Writing Ahead

September 23rd, 2009 by David Leave a reply »

Back in my pantser days, I would start writing a story with only the foggiest idea of how it would end. I might start with an image, a character, a situation, whatever I found interesting. Then I’d see where it would lead. And sometimes it worked.

My current novel project started that way. I had the character of Beowulf, a red-haired Viking boy from an alternate world, in my mind, but other than the fact he was going to leave his island home in search of adventure I had little idea of what would happen. My first draft proceeded in fits and starts, and ultimately was abandoned for a few years while I kept thinking about the story. If it wasn’t meant to be, it would have stayed dead, but it stayed alive in my head and when I was ready to start again I worked on the plot before I returned to writing.

I eventually worked out a 1–10 outline with the major plot points, but still found myself meandering into plot eddies that I found personally interesting—but they weren’t driving the main plot forward. I found the best method for me (your mileage may vary) was writing present tense summaries of upcoming action in brackets in the manuscript. They might look something like this:

[On the third day of travel they play for coins at a rundown inn. The crowd is surly, but mellows as they work hard in their performance. Still, men in the audience pester Freya. Darl tells Beowulf to go outside and get a breath of air since he is getting angry. He will handle things inside. Beowulf, unarmed, goes outside. Two men recognize him from his performance and ask him where he is from. He shrugs and says he’s not sure; the road is the only home he’s known. They seem friendly enough, but he’s suspicious of their motives.]

They’re not all this detailed, but they have enough information to make writing out the actual scenes a writing task rather than a plotting task.

I can’t say that I’m an awesome plotter, someone who can map out a book perfectly with satisfying character arcs, conflict, etc. without requiring revision. But by separating the plotting into first an outline and then to crudely written descriptions, I can at least reduce the amount of simultaneous processing my brain is doing. First, I’m thinking pretty much purely about the story to come up with the best story I can without worrying about word choices, sentence structure, metaphors, etc. The story has to live and die by its essential details. Then when I write, I’m thinking just about capturing scenes on paper.

Now that I’m done with a first draft, I’m still playing with certain plot elements. Even with a story that was pretty well plotted out, I’m not so kick ass that everything works to my satisfaction. But I’m way better off than I would have been if I had kept writing without knowing where I was going.



  1. novalyn says:

    hi, have you ever encounter any hardship in writing sir?
    how and why?

  2. David says:

    I encounter difficulties just about every day. I get off track from the main themes of the novel, sometimes I can’t see the forest for the trees, I need to do more research, etc. If it was easy, everyone would do it, right?

    Some days it comes easily and others every word is a struggle. Maybe others have an easier time, but it’s hard work. Having a solid outline really helps, though–if the outline sounds interesting on its own, there’s a better chance you’ll have an interesting book when you’re done in my opinion. After you rewrite, that is. Every book needs rewrites.