To Outline or Not to Outline Part 6

Over the last week, I’ve been exploring writing processes and outlines with some of my writer friends, and today I’ve got the final writer weighing in. Bethany Hegedus is the author of two middle-grade books, Truth With a Capital T and Between Us Baxters, both from Bank Street Books, and her next book, Grandfather Gandhi is coming from Atheneum Books soon. She’s also the editor of Hunger Mountain, the Vermont College of Fine Arts journal.

Before Bethany starts, don’t forget to check out all the arguments in this online To Outline or Not to Outline debate, with P.J. Hoover, Donna Bowman Bratton, Nikki Loftin, Jessica Lee Anderson and myself.

Bethany Hegedus

Bethany Hegedus

And now, here’s Bethany’s take on the subject. Take it away…

How do you start a new book?

New novel ideas come quite often—especially during the time where I have just finished one and it is in the process of being shopped around by my agent. When there is that void, when I am not writing consistently, I see possible stories everywhere. In the newspaper. In the way the wind blows on a hot day. From my own set of circumstances. (When I first moved to Texas, I began a manuscript tentatively titled Creation Creek about a little girl who moves from Georgia to Texas and who rides with the truck driver in the big rig while her Daddy, who is agoraphobic, has strapped himself to the Lazy-Boy inside the double wide, and has decided this is the safest way for him to get from point A to point B. I am not agoraphobic but moving from New York to Texas, half made me want to hide like the Dad and half want to go explore and make new friends, like my main character Fancy.) I don’t write the ideas down but the ones that stick, or the ones that I decide to pursue have some emotional connection for me right then and there. I have a sister story, an idea that hasn’t left me for about six years, it’s a story I feel I will right one day but not yet … how I take this emotional temperature gauging I don’t know, but thus far, it has served me well.

Do you outline or write more by the seat of your pants?

I used to write by the seat of my pants—more plunger than plotter. A friend turned me on to a fabulous craft book, The Weekend Novelist by James Ray, and he takes the writer on a series of exercises to develop their work in progress key scene by key scene. The idea of key scenes appealed to my structure oriented brain, but I still write organically, following the character as closely as I can, and then when I run into a wall, I look back to see where I have been. Perhaps this is backward, but it reminds me of explorers who set out into the wilderness and instead of following someone else’s map, charted the territory they had covered after they had been there. It takes a lot of backward and forward movement and, though it may not always be time effective, I think it helps me create layers as I write and not go with first thoughts.

There is an article coming out in the fall issue of Hunger Mountain, a literary journal where I edit the Young Adult and Children’s content, called “Writing with Both Sides of the Brain” by Kelly Barson that may interest you. Your question, Sam, about outling or writing from the seat of one’s pants, made me think of this essay. What Kelly does that is really interesting is show how writers need both the analytical and the creative sides of the brain and how to get them to work together. In reading her essay, I had so many ah-ha moments in terms of how my process works currently and how my process has been changing. It also made me realize that the right and left sides of an artist’s brain need not be at war with one another. They may not create in perfect harmony—we may lean toward one side more than the other—but to do what we do, we must create a partnership between the more analytical side and the side that can come up with wholly new imagery and subtext.

Did your process evolve, and/or how did you come up with your process?

I am glad my process keeps changing, though the part of me that wants to get it “right” — whatever “right” is — wishes my writing process would stay static or  that I had stumbled upon someone else’s process that could be prescribed to all artists across the board. Eureka! Like new math—we all must approach writing this way!

Writing a novel is a lot of trial and error. It is engaging with action and plot but at the same time investigating the internal reactions and sometimes unconscious decisions that lead characters to make certain choices. It is a lot like life—messy, never fully finished, and always a work in progress.

What is great in sharing about process and talking about it with other writers is that we see the universal connections and struggles we have in common and we are also exposed to new tools and new ways of thinking that we wouldn’t have come up with on our own. There is nothing I love more than process talk!

I totally agree with you there, Bethany! Thanks for all the insight.

What are your best outlining tips?

To Outline or Not to Outline, Part 5

The wonderful Jessica Lee Anderson is my guest today in my To Outline or Not to Outline blog debate. Jessica has written five books, two nonfiction (What Is A Living Thing? and Presidential Pets) and two novels for teens (Border Crossing and Trudy). Her newest teen novel, Calli, arrives in September. Like, P.J. Hoover, Jessica also is a member of the author group The Texas Sweethearts & Scoundrels.

