I Am A Work-In-Progress

Keep working, Mr. Bee.

Miles run today: 10

Words written in my novel so far: 53,592

Times I have been wrong: 4.5

You may ask my husband and family: I am never wrong. Well, I mean… mostly never.

Memorable times in history when I have been mistaken:

1. “Pluto and Yugoslavia will always exist as they are today.”– Anne, circa 1987.

2. “I don’t get the big deal about the Information Superhighway. It isn’t going to affect my life in any major way.” –Anne, circa 1992.

3. “I am completely uninterested in sharing my life in a blog.” –Anne, circa 2009.

(The .5 is to encompass any slight oversight in my recollections.)

Please control your gasps, but a sea change occurred recently in my writing life, and I need to confess:

4. I was wrong about being a pantser. Plotting and outlining my novel might be a good idea.

I know. It’s huge.

Much has been made about the plotting vs. pantsing divide in the writing world: some writers prefer to construct detailed outlines of their novels, while other writers write “by the seat of their pants.”

I read an excellent blog post by a published author recently, though I can’t find it now to save my life. She said that she had many reservations about outlining… until she got very pressed for time: between caring for young children and rigid deadlines from publishers, something had to give.

She found that by taking a few minutes at the start of each writing session to write out, longhand, the gist of the next couple of chapters, she increased her word count by thousands of words. The result was dramatic and life-changing.

I was resistant to the outlining/plotting process. Like this author, I was afraid that specific, Roman-numeral, English-class-style outlines would stunt my writing, essentially locking me in a 10×10 cell wrapped in blank pages.

I’ve never been fond of formal outlines. They represent everything about school that I disliked, all rules-y and authoritative, judgmental and blocky.

But if you can find a way to make a chapter summary-style outline work for you, it just might change your life. I am finding, not that I’m writing wildly productive, 10,000 word sessions, but that the chapters I am writing have more of a focus.

And if you struggle with maintaining tension and keeping conflict alive in your writing, as I do, a scene/chapter loose outline may help you hone in on the nugget that each chapter needs to push your story forward.

I am fortunate to be in an excellent critique group, and if you have critiqued other writers’ work as I have, you will find that sussing out lack of tension in other writers’ work is SO EASY. Why, how simple it is to see what someone else is lacking! You, there–your story is getting dull! Your characters are talking about nothing that helps the story move forward! I just read a chapter that didn’t even need to be in your novel!

But it’s not so easy to see in your own work. At least not during the initital writing process.

You can become so enamoured of your characters, of the setting, of your snappy dialogue, that you forget the very essence of why you are writing: to make the reader want to find out what happens next!

I’m still muddling through on my WIP. I am no speed writer or novel goddess. I have not yet placed in the time trials of Olympic Novel Writing. I, myself, am a Work-In-Progress.

But I’d love to hear back from you about what you have changed about your writing process. What were you wrong about? What has made your job as a novelist easier? What nugget of wisdom can you pass along to make the world a better place?


43 thoughts on “I Am A Work-In-Progress

  1. Running in Mommyland says:

    I thought I was a seat of my pantser, too, but it seemed to change soon after I started ” novel” writing. When I begin again I am going to use a plan (mostly to keep myself focused and to ensure cohesiveness with characters). Without a plan my work was all over the place!

    • annewoodman says:

      I guess we all have to try different things to find out what works! And I’m sure this isn’t the end of experimentation… good luck with your novel as you begin again.

  2. pantser…..I learned a new word today!! 🙂

  3. David Gentry says:

    Anne, fun blog, usual. Pam and I look forward to reading every blog!
    Love, Dad

  4. Carrie Rubin says:

    I, too, am now a firm believer in outlines. I’ve always used them in my academic writing–would be kind of foolish not to–so I don’t know why I thought I could fly by the seat of my pants in fiction. But after having to correct several plot holes years ago in my novel, I’ve learned this time around to go in with a nice, structured outline. Which really is much better suited to my left-brain way of thinking, anyway. 🙂

    • annewoodman says:

      I’m a big-time planner… but sometimes you have to let certain plot developments unfold. You don’t always know ahead of time what will work. But plotting along in segments ahead of time is definitely helpful. Maybe I’ll progress to longer segments at some point in the future. ; )

      • Carrie Rubin says:

        The one nice thing about outlining is that a lot of it can be done away from the computer. I’ll think of something for the next scene while I’m in the shower–then I go add it later. It’s always the shower or when I’m working out. The two least convenient times to get to my laptop.

