First Drafting: You Don’t Have to Know Everything

Photo credit: larryvincent on Flickr
Over the years, I’ve become more and more firmly entrenched in the plotter camp. This is something I definitely didn’t see coming when I first started writing, considering when I wrote my first manuscript, the thought of writing an outline was one that let’s just say didn’t make me happy. 

As I’ve started consistently fast drafting, however, I’ve found that I work best with loose outlines. (Loose, being the operative word.)

When I first started writing, a large part of the reason I was so against outlining was because the thought of figuring out every little detail about what will happen in the book before you’ve written a word not only seemed like it’d be a lot of extra work, but I also worried it would kill the joy of writing. After all, one of my favorite parts about writing is the discovery, so if you already know everything, what’s left to discover?

As it turns out, however, most of the time when writers talk about outlining, they don’t mean J.R.R. Tolkien-type book-on-its-own-outline.

For me, outlining means opening up Scrivener and using the cork board feature to plot out what’s going to happen in the novel from beginning to end. I’ve also taken to writing the rough draft of a logline (and sometimes a query-length summary, depending on the MS) to help me stay on track while I draft.

By the time I’ve finished outlining, I know:

  • Who the protagonist, antagonist, love interest and other important characters are. 
  • What all of the major plot points (inciting incident, point of no return, etc.) are. 
  • What the main conflict is.
  • What my protagonist's goal is.
  • How the book will end. 
  • The (general) setting (which can be as specific as “x building in x city” or as vague as “a college up north”).
  • What POV(s) I’ll use.

When I’ve finished outlining, I usually don’t know:

  • How much of the outline I’ll actually stick to. 
  • What my characters’ personalities are like. 
  • What the voice of the manuscript/protagonist(s) will be like. 
  • How my characters will get from scene 1 to scene 2, etc. 
  • Whether or not the romantic part will go as planned (spoiler alert: it usually doesn’t). 
  • Whether or not the book is going to suck.

The point I’m trying to make is this: even after I finish outlining, there’s a lot I don’t know about the book I’m about to write. Hell, half the time I don’t even know if I’m going to like the book (as a rule, I don’t usually declare a WIP an actual WIP until I’ve reached 10,000 words. Before that, it’s an experiment. I’ve abandoned many ideas before (and some after) 10,000 words).

I tend to look at my outline as more of a guide. I frequently make changes to scenes or find that characters aren’t behaving the way I’d originally planned, and that’s totally okay—in fact, I love when that happens because it means the story has taken a life of its own, and usually, the ideas I get while writing are even better than I’d originally planned anyway.

Despite that, I do continue to outline, because that guide? It’s ridiculously helpful, and when I’m fast-drafting, it absolutely helps me avoid getting stuck because I don’t know where the story is going (something that happened to me frequently in my pre-outlining days).

And sure, I don’t know everything when I start first drafting, even after I’ve finished outlining, but the fun thing is you don’t have to know every detail. And that just makes the ride all that more exciting.

Do you do any pre-outlining before your first draft? Why or why not? 

Twitter-sized bites: 
.@Ava_Jae says you don't have to know everything about your WIP pre-1st draft, even if you're a plotter. Thoughts? (Click to tweet
"Even after I finish outlining, there's a lot I don't know about the book I'm about to write." (Click to tweet)


Eisen said...

Great post! I'm planning on trying out fast drafting too. How long does it take you to write the first draft? How long does it take you to revise/rewrite the draft afterwards?

Ava Jae said...

Generally, it takes me anywhere from 3-6 weeks. The fastest I've ever finished a draft is 16 days (during NaNoWriMo 2013) but that's not my normal pace lol. 3-6 weeks is a pretty good average for me.

As for revising...that sort of depends. I go through several stages of editing by myself, then going back and forth with CPs and betas. How many rounds I need really depends on the MS. (Then even after that, I can have edits with my agent, too, so...).

Revising definitely takes longer than first drafting. I can say that much definitively. :)

Leandra said...

This is what I tend to do too- have a loose map of where I'm headed. Without it, I sorta freeze up. But it's got enough wiggle room that things can still suprise me, which do make writing a lot more fun. And I'll take all the fun I can get. ;)

Ava Jae said...

Yeah, I definitely find it less terrifying when I know how the story is going to end (rather than writing into a seemingly endless abyss). But leaving wiggle room for surprises keeps things interesting for sure. :)

Bolo yeung said...

Nice tip - will use it for my writing to have a balance and flexible plot :)

Emma Adams said...

I can't write without an outline, but I can't outline every scene either, so I try for a balance. I tend to do the research/worldbuilding before I start, especially if I'm writing fantasy, because it saves time at the revision stage. But the plot itself is flexible and more often than not, the characters take over no matter how much I try to plan in advance! I tend to re-outline as I go along and new ideas occur to me while I'm writing.

Briana Morgan said...

I've been a pantser almost all my life, but once I gave outlining a try, it changed my life. I'm also reading K.M. Weiland's OUTLINING YOUR NOVEL right now. It's amazing!

Jennifer Ricketts said...

I think I'm more of a pantser. When I did NaNo last month, I had an outline but it was very very loose, maybe looser than a plotter would be comfortable with I think. I'd love to become a plotter though. Just not sure how to do it without taking a ton of time.

Ava Jae said...

Yay! Happy writing! :)

Ava Jae said...

That's so interesting! Your process is very different from mine—I tend to figure out most of the worldbuilding stuff while revising. I think it's really fun, though, when the characters take over, especially since their ideas are usually better than mine, anyway. :)

Ava Jae said...

Haven't read that one! I'm glad to hear that trying a new writing strategy worked so well for you, though! :)

Ava Jae said...

If the only thing you're really concerned about is time, I wouldn't worry about it. I tend to think whatever time you spend outlining you save while first drafting (because first drafts tend to come out much faster when you've pre-planned).

Also, a loose outline is still an outline! Or guideline. Did you find it helpful to have a super-flexible outline?

Sherry Williams said...

I'm usually a pantser, but with my most recent WIP I plotted first and it made such a difference!

I took 2 weeks to write a (very loose) outline, do "character interviews" on all of my major characters, drew a general map of their world, homes, etc. When i sat down to write the book it took me 4 weeks and my MS is around 97,000 words. I only had two places where I had to figure out how to connect point A to point B, and I revised my outline a few times as my characters took over their story, but I didn't experience writer's block at all like I did as a pantser!

That MS just sat for two months & I was rather impressed with the quality of the writing when I gave it a first read through. Plotting is definitely worth the time invested!

Kelly Blackwell said...

I am still just a babe in the woods but through NaNoWriMo, I learned that outlining, much as you have described it, will be a must for me.

Kelly Blackwell said...

I'm reading it now too! It really is great!

Ava Jae said...

This is so great! Thanks for sharing your experience, Sherry! I definitely agree that outlining has expedited the drafting process for me. I used to get stuck pretty often, and even now, when I do get stuck with point A to point B, I sit down and–surprise!—plot out what will happen between those points. Works like a charm every time. :)

Ava Jae said...

It's definitely helpful. Good luck! :)

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...