I just finished the first draft of another full-length novel. Toward the end, I could see that I wasn’t going to make my projected word count. It wasn’t that any particular chapter was too short. Most of the chapters came in right about where I would expect—a good sign that the book is balanced and the pacing is where I want it. They’re all just a little light (it’s about 5k short at 72,000).
Toward the end of the piece, I read an article. A particularly ill-timed article about first drafts. It extolled the virtues of cutting down a first draft to make the piece stronger. I went back to the page nervous, watching the words not add up to my initial goal of 77 or even 80k—where I expect the finished novel to land.
It psyched me out. As I wrote, it lingered in the back of my mind, distracting me, pulling me out of the story. Not good for the process. Pushing the book aside to deal with it, I thought over how I write from nascent idea through finished product and compared it to the process the author of the article described. I recognized a vital difference.
The author is a pantser—someone who comes up with the story at the page as they’re writing. I am an outliner. Not just an outliner, an OUTLINER. I pore over my stories for weeks before I sit down to write, making calendars of events, tracking where characters were leading up to the first moment of the story, thinking out all their back-story, doing the freaking math, for crying out loud, to make sure my pacing stays right. on. target.
Do my characters or plots still surprise me? All the time! Both while outlining and at the page. But with all this background work, those ecstatic moments of realization don’t derail the story—they enrich it.
When I sit down to write, I expand on my outline, getting down dialogue, key setting elements, actions, and the big overarching thoughts and emotions driving everyone in each scene. I don’t go into detail. I don’t spend words on description. That comes in the first edit. The result? My first drafts come in light. The first edit pads them, and then the second edit cuts them down.
I lost valuable time thinking that I was doing things wrong because I was comparing myself to someone else. I think that’s a trap writers often fall into. How do we best get these ideas out of us and into the world? We look for ideas from fellow writers, and that’s good. I’ve learned so much from others. But in the end, it’s how I synthesize all that knowledge and put it into creative practice that makes me the unique writer that I am.
What about you writers out there? Are you pantsers or outliners? Do you live for those moments of epiphany that strike your story ideas like lightning? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.