  5. I’m a pantser, but then I’ve never written a novel. I’m doing NaNo this November, and decided that over October I would plan out some kind of outline and structure – with the pressure of keeping up the daily word count in November, I can’t risk writer’s block, and I’m pretty sure that an outline structure will help avoid that. Oh, it’s October now! I’d better get started…

  6. Bernie Brown says:

    I have no nuggests of wisom, Anne. I think
    I’ll steal yours and everyone else’s. You are a great member of our writing group and I feel lucky to get the benefit of your critiques.

  7. jmmcdowell says:

    My initial drafts of my two WIPs were pantsed, as were the initial revisions. I have learned that I need to be more structured with the revisions. So now the drafts get multiple beta reads, and I don’t make any changes until all the comments are in. And then I make sure to plot out what other changes those changes might beget.

    I don’t think I could outline a novel first. My muse just doesn’t work that way. But editing and revising? She’s learning to step back and plan with me. 🙂

    • annewoodman says:

      Yeah, I thought I would always feel that way about my muse. I think my muse works in sections at this point… drafting an entire novel right off the block might be too ambitious for me. But having more specific details about the upcoming scenes has helped me quite a bit.

  8. kathleen says:

    Oh no, you’re talking about my last chapter, aren’t you? It’s going to be crucial. It’s going to matter, you’ll see. I promise. Seriously, it will.

    • annewoodman says:

      Totally NOT talking about your last chapter, Kathleen! It’s always funny to me, though, that I can tell when the pace is dragging when presented with anyone else’s work… and the same thing happens in my work, and I can only see it after I go back for revisions. It’s like a weird curse. ; )

      Your book is awesome!

  9. I plan, but I plan in my head. I think it’s a real mistake not to know where you’re going. You might just find you’ve been wandering about and don’t really have a plot, after all. Any plan I make cannot be carved in stone, however. There has to be room for the organic nature of the story to take its own course it if needs to. I enjoyed reading your thoughts on this.

    • annewoodman says:

      Yes, I’ve always done the “plan in my head” thing… but I’m transitioning to a more structured plan. (More structured, not actually outlined.)

      I do think there has to be plenty of room for the organic story to flow out, despite your “outline.” But having some sort of written map is definitely helping my productivity. Let me know if you make any kind of transition!

  10. I have started to look at each scene as a story unto itself. It must have a beginning a middle and an end. It must have an action arc and character arc that corresponds to the chapter’s place in the story, (rising or falling). POV remains constant throughout.

    I like the idea of chapter summary but I tend to break it up down to the scene level. I find that by going to the scene level, I get accomplished with each writing session.

    • annewoodman says:

      Yes, Dennis… I see what you’re saying. I do tend to have short chapters (I actually like to read short chapters, too, because then I can put the book down at bedtime with limited guilt.), so there are only a couple of major scenes in each chapter anyway.

      I’m learning… but the whole thing is an ongoing process.

  11. I’m a short story writer, which isn’t to say I don’t plan, but I think it’s different. Often I hold an ‘idea’ of where I want the story to be going in my head. I then write the various scenes, as they come, and then slowly I can see how they need to be arranged for their best effect. But I’m thrilled that you have made such a great discovery for your own work. I would say that the only ‘rule’ i ever follow is to always be open to new lessons.

  12. Melissa says:

    I thought I was wrong once….I was mistaken…Ahem. It is always easier to find fault in others, their actions, work, etc., than it is in ourselves and that’s why having really honest (and thick skinned) friends/groups help. I feel like I’m cheating a bit since I’m not trying to write a novel and just have a cheeky little blog over there, but I don’t know that outlines have ever helped me. I was known to change my outline to match the finished product in one of my writing classes in college…see what I mean, cheeky. But it is all about what ends up working for you. I guess I am, and always will be, a pantser. I do see you as more of a planner and plotter 😉 Sorry, couldn’t resist.

