So, are you a ‘seat of the pants’ writer, or a ‘snowflaker’?
In other words, when you sit down to write that first draft of your novel, do you start with little more than a notion of what it is about, and maybe a couple of character sketches in your head, or do you outline the whole plot beforehand?
Stephen King is a ‘seat of the pants’ writer. Here he is from ‘On Writing’ – I lean more heavily on intuition, and have been able to do that because my books tend to be based on situation rather than story. Some of the ideas which have produced those books are more complex than others, but the majority start out with the stark simplicity of a department store window display or a waxwork tableau. I want to put a group of characters (perhaps a pair; perhaps even just one) in some sort of predicament and then watch them work themselves free. My job isn’t to help them work their way free, or manipulate them to safety – those are the jobs which require the noisy jackhammer of plot – but to watch what happens and then write it down. (Emphasis mine.)
King is not a big fan of outlining. He feels that plot is mechanical and false, and that it is far better to let the novel grow organically, through the characters’ choices and the situations they find themselves in, than through the mechanics of authorial involvement.
But then King also believes that stories are found things, like fossils, and that the writer has to go digging for them like an archaeologist. You know what? I’m not going to argue with him, as he has written a couple of my all-time favourite books.
Richard S Prather, on the other hand, is an outliner. Quoted here from Lawrence Block’s ‘Writing the novel’ he says – I spend considerable time on plot development, typing roughly 100,000 words or more of scene fragments, gimmicks ‘what if?’ possibilities, alternative actions or solutions, until the overall story line satisfies me. I boil all of this down to a couple of pages, then from these prepare a detailed, chapter by chapter synopsis, using a separate page, or more, for each of, say, twenty chapters, and expanding in those pages on characters, motivations, scenes, action, whenever such expansion seems a natural development. When the synopsis is done, I start the first draft of the book and bang away as speedily as possible until the end.
Phew! That sounds like hard work.
I’ll get back to Lawrence Block’s verdict on outlining versus writing cold at the end, as I feel he sums it up perfectly.
But first I want to clarify the reasons why you might want to outline your book. (I’m not going to do the same for ‘seat of the pants’ writing, as I think the quote above from King does that more than eloquently enough.)
Have you heard of the Snowflake Method? Developed by Randy Ingermanson, the Snowflake Method is a way of developing your novel from a single sentence to a full outline, from which you then write the first draft. Ingermanson claims that working this way will vastly increase the speed of your writing, and that a relatively clean first draft can be banged out much faster, and need less revision, as most of the work will have been done in the outline.
I’ll direct you to his website for a fuller explanation of the Snowflake Method, as I don’t want to steal his thunder, and he can explain it better than I can, anyway.
So, which are you? ‘Seat of the pants’, or ‘Snowflake’? Or maybe a combination of the two?
I have always been a combination of the two, although perhaps leaning more towards ‘seat of the pants’ writing. For my two published novels I wrote a basic outline, and then began writing, allowing the characters to deviate from their outlined plot paths if they so wished, and take me into uncharted territories. Sometimes that worked, sometimes it didn’t. Certainly ‘Caxton Tempest’ is a bit of a mishmash in places, and I didn’t always know the answer to the mysteries I was creating on the page, and still don’t, if I’m honest!
But, having said that, my villain Murmur arrived completely formed from a ‘seat of the pants’ writing session, and he became a fabulous character, loved by my readers more than the hero. (That’s not a good thing, by the way, having your hero upstaged by a secondary villain.)
For my current WIP I am outlining. Actually, I have one abandoned first draft of 40,000 words, another false start, and a completed second draft, but none of them really work, so this time I have decided to outline before I go for another, vastly different, draft. I’ll let you know how I get on.
And Lawrence Block’s verdict on these two methods of working?
As you go along, you’ll learn what works best for the particular writer you turn out to be. And that’s all that matters. No one ever bought a book because it was written with an outline, or because it wasn’t.
So what are your thoughts on all of this? Have you used one or other method, or a combination of both? Do you believe one way is best, or that each writer is different? And would you be prepared to change from one to the other, to see if it improved your writing?