For more in the outlining debate, check out my process, then nonfiction Donna Bowman Bratton and novelist Nikki Loftin. Coming tomorrow is Bethany Hegedus.

Jessica Lee AndersonNow, here’s Jessica:

How do you start a new book?

For me, a new book usually starts with a concept or a character voice that captures me by surprise. From there, I usually try to get to know the protagonist and what he or she is looking for/wants. I often have to do quite a bit of free writing whenever I start a new book.

Do you outline or write more by the seat of your pants?

I’ve done both! For my new novel-in-progress, I’ve spent much more time working on an outline since writing by the seat of my pants has led me to needing to write quite a few drafts. My outline is loose enough that it allows for some seat of the pant moments, though.

Did your process evolve, and/or how did you come up with your process?

While I’ve become a believer in outlining, my process has been different for every novel I’ve worked on. With my first novel, I knew how the book was going to end before I knew much about the middle or even the beginning. With subsequent novels, I’ve either started at the beginning or in the middle. Each book is a journey in every way imaginable!

So true! Thanks, Jessica.

Is your process similar? Let us know in the comments.

To Outline or Not to Outline, Part 4

In today’s installment of my To Outline or Not to Outline blog debate, I have a bonafide outliner — with some great insight into her unique outlining techniques.

P.J. Hoover is the author of a series of three middle-grade fantasy novels, The Emerald Tablet, The Navel of the World and The Necropolis, which chronicle the adventures of a boy who discovers he’s part of two feuding worlds hidden beneath the sea, and her new novel for teens Solstice, which takes place in a Global Warming future and explores the parallel world of mythology beside our own. She’s also a member of the author group The Texas Sweethearts & Scoundrels.

Before I sign over to P.J., don’t miss Bethany Hegedus and Jessica Lee Anderson talking about their processes later this week, or Donna Bowman Bratton, Nikki Loftin and yours truly from earlier.

P.J. Hoover

P.J. Hoover

And now, here’s P.J.’s great wisdom:

Thank you so much for inviting me to weigh in on the evolution of a book. It’s always such a fun subject to discuss. So the question is, what’s my process for a new book?

Let’s see. The first thing I do is make lots of little notes about all the ideas for the book that come to mind. Once I’ve thought about these ideas and maybe done some Googling to see what else pops up, I then start a new Excel spreadsheet (it’s the engineer in me). In Excel, each character gets a tab at the bottom of the page, all my ideas go onto a tab, and then I start a tab that will evolve into something resembling an outline.

For my outline, I’ll list all my key events and then try to set some sort of timeline by each event. When I’m feeling especially motivated, for each scene I come up with, I’ll categorize it into what I’m trying to accomplish in the particular scene. And if I notice some elements of the book getting more attention than others, I’ll find a way to remedy that, either by shifting scenes around, adding more scenes, or enriching current scenes.

I’ve been using Excel since I first started writing, but my level of organization changes for each project I work on. Some projects almost write themselves and require less attention to the spreadsheet ahead of time, while others really take advanced planning.

So do I outline? I guess when I answer it this way, the answer has to be yes. That said, I do allow for changes to my outline, and in fact, as I’m writing and these changes occur, I embrace them. I love when I deviate from outline, because it’s a sign to myself that the creative process is really kicking in.

Awesome! Thanks for sharing, P.J. I feel like opening my Excel right now and exploring.

Chime in. What’s your writing process?

To Outline or Not to Outline, Part 3

The writing process is different for every writer. So, I thought it would be fun to compare the processes of some of my friends and see which outline and which create by the seat of their pants.

The week stared with my process, then nonfiction writer Donna Bowman Bratton chimed in. Today, we’re hearing from the lovely Nikki Loftin, whose debut middle-grade novel The Sinister Sweetness of Splendid Academy will be published by Razorbill (Penguin) in summer 2012. Later in the week, we’ll hear from Bethany Hegedus, Jessica Lee Anderson and P.J. Hoover.

