Or, How I Learned to Write Without a Massive Outline
For as long as I’ve written, I’ve loved a good outline. It comes from my screenwriting where outlines are something of a necessity when dealing with agents, producers, directors, etc. They like to know what they’re getting for their money upfront and it’s not unusual for the writer to put together some kind of pitch, synopsis or beat-by-beat outline ahead of actually writing the thing.
I’ve done the same with my novels. I’ve always liked to write a thorough chapter-by-chapter outline — a clear roadmap, because I’d hate to be halfway through a hundred-thousand word novel and not have a clue what happens next, or discover a massive plot hole. If you’re a regular listener of the Bestseller Experiment podcast, you’ll know that it got me a proper bollocking from that nice Mr Ben Aaronovitch (skip to about 26 minutes in…).
Since the Great Bollocking I’ve had two novels published, Back to Reality and The End of Magic, both heavily outlined and people seem to like them. But… both were well in progress when Ben gave us an earful, so I figured what the hell, I should just finish what I started with them.
I listen back to our old podcasts fairly regularly. Not out of any vanity, but I really do believe we got tons of amazing evergreen advice from some of the best authors in the business and it would be daft to ignore them. One thing that became clear is there’s no single method of writing a novel. Lots of writers love to outline, plenty of them are pantsers (writing by the seat of their pants… a term I had not heard before starting the podcast), many do a little of both. There’s no definite, step-right-this-way-to-success system. You have to figure out what works for you and build on that.
I was happy outlining, but I’ve prided myself on never writing anything the same way twice. Every time I start a project, it’s a little different and I learn something new. I figured it was time for a big change, so why not try and pants a full-length story?
But what about that fear of getting lost? Of getting halfway through a story and not knowing where to go next?
It was another podcast that had a nugget of advice that unlocked it for me. I’m a big fan of Scriptnotes, a podcast for screenwriters (and things that are interesting to screenwriters). In it, screenwriters John August (Big Fish) and Craig Mazin (Chernobyl) discuss craft and the industry, and I find it invaluable. Last summer (2019) they released an episode featuring just Craig who gave a talk that he’s given to screenwriters at festivals over the years.
It’s a brilliant episode, crammed with terrific advice. It’s behind a paywall now, but you can read a transcript of the full episode here.
The advice that stuck out for me was this…
“If you can write the story of your character as they grow from thinking “this” to “the opposite of this”… you will never ask what should happen next ever again.”Craig Mazin, Scriptnotes, ep403, 41m 50s
A little lightbulb went off in my head. It was the same question I would ask myself while writing an outline anyway, so why not apply it to the blank page of a fresh draft? Would it be any different? Would it be any better?
I’ve been using and adapting this method for one screenplay (written on spec, no outline necessary) and one-and-a-bit novels and I’m loving it. I’ll start with a one-page outline, but with a bigger focus on character and theme. Who is this character? How will they change, and what’s stopping them from doing it? With those two polar opposites in mind, I rough out a very basic story and then start writing. It can be hard at first as you test the water. When I get stuck, I put the laptop aside and start scribbling in a notebook with Mazin’s advice in mind: What’s what the worst thing that can happen? What will stop this character from getting what they want? How will they overcome it?
If I can’t figure it out right away, I might stop writing altogether and get on with my day. More often than not I’ll have a solution come out of the blue while I’m washing dishes, in which case I dry my hands and email myself the note ready for the next day.
It’s working so far. The screenplay has a director and producer attached and looks like it’s a goer, and the one and a bit novels…? I’m hoping to have some good news about them soon.
I’m not saying this is going to work for everyone, but I’m enjoying living on the edge. If you’re a big outliner, why not give it a go? All you’ve got to lose is your word count…
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