Author Lisa Cron wrote a thoughtful piece over on Writer Unboxed on January 10, 2013, that got me thinking. If you haven’t read Lisa’s work, I highly recommend her latest book, “Wired for Story,” a guide to how writers can use storytelling techniques to trigger the brain’s natural ability to read stories.
Cron’s post on Writer Unboxed focused on the technique, advocated by Anne Lamont in her famous “Shitty First Drafts” chapter in the classic work, Bird by Bird, to “let it all pour out” when writing a first draft. Cron posits that Lamont’s point has been widely misinterpreted. Lamont was not suggesting writers dive into a first draft with no thought or regard for the story they are trying to tell. Having said that, Cron proceeded to discuss why the “let it all pour out” approach does not serve the writer well.
“Let’s face it, it’s much easier—seemingly liberating—to let ‘er rip and write without thinking, pantser-style, than it is to think about what you’re writing beforehand, and track it as you go,” Cron wrote.
Cron recommended nine tips to avoid the trap of flying blind and ending up with an incoherent draft. I won’t repeat them all here, but four of these tips in particular resonated with me:
#2. Know what your point is before you begin to write.
#4. Know the over-arching problem your protagonist will face.
#5. Know your ending first.
#8. Concentrate on the “why” and not the “what.”
As an unabashed pantser, I should have taken exception to what Cron wrote, but as I reflected on it, she was dead-on. It’s fine to “let ‘er rip,” but here’s a cautionary note: a writer must think his story through before putting a single word on the page. So here are the things I always work out before I sit down to write:
- Premise: what is the story about?
- Protagonist’s goals and obstacles. These should be made clear to the reader as early in the story as is possible.
- Antagonist’s role and ways in which the antagonist will thwart the main character.
- Major milestones in the story. What are the events that will drive the story forward?
- Major conflicts. How will these be set up and developed and resolved for maximum impact?
- Ending. Even if you change your mind about the ending (as I have done during the final stages of a first draft), a writer cannot reach a destination unless he knows where he is going.
- Theme. Though this is sound logic, I nearly completed the first draft of my first published novel, Small Change, without having any idea what the theme was. It came to me in a quote by the main character’s mother that I wrote almost unconsciously (it must have been there all the time in my brain). It was one of those ah-ha moments a writer experiences.
I give a lot of thought to the points above before I start to write. I prepare a three to four page outline listing the major events of the story in narrative form. Then I let ‘er rip.
If you want to take a deeper dive into outlining techniques, I recommend K.M. Weiland’s book, Outlining Your Novel.
I will be reviewing both Cron’s and Weiland’s books in future posts.
If you are a pantser, how much thought do you give to outlining?