Nikki Loftin

Nikki Loftin

Now, here’s Nikki:

There is no part of writing more wonderful to me than the Great Beginning. That first thought of “what if,” that image of a nest balanced between two branches that makes me imagine a magical girl sitting there, the turn of a leaf in the wind that spurs an unravelling of thought — that’s my favorite time. (Honestly? It’s better than the advance check. But don’t tell my editor I said that.) But for all the poetic bliss of those beginnings, I have to admit I start most of my books out of spite.

Yep, spite.

For instance, my most recent manuscript — a book about a boy who isn’t allowed to believe in anything supernatural then moves in next door to the devil and his daughter — came about when some well-meaning friends complained about the presence of witches in a previous book. (THE SINISTER SWEETNESS OF SPLENDID ACADEMY, coming out in summer 2012!) “Oh,” I thought, “you don’t like witches? You think kids shouldn’t read about witches??? Well, how about… SATAN??!! And then I gave an evil laugh and began typing. I have other examples, but I think you get the picture.

Outline vs. Pants

I’m firmly on the fence here. When I was studying writing at UT, I turned in a story that had a lot more plot than usual. (We wrote literary fiction, and most of my stories were just setting, setting, setting. BORING.) My professor asked me if I had known what was going to happen at the end when I began writing. When I admitted I had, he beat me about the head and shoulders with a copy of Dante’s INFERNO, and made me promise never to make such a dreadful mistake again.

I think outlining too much makes my work predictable. So I like to live with the “what if” in my head, wait for the characters to sort of gel, and get that first sentence by Muse Mail before I start writing.

Then I write about the first 10,000 words. After that, I outline a bit, so I can get an idea of where I’m going, otherwise, I could end up wandering the literary desert for 40,000 words with no end in sight.

I always leave the ending in slight doubt, even in my own mind. That way, I’m still discovering the story as I write.

My process evolved from 100% pantser to about 75% pantser, 25% plotter. I do a LOT of thinking about motivation and stakes before I write.

And of course, revisions are a completely different story. I outline the whole book in revision, to get an idea of where I might have gone astray, and to help myself trace the plot and character arcs. I hate revising like the Devil (who is actually a very nice character in my book).

I’ve finished seven manuscripts, and started quite a few more, so I’m sure the process will continue to evolve. And who knows what editorial deadlines will do to my process! I hope I find out. I really do like those advance checks.

Really, really like them.

Part outliner, part pantser. Great, Nikki. Thanks!

Do you outline or not?

By the way, Nikki goes into more reasons why she writes on her blog.

To Outline or Not to Outline, Part 2

For part 1 of my outlining debate, I looked at my process and how it has evolved during the writing of my novels. For the rest of this week, my guests will be discussing the same thing from their perspectives. And do I have some awesome guests. Coming later in the week are Nikki Loftin, Bethany Hegedus, Jessica Lee Anderson and P.J. Hoover.

Donna Bowman Bratton

Donna Bowman Bratton

Today, I have Donna Bowman Bratton, who writes nonfiction pictures books (although I know she has a couple novels in her) and recently signed with agency Red Fox Literary. Here are Donna’s answers to my questions about her process.

How do you start a new book?

Sometimes, I believe the late New York sportswriter Walter “Red” Smith when he proclaimed, “There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.”

Most of the time, beginnings are like mud pits that separate me from the story. I jump in, discover I’m in the wrong place, then try like the dickens to heave my boots out of the bog. I’ll rinse and repeat until I finally surrender to the fact that I should not start my project at the beginning, but trust that the story tracks will reveal it during the writing.

Did your process evolve, and/or how did you come up with your process?

Hmm, good question. Part of it is simply intuitive. Every writer has his/her own style and creative process. The first piece I ever had published was a short story I had written for a creative writing class. My assignment was to choose 10 words from a lengthy list and use them in a story. Though far from an outline, I enjoyed having something concrete to hang the story on, a jumping off point akin to a certain secret word known only to a segment of the Austin writing community (wink!).

Since then, that challenge has evolved into my “story points,” a loose list of important details to be addressed in the story. In fiction, something whispers to me, demanding to be paid attention to. Maybe it’s a memorable character, plot or setting. Most often, I know the ending before the beginning. By plugging the destination into my writer’s internal GPS, while keeping an eye on any story points I already know, I allow myself to take those detours that lead to surprises, like the biggest ball of yarn in the world. Those surprises make fiction come to life.

Do you outline or write more by the seat of your pants?

