I already raved about outlining in the past. Now it’s time to rave about the complete opposite, and STILL make sense!

I was always a pantser. My way of writing was to open a new word document and hammer away at the keyboard until something came out. Let me tell you something though. When it comes to some of the poetry I wrote this way – pure gold. I promise you. These poems will never see the light of day of course (Mostly due to multiple hardware malfunctions through the years), but I liked some of them a lot.
However, when it comes to stories, both short as well as long ones… How should I put it?… well… they SUCKED.

After some reading and listening, I came to realize that the only way I can produce at a level that I’d be comfortable with, is to plan ahead. That means basically to outline my stories.
Now there are many ways to outline and if asked, I’d say “Try and see what works for you.” There’s no other way to know before you actually try. Sorry… It might work the first time, but even that time has to happen.

Some of the advocates of outlining are “stricter” than others. Some say that it HAS to be just SO, otherwise your story will crumble down like a republican presidential campaign (Nothing personal…). That is one extreme. Of course the other extreme is pantsing in disguise. And here I’d like to use someone’s example. While talking about story structure, outlining etc. a fellow writer said (not word for word): “If you want to go to California, you need to get in the car and start driving in that direction. You might not know each and every turn of course, and that’s fine, as long as you get to California.”

At first, I thought this analogy wasn’t right. Life went on.

Then I heard that analogy one more time. This time I was either in a better mood, or perhaps more receptive. I gave it some thought.

Now I’m thinking “Why not?”. Why not use this analogy to describe the writing of a novel? I live in Georgia. Georgia is far from California. Driving there takes a lot of time. So does writing your novel (at least if you’re like me). Your story starts at point A and ends at point Z. So is that drive.

So far it may seem a random similarity. but hang on, there’s more.

So you get in your car and you drive. And you drive. And then you drive some more. A little boring right? Who gets in the car and just drives to California? A truck driver hauling freight, that’s who.

If one of us non-truckers wants to go to California, what do we do? I’d venture a few guesses, and by all means, feel free to correct me if I’m wrong (Or if I missed a point):

a. One might go to google and search something along the lines of “California+Attractions” or “Hollywood+tours” or “What to do in California?” etc.

b. One might also look at the map and see what’s between his origin and California. I’d hate to miss something nice along the way.

c. One should at the very least pack some snacks, if not a suitcase full of things one might need.

d. Fill up gas.

e. Make sure that spare tire is not flat…

f. Does one have a GPS? Might come in handy. Especially if you’re the kind of guy who “Doesn’t need to ask anyone for directions.”

g. Did you charge your cellphone?…

I could go on and on about things anyone of us might and in all likelihood would do before turning the key in the ignition and go west.

What does any of that have to do with writing a novel though?

Let’s talk about the bullets above.

g. Communications. If your story is written no good, no one want read it 😉 You need to know what is in your toolkit and use it properly. You need to make sure that the reader understands what it is you put in front of her.

d. Can a car move without gas? Well, unless you’re one of the first ones to get an electric car, the answer is no. Can a story move on its own? No. Do you know what drives a story? Come here. Closer… I’ll tell you something in secret, but don’t let anyone know. It’s between you and me, ok? CONFLICT. That is the gas of your story. Ain’t got not gas? Ain’t got no story!

e. If you get a flat, no other flat would help you. Your story cannot afford even that first flat, but try two in a row and not even AAA can help you pull that 2011 SUV out of the mud… You need to keep the tension going. Keep the reader turning pages. Just think as a reader for a second. Does that last sentence keep the reader reading? Same for that page and chapter and so on and so forth. Avoid a flat at all costs.

c. If your story is missing a major component like… oh… a protagonist? Not a very good idea. The drive out west might turn out long, boring and who cares for that? You got to give the reader someone to root for. Someone to care about. It’s of course a topic of a whole post, and hmm… good idea for a future one, but for now please trust me. I read books, and if I can’t get behind any character I put the book down on a pile of loose papers. At least it will serve some purpose.

Ready for the REAL GOOD STUFF? Check it out.

b. What happens between the “Title – By – Author” and “-The End-“? Are you driving none stop to California? Stopping only for gas? If so, good luck. I mean I’m not buying your book, but good luck… SOMETHING has to happen right? Some interactions? Some events? sad? happy? something? It’s up to you. YOU decide what happens and I might be interested. But if NOTHING happens then who cares?… Not the reader…

f. Do you even KNOW how to get to California? What happens if you started driving and then got lost, or missed a turn that sent you on a completely different direction? Please don’t tell me that this makes the story more interesting. It might be for the driver, but the reader is looking at this random turn and says “What the…”.

Now, we touched some really key points and I left some out. But the very first question one should ask before going to California (Or indeed anywhere) is – WHY?

a. Why should I even bother preparing for this long ride? What’s in California? What’s so damn special about that place? I’d rather go to DC… Is there a point at all in going there? What would happen once I got to California?


Let’s wrap this up.

Going to California requires some planning, whether you like it or not.

Now, you can take that GPS, assign a designated navigator who could count the miles out loud and warn for approaching turns. You can Pack 5 suitcases with all your wardrobe. You can take an extra spare tire and a pump powered by the lighter socket and the encyclopedia Californica.

You could “Live on the edge” and not plan your stops very tightly, preferring to stop at point X rather than Y because it looks nicer when you pass by it. And you can stretch your gas tank.

All of this is within reasonable limits of SOME plan.

And after I hammered this for over a thousand words, you’d expect me to get to the point, right? So here it is:

I believe that you need a plan. You need SOME framework. You need all of this good stuff we talked about above. You need to know the major milestones, those you absolutely MUST hit. That is the planning part. Once you got that plan – go and be the best pantser you can. Write till the keyboard’s on fire. After all this IS art. You wanna bend SOME rules to SOME extent? Sure, why not. But be careful. That is all. Like driving every decision has consequences, so drive carefully both on the road as well as on paper.

That’s all for today folks (What, ONLY some 1400 odd words?…).
Thank you fellow writer (You know who you are, we just talked about this post :-)).

See y’all later.

2 thoughts on “The art of outlining and the drive to California

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