changed to the more politically correct ‘SNOW MELAMINE-DEFICIENT AND THE SEVEN VERTICALLY-CHALLENGED INDIVIDUALS’!

    • Post Author
      Posted December 11, 2017 at 09:09

      LOL! John, you cracked me! Gotta love political correctness! 🙂

      I agree with your first sentence. I think that’s exactly what an outline shoudl do for a writer. I don’t see it as soemthign to be followed, but more like somethign to be challenged, so to come to new ideas and solutions.

      I’ve heard of those films but never watched them. I’ll hunt them down. Thanks for mentioning them 🙂

  • Tiyana Marie
    Posted December 11, 2017 at 03:24

    Congratulations on completing NaNo! I bet that’s an awesome feeling. 😀

    Also, love the images you’ve shared for your new project, and your description (and the inspiration) sounds interesting. Haven’t heard of anything quite like it before!

    • Post Author
      Posted December 11, 2017 at 09:10

      Thanks Tiyana. It was indeed a great feeling.
      It was so strange to work on a first draft after so many years of revising. Kind of scary at the beginning, but so great after I got back into the swing of things 🙂

  • Margot Kinberg
    Posted December 11, 2017 at 18:00

    I’m absolutely delighted that you completed NaNoWriMo, Sarah! That’s great! And your story sounds intriguing! I’m excited for you. I couldn’t agree more about using an outline. To me, it’s an excellent balance between being too ‘hemmed in’ by over-planning on the one hand, and not making progress on the other.

    • Post Author
      Posted December 17, 2017 at 09:03

      I’d love to hear how you plan your novels, Margot. Mysteries are such complex stories. I’ve always thought they are the hardest to write, just because I think they need to be so meticolously planned. Am I right?

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