Rolling with the Punches (of First Draft)

Flexible.  That’s the key word in this writing business.  We gotta be flexible, because we can’t always predict the curveballs Life will toss at us.  We can’t always predict those things that later we wish we would’ve known.  Sometimes they morph into mistakes, and maybe we shouldn’t avoid them, as Sam pointed out yesterday.  Maybe it’s all part of the Bigger Plan.

It’s the same with first drafts.

I’m a pantser, trying very hard to learn how to write to outline.  Right or wrong, I have this idea that outlines should save me a lot of trouble down the road.  At least, that’s my theory, because I often take wrong turns and end up un-writing thousands of words.

So, for my current Work in Progress, I decided to try this outline approach.  I used as a template Hallie Ephron’s blueprint in her wonderful book, Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel.  Lo and behold, answering her questions and figuring out what information needed to go when and where actually gave me the skeleton of an outline!  I sharpened my pencils and was all set to go.

Somewhere about 10k words in, I noticed my draft was a bit off-kilter from my outline.  No problem, I told myself.  The story itself was more or less on track.  I will go back and edit later, of course.  I kept plowing on, introducing the cast one-by-one, including Victim #1, Villain, and Innocent Suspects, all as previously outlined.

Then around 18k words a new character popped into the story, arguing with Victim #2.

Hello, who the heck are you? Where did you come from, and what’s your beef?

The character explained, told me his name, and convinced me of his need to be in the story.  I decided to let him stay.  What harm could he do?  Someone has to do the grunt work in the story, and besides, I Am God.  I can always take him out later if he doesn’t pull his weight.  I assigned him a Supporting Cast role and moved on.

Now I’m 26k words in, and I still can’t persuade Innocent Suspect #3 to show his face.

C’mon out!  You’re overdue for your scene!  

He is still not talking to me.  I suspect he doesn’t want to be in the story.  Maybe he’ll show up later, but later doesn’t fit with the outline.  *sigh*  I will press on without him for now and see how the draft turns out.  I’ve got to be flexible.  I just hope I am not on the verge of a character revolt.

If only I’d known…


14 thoughts on “Rolling with the Punches (of First Draft)”

  1. Thanks for the laughs. You got my day started well. I am not a pantser, but I still understand all of these unexpected detours in the road.


  2. Don’t you just love it when the characters won’t do what they’re told? Who do they think they are, anyway?

    I have tried to outline. Lord knows I’ve tried. But what you describe always happens. So I’ve decided that I’ll just write the first draft THEN do the outline – and anyone who doesn’t fit is out (unless they can convince me otherwise).


  3. That’s hilarious. I’m a total outliner (and LOVE Hallie Ephron’s book) and while I understand your dilemma in my brain, I do not understand in my heart. But I will say, if your system works for you, then you keep doing you.


  4. And the question about those detours, Susan, is how long do they take??

    I don’t love it, Liz, until after the first draft is done and I finally see the Bigger Plan. The characters apparently knew it all along.

    Who knows if the system works, Becky? I keep trying different methods to see if something will work better, but it usually always disintegrates to this.


  5. Lol, what a great post, Sue! I’m a combo pantser/plotter, no matter how hard I try to outline, it seems like things always change when I get into the meat of the story. I’ve never read Hallie Ephron’s book, but am definitely going to check it out!


  6. I outline now, but my previous pantsed books veered into uncharted territory making the struggle so much worse. I’m curious about Ephron’s book too.


  7. I highly recommend the book! It’s interesting, Kimberly, that you have been able to transition from pantsing to outlining. Would love to hear more about that.


  8. Feeling your pain. I read Hallie’s book and got a lot out of it. I wish I could write three drafts and be done with it but that’s not how I work. I’ve come to terms with that.


  9. I’m a pantster, too. I spent all last year trying to be more of an outliner. It’s not happening for me either. Oh well! I bet your new character is awesome. 🙂


  10. I’m more along the lines of Elizabeth George’s WRITE AWAY, which is along the lines of Kate’s combo approach. I play with ideas for a while, do some Stream of Consciousness writing, determine if the idea is big enough for a novel, then create a scene list. Which I refer to only if I get stuck.

    I’ve just begun the edits for my next book and might be surprised to pull out the SOC and initial scene list to see how it lines up with the finished story. AFTER I’m done.


  11. Still coming to terms with my own process. I like both Sokoloff’s and George’s processes. Great stuff!

    And, thanks, Sam. I hope the new character works out.


  12. I’m working my way through Hallie’s revised and expanded book right now. I have her first and I must admit it’s so dog-eared that the tape on the spine weighs more than the pages. I love it. But I’m not an outliner. I refer to myself as a plotster. I want to be an outliner (why do pantsers want to be outliners? – outliners never want to be pantsers, at least not in my hearing). Anyway, I digress, which probably explains why the whole outline thing fails me. But I digress again.

    I do Hallie’s worksheets and Linda Rodriguez’s lessons from Plotting the Character Driven Novel and I put them all together into what passes for an outline for me. It gives a gist of the book, I make sure I know my red herrings, when they occur, their resolutions and when they occur, my victim(s) when they drop, why they drop, where the clues are to the resolution of the death(s), and all the suspects where they were and why they work. Here is what I have never known until after the first draft and once after the final draft – who dun it. Every single time the villain has confessed to me after the book was written. It wasn’t until I followed the clue trail back that I found the one salient clue that even I had missed.

    Moral of the story – listen to your characters, they usually have more information than the writers.

    Great post, Sue!


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