When I started writing at fourteen, there was no rhyme to my reason. I grabbed a brand new spiral notebook, one of my mother’s favorite fountain pens, and I poured onto the page what had been frantically running about in my mind for days. A story. A real story with characters that had issues and wants and desires and issues that kept them from those wants and desires. I didn’t think about publication. Publication never even crossed my mind–not once. I wrote because I wanted to escape. Because I couldn’t not write.
Nearly thirty years (thirty YEARS?!) later and writing still isn’t an option for me. It’s a necessary part of my existence. I sleep, I eat, I work a day job, spend time with my family. And I write. Sometimes I throw in something extra like carving, painting and weathering tombstones for our Halloween display or making wreaths out of things I find while walking outside. But, for the most part, writing has been with me so long, I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t writing or at least desperately thinking about writing.
Ten years ago, when I published my first book, I wrote by the seat of my pants. I didn’t outline, didn’t plot. I relied on my muse and intuition. In the writing world, this type of writer is called a pantser. In some ways, writing solely where your imagination takes you is liberating. Forget structure, forget hitting beats and using self-help books. I’m the artist and, by golly, I’ll do this my way.
Folks, allow me to say this: there is nothing, and I do mean NOTHING wrong with writing stories without an outline. In fact, it’s my opinion that this is the beauty of art itself. What you create is unique to YOU because no one can do it quite like you. American sociologist Charles Horton Cooley said, “An artist cannot fail; it is a success to be one.” I agree with Mr. Cooley. However, I also believe that in order for artists to grow and get better at their craft, they must never lose their hunger for learning.
I’ll skip all the boring in-between stuff. After all, writing is not glamorous. It’s hours of planning, drafting, reevaluating whether you really are a writer, revising, hating your story, loving your story, comparing your story (and yourself) to other artists, all with the hovering uncertainty of when you last took a shower, ate something healthy or, my personal favorite, last saw actual sunlight.
Until recently, I was never a fan of self-help/how-to books. After all, what better way to get better at writing than…well…writing? And that is very true. If you want to be a writer, you MUST write. Author Stephen King said, “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.” I’d written, I’d published, I’d earned a small bit of success. What more did I have to learn?
As it turns out, a lot.
So, what changed? Working on my eleventh book (and beginning of a new series), I felt the need to ensure precise organization. Honestly, it is that simple. I don’t only want this series, these characters I’m planning to put through trials and tribulations to be good, I want them to be great. I want them to be interesting, relatable and memorable. In order to do my best at achieving that goal, these stories must be tight and hold a cadence that not only makes sense but is satisfying to the reader. This process not only includes outlining (pantsers, look away, or at least keep reading between two fingers), but also using index cards, boards, and an Excel sheet to keep up with characters, plots, overused words, phrases I like, scenery, etc. Most of this is unfamiliar territory for me. In the past, I kept a rough outline or no outline at all. I kept a series bible, too, thank goodness, but even it is haphazardly written on the pages of a spiral notebook.
Last year I picked up James Scott Bell’s Write Your Novel from the Middle and Super Structure. These have been game changers for me. Not only are they easy to read and follow, they made me excited to plot. If you’re a pantser, that sounds a little disgusting, right? It’s okay. I completely understand, but stay with me. Mr. Bell simply explains a method that is older than all of us. Yes, I’m talking about the famous three-act structure, but there’s also a natural rise and fall within and in between each. These “beats” are what we unconsciously look for, be it in books or film or 30-minute television shows. If you can outline a story to this structure, starting with the middle (Bell calls this The Mirror Moment), you will have created a solid foundation for a great novel.
As practice, I grabbed one of the many empty notebooks from my shelf and began a film study. Each time we watch a movie, I fill in the beats (1-14). I figure if I can get a feel for this rhythm, how much easier will it be to naturally do this when I’m writing? I also reached for five of my favorite novels, beginning with The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins. I love this book. Some readers were skeptical when Ms. Collins announced she was releasing President Coriolanus Snow’s prequel, but I found the entire novel marvelously engaging and well-written. As Mr. Bell suggested, I checked the page count, figured out where the middle of the novel should be, and began looking for The Mirror Moment.
I didn’t have to look long.
The end of Chapter 17 reads:
She didn’t have to elaborate. Her expression told him everything. With no money for the taxes, and no way to borrow more, the Snows were about to lose their home.
The very beginning of Chapter 18 reads:
Coriolanus had been in a state of denial about the taxes, but now the reality of his family’s displacement hit him like a truck. How could he say good-bye to the only home he’d ever known? To his mother, to his childhood, to those sweet memories of this life before the war? These four walls not only kept his family safe from the world, they protected the legend of the Snows’ wealth. He would be losing his residence, his history, and his identity in one fell swoop.
This is smack dab in the middle of the novel. The Mirror Moment. James Scott Bell urges that if you know this moment, you can quite literally plot the entire story around it, from beginning to end. Because this, he says, is your true theme. In The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, Coriolanus’s biggest fear is everyone finding out he is a fraud; that the money is gone and his family is unsafe. This inevitably influences almost every decision he makes.
For the first time as a writer, I am genuinely plotting all the way around. I must say, I thought it would be hard, that it would make writing less interesting. What’s the fun in writing a story if I know what’s going to happen? But actually my reaction turned out to be quite the opposite. I’m excited to write, thrilled to put these characters onto paper, thrust them into complex situations and watch them claw their way out. Growth, as it turns out, is not only reserved for characters in a fiction story but also for the writer who is as much a part of her story as its hero and heroine.
If you are a new writer or a veteran, multi-published author, what is your method? Do you show up at the page and just see what comes out? Or do you meticulously outline your plot and character arcs?
Hope all of you are well and staying safe.
Bell, James Scott. Write Your Novel from the Middle. Compendum Press. February 23, 2014.
Bell, James Scott. Super Structure: The Key to Unleashing the Power of Story. Compendum Press. January 28, 2015.
Collins, Suzanne. The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes. Scholastic Press. May 19, 2020.