I’ve hinted at it earlier, but here’s where I stand up in front of the room and profess; Hello, my name is Donna Bowman Bratton and I am an outliner. Alas, there is no twelve-step program for my condition. Though I love getting into the car for spontaneous road trips to serendipitous locations, I cringe at the thought of not having a plan when setting out on a new writing project, though the extent of my planning is determined by the genre.

I write a great deal of nonfiction, which requires research and historical accuracy. When dealing with the literature of fact, a more structured outline must be in place before the first word hits the page. After all, nonfiction dictates that I can’t make anything up, so writing by the seat of my pants is out of the question. When I write for newspapers and magazines, I use a loose outline. And, while working on nonfiction chapter books, I outline each chapter in detail in advance. Doing so gives me a peek at the logic and arc of the project as a whole, which helps in shaping the material into a story form. Having this road map, of sorts, helps me avoid the detours that would otherwise be welcomed in fiction.

But, when I write nonfiction picture books, I look at the project in an entirely different way. The picture book audience is younger. They want to hear a story. A chronological approach can feel stiff and boring. So, my outline morphs into my story points with a one-line summary of the overall premise followed by factual heartbeats and important details that I want to include in the text. By mulling over my bulleted list, rearranging the order like puzzle pieces, I’ll eventually find the narrative thread that ties the story together in a, hopefully, creative way.

By the time I finish a project, I’m grateful for the pre-planning that launched me into the muddy, sticky, puzzling journey.

Awesome, Donna!

So, are you an outliner or more seat of the pants?

Tune in tomorrow to hear from Nikki Loftin.

To Outline Or Not to Outline, Part 1

As I just started writing my next novel, I’ve been thinking about my process. There’s a divide between those writers who swear that the best way is to outline every plot point and other writers who prefer to be more loosey goosey, thinking outlining will curb their creativity. There’s no correct way, other than what works for each individual writer, so I thought it might be fun to compare what I do with some of my writer friends.

All week, I’ll be featuring posts in an outlining debate, starting with myself today and later with Donna Bowman Bratton, Nikki Loftin, Bethany Hegedus, Jessica Lee Anderson and P.J. Hoover on how they work.

To start the ball rolling, here are my thoughts on outlining:

With all of my novels, the idea came from something small and grew from there. When I first started, I wrote from the seat of my pants, coming up with scenes as I went, but I always felt anxious that my story didn’t have any real direction. After a few chapters, I’d get an idea and have to go back and rework my earlier pages to accommodate it. Then a few more chapters, and I’d have to do the same thing again. And I got stuck — a lot.

I also tried completely outlining the entire book, but when the characters surprised me and I followed them, I again got lost.

In my first book, it didn’t take me long to figure out that the problem was not so much with how much of the story I had figured out beforehand; it was in my lack of continuous writing. I would write when I felt I had time, which was a few hours every other month. When I changed my viewpoint and instead made time to write every day, the story flowed out much more easily.

With my second novel, I didn’t outline. I had the concept and started writing, and then I did a lot of re-writing as the plot changed. But I discovered something interesting: as I wrote, the story unfolded in front of me like headlights illuminating a road at night. And it wasn’t until I got to the halfway point that the climax came into view. With this process, I still had a lot of shaping early on until I was on the right track and moving foward to the end.

So, on my third novel, I changed things up a bit. Before I started writing, I figured out a very thin line between the premise, the beginning and —and this is the best part — the end. Knowing the end helped me have a direction, and that helped me enormously in the writing. Sure things still changed while I was writing, the main character and world evolved, and that meant reworking earlier chapters. But knowing the entire line of the story from beginning to end, I was better able to see where the story started and how to get to the end.

So, what’s my process? On my current novel, I knew the premise, the beginning and the character, but beyond that I wasn’t sure where the story would go. I started to write and after a couple chapters was floundering. I brainstormed with my husband over tooth-brushing one morning and the main through line spat out, including the ending. Now I’m ready to zoom through my first draft.

So, I guess I’m a betweener in the to outline or not to outline debate. I need to know my characters, where they started and where they will end up, plus a few highlights along the way, but otherwise, their journey will come as I type.

Stay tuned tomorrow to hear from Donna Bowman Bratton, who writes non-fiction and recently signed with agency Red Fox Literary (congrats!).

Where are you on the outline debate?