Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Plotting and Pantsing

Allow me to clarify something before I begin: If I was teaching a writing class, you probably wouldn’t want to attend it. Seriously, I’d just stand up the front looking confused, then start talking about how “Spartacus: Blood and Sand” is actually a brilliantly written and conceived series, once you get past all the merkins and blood-porn.

I’m probably the last person you should ask for advice about how to write. However, I’ll give out one nugget of wisdom, which will probably only be true for me, and it is this:

Novel outlines are sunless alleys where spontaneity is dragged and quietly strangled.

Yes, I realise this is tantamount to heresy in some circles. I know of authors who write 30 page novel outlines, with each chapter planned out in meticulous detail. I know authors who use flow charts. And this obviously works for them. I’m not knocking it. It’s just not for me.

I don’t write an outline in anything but the roughest, most bare-bones sense (usually four of five chapters in advance, and only towards the middle of the book). My problem with outlines is that they tend to take the surprise out of the writing process. It’s lovely to never have to sit down in front of a blank page and ask “So what happens now?” But the best twists and turns I’ve thought of in my books literally sprang into my head as I was writing the scene. ( Either that, or just bouncing ideas off my lovely bride). They are not planned. They are tiny, joyous little surprises, like finding that rumpled fifty in the back pocket of an old pair of jeans.

You don’t need a map to go exploring. You just need a rough idea of where you want to end up, and a willingness to take wrong turns get hopelessly lost. But hopefully along the way, you’ll also find yourself in amazing places you never would have discovered if you set out with a shiny compass and a crisp set of directions and an exact idea of what your destination will be. And hopefully you’ll have some fun in there too.

Anyway, it works for me. But again, merkins and blood porn, so yeah…

Grain of salt, peoples. Grain of salt.

Jay Kristoff is the author of STORMDANCER, a dystopian fantasy set in steampunk feudal Japan, out in Spring 2012 through St Martin's Press & Tor UK.

He has never owned a merkin. :P


  1. I start out with a bare bones outline that basically covers where I envision the character arc going on it's way to the end.

    I do like to write a synopsis as a brainstorm, but while I am writing, a lot of it goes out the window.

  2. Mapless explorers unite! I too find outlining to be inhibitory to the actual writing process.

    My unschooled brain can come up with way cooler stuff than the socially correct, just trying to fit in, sit up straight and answer clearly brain. I learned long ago to put a sock in my wildest ideas, to bite my tongue on random thoughts and to stop blurting out revelations at parties. This makes for better social relations but for boring prose.

    Better to let it all hang out in the first draft and then craft the mess into recognizable story!

  3. That writing class...yep, I'd attend.

  4. haha I am totally the thirty page outline person.

  5. Every time I start a new book, I think, "Yeah, I should do an outline this time." And then I try and it ends in despair. I'm with you, Jay. Outlines be damned.

    We must be kindred spirits, because I think "Spartacus: Blood and Sand" and the prequel season are both kickass.

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  7. @Lenore - I tried the brainstorm thing for my sequel, and it kiiiinda worked. But looking at that brainstorm now and where book 2 went, "wildly divergent" doesn't quite cover it :P

    @ Eddie - Yeah, first drafts do tend to be a mess with this method. but then, I break another one of those cardinal rules and revise as I go, so it doesn't wind up so bad. Just takes longer.

    @Tracey - lol, it'd be a very short class at least XD

    @elizabeth - I'd wager your writing class would be much better than mine then.

    @jennifer - Spartacus ruuuuuuuules!