As a confirmed pantser, I’ve relied on the endless stream of ideas that flow through my fingertips onto the page, coupled with an innate sense of novel structure, to carry my work from beginning to end. Well, I pulled it off once. Now I’m thirteen chapters into a sequel to my JadeAnne Stone Mexico adventures, The Hydra Effect. And I’m lost. I simply don’t know where to go from the shoot-out at the meth lab. I mean, really. These people weren’t armed—they shouldn’t even have survived, let alone rescued a gaggle of kids awaiting transit to masters in the slave trade. So now what?
I’ve beaten my head into my keyboard for two years. I’ve called it writer’s block, although I’ve managed to write plenty of columns for the Petaluma Post, a sprinkling of poems, and I’m almost finished with a memoir of living in Mexico, Saints and Skeletons (be sure to read the blog when it’s up.) The problem isn’t lack of ideas. Conception is a right-brain activity—you know how ideas simmer on the back burner and are added to by flashes of inspiration? I had all that, and still have ideas percolating, but these ideas aren’t coming together into a storyline.
JadeAnne resolves to rescue the American girls from the traffickers?
Anibal knew about the house and meth-lab all along?
Anibal plans on selling the girls to the highest bidder?
(So far so good!)
What if Anibal is affiliated with the Zetas? The Sinaloa Cartel?
What if Anibal isn’t affiliated with any cartel but sells JadeAnne?
(Oops! This is probably the end of her adventures. Now it’s about Anibal.)
JadeAnne is kidnapped by one of the cartels?
JadeAnne’s natural father, who she has never met, materializes and saves her?
The man she’s after isn’t a cartel member, but a legalization advocate?
Help! I need some organization— some old-fashioned left-brain thinking—to sort out the pieces that fit together and fill in the pieces that are missing. I need some logic or this thriller isn’t going to make any sense at all. I hate to admit that all my English teachers were right, but what I need to do now is work out an outline. For a pantser, that’s almost a dirty word.
My right-brain whines, “But where’s the creativity? Where’s the inspiration?”
“Where’s the story?” Left lobe asks, a smear of sarcasm in her voice.
“I’ve forgotten how to write a Harvard Outline!”
“Make a storyboard with pictures. Stick idea Post-its to the wall—rearrange them. Make a list. Concoct a Mind Map. Make a real map—glue pictures to a real map. Use your writing software. Use a pencil and a steno pad. Outline on your smart phone—I don’t care. Just finish the damn book,” Leftie says.
But will it kill the spontaneity? Not if it’s done right. According to K.M. Weiland, in Outlining Your Novel—Map Your Way to Success,“The only right way of constructing an outline is the one that offers you the most freedom for creativity.”
A good outline leaves room for exploration and even helps spark new ideas. Once the outline is completed, your right brain can write the story. Later, your left-brain can revise, but after the outlining, your revision will be way easier, I’m told. Not the ten annual rewrites of The Hydra Effect?
Here are some benefits of outlining:
1 The outline acts as a structural framework. You can see if your inciting incident, plot turns and climax are occurring in the right places with the right energy.
2 An outline will keep you from writing your character into a corner.
3 It will act as a map to a known ending, thereby allowing for foreshadowing and pacing as well as improved continuity.
4 An outline will clearly demonstrate the correct POV for each scene.
5 Knowing a character somewhat before writing helps keep the voice consistent.
6 And the lagniappe—an outline gives us confidence—we know where we’re going!
Everybody, even a pantser, needs a map.