How to Write by the Seat of Your Pants: Outline or No?
I write by the seat of my pants and I don’t outline. Reading those words makes me cringe. They’re a recipe for mediocrity without a few qualifying sentences. Maybe more than a few sentences.
I’ve written all of my life, academically and professionally. My writing got high marks and was well received by my professional peers. Does that mean I was a good writer?
Absolutely not. In 1995, I began writing nonacademic fiction and nonfiction full time. In that year, I had a cataclysmic personal breakthrough. Or maybe it was a total wipeout. Something terrible happened to me and I had to spend years recovering. I did, with the help of a meditation retreat, I had a huge transcendent experience. The idea for an entire series of books was “injected” into my head almost instantly with that experience. I had had big experiences before, but I’d never had one associated with writing.
With the idea for the series came the self-discipline to finish the books and see them in print. That is my Bloodsong Series. Two new Bloodsong books will be out in 2014. In 2007, another personal tragedy produced an experience that resulted in the Earth’s End Trilogy, my sci-fi series that is being showcased on this blog tour.
How did I do that? I call my writing technique “literature through disaster.” Giant personal catastrophes jar my depths and somehow kick out ideas for books. And more books. After these ideas appear, I’m able to cut through procrastination, writer’s block, laziness, fear, and all the other demons that bedevil writers. The impetus for the flood of writing is very painful emotionally, but I’m able to finish books, including all the very hard work involved in getting them fit for publication.
It’s a personal gift, literature through disaster. I don’t think you want this gift, but it’s how I work. What I get when I have one of these experiences is a gestalt, which means a big, integrated hunk of meaning, images, feelings, memories, and physical sensations delivered as a whole. The gestalt is more than the sum of its parts.
Bazaam! An entire book pops into my head. I don’t have to outline it. I just write it down.
In a blog article, I discuss Jungian personality types as they apply to writers. This is very important to understand. What I have just described about myself is how an intuitive type does creativity. A thinking type would do things very differently. The rational and orderly thinking type is most likely to write with elaborate outlines and methods of tracking his/her work. That’s how a thinking type operates. The other two types––sensate and feeling––might or might not outline, depending on how they’ve learned to be creative and successful.
A sensate, for whom physical sensation and the present moment is important, might outline as a way of creating structure. Think football players and sports types when you think sensate. The feeling type, interested in relationships, and orientating him or herself with feelings, might outline a book as a way of providing a logical structure that is hard to pull together internally. Feeling types write the romance genre.
I don’t outline. I get big, intuitive explosions occasionally that provide me with years’ worth of writing material. Does that mean I spend my days floating in a swimming pool, chugging down Margueritas while thinking positive thoughts?
No. I work really hard, seven days a week. What I didn’t say when I said I don’t outline is that I spent nine years in a writing group run by a local poet. I spent an additional two years in a writing group run by a man who was a published novelist and professor of literature and English. I’ve spent the last seven years working with an excellent content editor. She’s tougher than all of them. I know when my editor gives me a manuscript back, it won’t have an extra word.
I’ve internalized her comments and apply them automatically when I write. “Your point of view is wandering. This doesn’t move the story forward. Why did he/she do that? Shorten this. Give me more on this. The totally leaves me cold. I don’t understand.”
I’ve got my own writing group automatically functioning in my head.
In Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell says that individuals require 10,000 hours of practice of a skill to become outstanding in it. He cites all sorts of examples from the Beatles to Bill Gates. My experience in writing (as well as riding horses) indicates he’s absolutely correct. You must spend your hours in the saddle before you can really ride the horse.
As a writer, you can’t just not outline. You have to train your mind to order and discipline the words coming out of you. You have to learn to feel the flow and pacing of plot. Outline or not, you have to work like crazy. And you have to have your work edited by as good an editor as you can find. Maybe do a couple of go-rounds of content editing. Then you have to have your work copyedited and proofread.
If you want to sell your stuff, you have to do the work. Otherwise, you’re perpetrating garbage on your fellow human beings and contributing to the sorry reputation of indie publishing.
So. I don’t outline. I write by the seat of my pants. It’s really hard work and I’d do it another way, but this is the way that works for me.
Do what you have to do.
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Genre – Metaphysical Science Fiction
Rating – R
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