Writers write. It’s what we do. To go above and beyond that, by answering interview questions they receive in email, is astounding indeed! For this round of Five Authors/Five Questions, I’ve barged into the workdays of Louise Marley, Lavie Tidhar, Lisa Mantchev, E.C. Myers, and Jay Lake.
Question three: Do you outline or are you a “pantser”? How much planning and prep goes into any given project, and is the process any different for novels vs. short stories?
Louise Marley: I write very little short work, and I would say I never outline those pieces. It doesn’t hurt to be a pantser with short fiction, because the commitment is so much shorter. I do, however, have a quite specific process with novels.
I’m a hybrid! I’m a pantser in the main, but I always have an outline to help keep me organized. What I like about the outline is not straying off in too many directions, spinning my wheels writing something that doesn’t belong in the story. What I like about simply setting off on a scene, without knowing precisely where it’s going, is the voyage of discovery, the surprises and revelations that come about. My process, invariably, is to write three chapters, letting my imagination guide me, and then stop to outline the whole novel. Much more fun writing the chapters! Outlining is hard, but I think it’s a necessary exercise.
As it happens, I’ve just begun a series of blogs called “How I Write a Novel” (I blog at Red Room). This is a question a writer is often asked, and I thought it would be fun to write about my process at the same time I’m actually employing it.
Lavie Tidhar: I prefer to just go at it, without any forward planning, but that can have serious drawbacks. These days I tend to plan more but over-planning will kill any pleasure I take from it (after all, if I already know what’s going to happen, why would I want to write the thing in the first place?). So it’s a mix for me. The best is still when a story idea pops up and then just gets written. But, particularly with longer projects, I often have to stop and plan ahead and then keep going. And of course, occasionally I take the wrong turning and have to delete big chunks of dead-ends… not the happiest thing in the world, but all part of the work!
Lisa Mantchev: No matter how long the piece, I do a skeleton outline and then allow for movement and wiggling as I work my way through it. On any given novel project, I have six or seven versions of the outline that I’ve revised as necessary.
E.C. Myers: Most of the time I’m a pantser. I usually have a clear beginning, middle, and end in mind, and many scenes in between, but I’m “discovering” the story as I write it. I’ve disdained outlines in the past, but on my third novel, which I’m still revising, I was wasting a lot of my morning writing time trying to figure out where the story was going, so early on I stopped and outlined the whole thing. I found that it helped me make more efficient use of my time, because when I opened the day’s file, I knew exactly what scenes I was going to write next, and it didn’t make the process any less organic, as I’d feared; the outline simply changed as I got deeper into the book. The more complicated the world building, the more research and planning has to go into it, as in that novel that I ended up outlining. Every project is different, and what worked for one might not work again. I haven’t noticed any big differences in how I tackle a short story vs. a novel, but I’ve never outlined a short story. The length and scope is usually small enough that I can keep it all in my head more easily, while a novel can be a messy, sprawling thing that represents months of drafting instead of days or weeks.
Jay Lake: For short stories, I am a total “pantser.” I write by following the headlights, in reading order. This is true even when writing nonlinear fiction. That method works up to about 50-60,000 words, then it falls apart.
For novels, I outline. As I’ve progressed through my career, my outlines have grown more elaborate. I had no outline for Rocket Science, a five paragraph outline for Trial of Flowers, a thirteen page outline for Mainspring. The outline for Sunspin (admittedly a trilogy rather than a standalone) is currently 140 pages, and I keep periodically adding to it. That represents months of thinking, planning and prep. So for me the processes are very different depending on the nature of the manuscript.
How do you plan a project? Leave us a comment! Next Wednesday, we talk about what a successful year of writing looks like.