I used to be a pantser. Meaning, I had no outline, no direction in how I wrote a first draft. I came up with an idea and started writing. I only had a vague idea of a plot, didn’t know the characters well, didn’t have a clear direction of where the story was going.
That’s how I wrote my first book. And to be honest, it wasn’t that good. For my second book, I had a better understanding of where the story was going, but I still didn’t outline or do character development before sitting down to write. And that book was a little better than Book 1, but still wasn’t great.
By the third book, I finally figured out that for me, I should have the characters fully developed (meaning, who are they? What are their personalities? What do they like to do? Not like to do? How do they react in situations? Etc.), the story fully plotted, and a detailed outline of what’s going to happen in each chapter. Once I have the outline, I go back and see if the pacing is right. Does something drag the story down? If it does, it gets cut. Does everything on the outline contribute in some way to the story or the development of a character? If not, it gets cut. Is there a character that has no purpose in the story? Cut.
I was living and breathing the new story without writing a single word. I was collecting “data.” I didn’t write any words (and I know there are people who tell you to write something every day, but that doesn’t work for me) for many days, sometimes weeks. But I was always thinking about the story, working out plot holes, developing characters and relationships in my head. I would jot down ideas on a scrap piece of paper, in my phone, in a notebook or on my laptop. I called it “percolating” a new idea.
So that by the time I sit down to write an outline, I know what is going to happen and when. Once I have a chapter by chapter outline (and it isn’t glamorous. I don’t use any fancy templates or programs. I literally open a word doc and write: Chapter 1, and then what will happen in that chapter), I look it over and rearrange chapters until I was satisfied for the time being. Here’s an example of my very fancy outline:
Once I have this outline, that’s when the real writing begins. Because I’d plotted out the book, the first draft just flows out of me. I don’t have writer’s block because I’d already laid out what is going to happen in each chapter. This frees up my mind to just write the story, without worrying about how it was going to affect another part of the story. I have written first drafts in as little as weeks, using these detailed outlines.
I don’t love writing first drafts; I’d rather edit a first draft. But by getting my thoughts down and preparing an outline, it has helped my process so much and made that painful first draft less painful. This is what works for me. What works for you?
Lyn Liao Butler
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