The Long and Short of It

Inspiration is a strange thing. Sometimes, it comes you to in a word. A phrase. A sentence. Sometimes, you have a dream. Sometimes, it’s a what if. In my next blog post, I’ll probably go further into ways I’ve been inspired to write the stories I’ve composed in my life. I’m not sure how inspiration works with other writers, but with me, it always seems to show up in a way where I can tell what the final piece will become. Short Story? Novel length? I usually know how far I can pull each thread when it appears. And so, I tend to find my planning so very different for each. On this blog, I once discussed the difference between a pantser and a plotter, and I very firmly stood on the plotter side, but with some flexibility. But as I’ve begun working on new short stories, the first I’ve written since truly completing my first novel, I’ve realized something odd.

I’m not a pantser or a plotter. I’m both.

When it comes to working on a novel, I am an obsessive planner. I write forty page long outlines with clips of scenes and setting and history and descriptions, etc. I like to be ready, so when I sit down to work on the story, I know all the details and I can create without being stopped by questions about where I’m going or what role certain things will play in the story. That being said, I still surprise myself, and I try to stay open to changes when they occur, and reshape my outline every few chapters to make sure my direction still makes sense.

When I’m working on a short story, it’s very different. Sometimes, I come up with a concept I want to play with. Sometimes, it’s just a word. Sometimes I get a story prompt. Sometimes, the idea pops out of my head fully formed, like Athena emerging from Zeus’ axe-split noggin. Sometimes, the idea comes out in dribs and drabs. I’ll write a paragraph at a time, when the mood strikes. I’ll revisit it and write a few lines of dialogue. I’ll find another story prompt that will revitalize it and I’ll start writing it full time again. Often, I’ll just write with no idea where I’m headed, and see what happens. Then I’ll go back and re-read it all and add and subtract as needed, once I’m sure I have something that might vaguely resemble an actual story.

I am currently working on one of those piecemeal short stories, and it made me think about how different the processes are. Short stories are a short, frozen moment in time. You have to say so much more with so much less, and for some stories, it’s impossible. Some are just too big for that. In short stories, every word must count to explain the situation, to create the mood, to give us enough of the character that we care for them in a few short pages.

In longer stories, you have time to grow the character, to slowly reveal the plot, the setting. You can go into much more detail, have so many more words to work with. Perhaps this is why the outlining for a long story is so intense for me. Perhaps with short stories, I’m telling a story frame by frame and worrying less about the background, about who these people were beforehand and will be later. Because all that matters is this moment in time, and what they do with it. And the only thing that needs to inform that is their actions in that moment.

Or maybe the writing brain is magical and there is no rhyme or reason to it.

For all my writers out there, what methods do you employ when outlining a short story? A novel? Let’s chat!

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Blurred Outlines

Are you a pantser or a plotter?

What’s a pantser? A pantser is someone who tells a story by the seat of their pants. A plotter outlines. There are arguments for and against outlines. The argument against involves what I consider to be a recycling of the anti-ritual argument I explained in my guest post at Scarlett Van Dijk’s blog (insert link: http://www.scarlettvandijk.com/blog/guest-post-justine-manzano-kill-the-superstition-save-the-writer). Write and allow your story to form itself into whatever it wants to be! Don’t try to restrain your muse! And outlines are restraint.

Again, this argument implies that you should allow the art to control you when, in reality, it should be the other way around. You should be controlling your art.

People who argue against an outline are arguing against rigidity that doesn’t exist. An outline can be fluid. Should be fluid. MUST be fluid.

You can’t write a novel without a plan. It’s impossible. You can’t create realistic characters without knowing who they are and what they will do. You can’t tell a proper arc without knowing where you will end up. Now, you don’t need to know every single step of the story, or even every event that will happen. But you need to know the essentials.

 

I think everybody needs to have their own way to tackle this particular problem. So what do I do? (Let’s ask the great expert who hasn’t published a single long-form story! She should know, right? Well, my way works for me – maybe it will work for you?)

I outline. Meticulously. Annoyingly. The outline for one of my novels contains snippets of dialogue, snippets of description, setting and character traits and usually weighs in at roughly half the size of the book. I spend a couple of months before the book brainstorming and that is what is produced.

Usually, the outline has loads more detail and even more story than the actual novel does. Because once I start writing something and a part of it clearly doesn’t work, clearly weighs down the story, I toss it. Then, before I start the next chapter, I review my outline for that chapter. I change it accordingly, cutting the story bits that no longer make sense and improving the things I have tightened in the previous chapter, because sometimes you just don’t know if a story element will work until it is out and on paper.

I’m not saying that this creates a perfect novel. There are still many revisions to be done after completion. But it will keep you on track. It will keep you focused on the plot progression. And it will leave you the availability to still be flexible, to remain with your characters when they decide they just want to do something else today. As long as you continuously adjust your outline, you should be able to maintain a consistent storyline while still allowing the muse to guide you when it swings by for a surprise visit.

The important thing is that you have control of your muse and not the other way around. If you have a good idea of the main points of the beginning, middle, and end of your book, you will become able to view the muse’s twists and turns in a logical way. Does this new idea your muse has gifted to you change the ending? For the worse? Chuck it. It’s not worth your time. Does it change it for the better? Yes? Well, better is always…better. So keep it. Readjust your outline so the remainder of the story has a logical flow towards your new end.

Without an outline of any kind, your muse can lead you anywhere. You know that crime fighting duo you’re writing about? You don’t know where they are going to end up, so you journey along with them. And suddenly you’ve written two hundred pages of slapstick comedy on a Caribbean cruise. Why? JUST BECAUSE. That might be comedy gold. But it is certainly not what your story is about. So how do you handle this?

You create a file in your computer. Mine is called Overflow. You can call yours Chuck Bucket or Vomit Pail (why do these all sound barf-themed?) or something less gross, but you can put all of the ideas that don’t fit your current story in there. If something is nagging to be told, take an hour out of your writing day and write it in this file so you don’t lose it. And then carry on with the things that will really fit in the story. This is also a good place to store scenes you have cut from other stories.

And the best part about doing this? You become more prolific. You will use these little snippets, ideas, scenes, word choices again. You will look over your Vomit Pail and you will find inspiration in connecting one chunk to another chunk (easily the funniest line I’ve ever written on this blog).

And on that unexpectedly gross note, I would like to ask, how do you outline? Or are you a pantser? And if so, how does that work? Post your thoughts in the comments!