I’m getting close to the end of the first draft of the third book in my mystery series, and I’m a little scared about how well it seems to be going—that tends to mean there’s something I haven’t noticed, and it will all fall apart as I get to the end. But maybe I shouldn’t be scared because I tried something new with this book: detailed planning.
When it comes to being a plotter—a writer who outlines how the book will go—or a pantser—someone who writes by the seat of the pants, making it up as they go—I’m afraid I’ve generally fallen into the worst of both worlds. I can’t start writing without some sort of outline, usually a pretty big-picture, rough list of the major story points. But then I have no idea how those things will actually happen, and that means I’m generally wrong about a lot of them. I end up making it up as I go, and then I have to do a lot of rewrites to find the story I really want to tell in all that mess. I can write a rough draft in a month or so, and then I’ll spend six months rewriting it.
About the only book I’ve ever written that went totally as planned was Enchanted, Inc. I still did a fair amount of rewriting, but it was to beef up the humor and expand some scenes. The basic plot stayed the same. I didn’t even have editorial revisions on that book.
With everything else, it’s been more of a struggle. I may know the setup in detail, but the resolution is so vague I might as well not have planned anything.
On this book, I tried doing more detailed outlining. My big-picture outline followed a structure with more beats in it, and it forced me to do a lot more thinking about why everything was happening, which gave me some additional ideas. Then I did a more detailed scene-by-scene outline, getting into the scene/sequel structure, which forced me to really get into action and reaction that drives to the next action. I didn’t do the more detailed outline for the whole book at once, though. I did about four scenes (and in this sense, I’m not really talking about the usual sense of “scene” but rather the action that follows a particular objective until the character needs to come up with a new objective, so it might span multiple chapters) before I started writing, and then after writing I’d outline the next scene or so. Doing the outline allowed me to spot and solve plot problems before I invested the time in writing. Sometimes outlining the next scene made me go back and adjust an earlier scene to set something up properly or go in a different direction at the end, but it wasn’t major rewriting. This seems to be saving me a lot of time. It’s a lot quicker to rewrite an outline that isn’t working than to rewrite a book that isn’t working. The writing goes smoothly because I know what needs to happen. There’s still stuff I make up on the fly because my outline doesn’t necessarily tell me what the scene needs to look like. I don’t feel stifled by the outline. If anything, it actually frees me up to be more creative. I’ve made the structural decisions, which gives me room to relax and play with how things actually happen.
I’ll have written this draft in about three weeks, and unless I realize some major flaw later, I don’t think it will require major surgery. I may want to expand on description and emotion, and there are some minor things I need to tweak for continuity, but I don’t anticipate it being one of those things that takes six drafts and half a year.
I’ll have to keep trying this. Getting more books out would be good. Spending less time tearing my hair out is lovely.