    • annewoodman says:

      We’ll see… I have been known to change my outlines to suit my needs, too. ; ) I guess we have to be open to whatever works and be open to change. That’s a tough one sometimes!

  13. 4amWriter says:

    Yes, I am a reformed pantser. Or, I will be. Once I actually start a new writing project. Although, I do love to dive into a story and lose myself. I don’t see that happening with outlines. Somehow, I will have to make a compromise with my muse.

  14. Amy Mak says:

    I ponder these same questions! What has helped me this time around: A big poster board on the wall using Mary Carroll Moore’s 3-Act Structure so I can see where action is going – up or down. I know when I should be hitting the climax of the book. I also have a smaller poster that has all the characters bios listed b/c I have a very bad habit of changing small details that drive my readers craaaaazy – “Wasn’t she 33 and not 32?” kind of stuff. I recently went through all of my chapters and checked word count to see where I was way over or under. I’m no pro by any definition, but I’m learning that planning saves hours and hours (and possibly buckets of tears) of time. Good luck – I love following your word count!

    • annewoodman says:

      Maybe I should post that, too. I also have a notebook where I try to record characters’ names, ages, place names, relationships, plot points I think I’ll forget, etc. Then I’ll be writing along and call the coach something completely different because I can’t remember what I first named him. It’s funny.

      Probably the best thing is to find a balance between planning and letting your imagination run wild.

  15. Based on your input, I will try outlining some of the story ideas that drift around in my head. I have several Word documents that are failed(?) efforts, some of which just stop in the middle of something because they didn’t fulfill my hopes of how they should turn out. This is especially true when I think my idea is humorous. Then I write it out and it’s not. Do you end up trashing pages of writing after you go back and re-read them? Do you think these suspended efforts can be recycled in another context? I am only referring to blogging since I have never attempted writing anything longer than a term paper.

    • annewoodman says:

      I’m actually a horrible example when it comes to blogging… I’ve started posts and never finished or published them, but I don’t plan any of my posts other than running over points in my head. I can’t pretend to be all high and mighty. ; )

      But for longer projects, I have learned that keeping the story arc in mind is essential.

      And yes, I have written many things that only I think are funny. At least I amuse myself. ; )

  16. I’ve always written “for fun” or “to annoy.” But lately, I think, maybe I should write to “become more famous than Kanye West.” (That’s why most writers write, right?) I’m only just starting on this adventure. I should probably start using proper punctuation – which seems like a pain in the arse. I don’t know if I’m going to be a planner or a pantser, but I love reading these comments and hearing about the process of others. When I’m blog writin’ I fly by the seat of my pants – I like to call my style: stream-of-consciousness-rambling-like-my-grandma-Dyer. Maybe you should try it…

  17. Ravena Guron says:

    I’ve just started doing that too! I’ve found in an hour I can write up to 1800 words as opposed to 1000.

  18. As far as I’m concerned, Pluto will always be a planet. The cutest widdle pwanet in our solar system.

    I also still believe in Brontosaurs. I don’t care that scientists put the bones together incorrectly. Just rename a similar-looking dinosaur; otherwise The Flintstones, with its Bronto-this and Bronto-that, is historically inaccurate. You don’t want that now, do you?

    • annewoodman says:

      The Flintstones is the bedrock of my historical knowledge. I would never want anything to change that.

      I, too, believe brontosaurs are very real. Although some of the new names are very creative, too. I was in Alabama at a museum near my parents’ house this summer, and there was a Montgomeryosaurus or something, named for the place where they found it. I mean, I’m all for living in a city that has a dinosaur named after it.

      • Just be aware that, despite what Fred Flintsone did, a bird’s beak does not make a very good phonograph needle. I learned that lesson the hard way. My Huey Lewis album never stood a chance.

      • annewoodman says:

        That’s OK. I’ll make you a mix tape with some of the Fore! albums tracks on it. Dude, it’s Hip to Be Square.

      • heylookawriterfellow says:

        Of course you have a Huey album. Aside from that curious running habit of yours, we pretty much have everything in common.

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