One of the ticks of the writing community I loathe is the use of “pantser” (for seat-of-the-pants-er) to describe people who don’t outline. Pantser brings to mind a middle school boy who yanks down other people’s trousers. Not exactly the kind of person I want to be associated with. I prefer improviser.
I listen to an eclectic and extensive variety of music, but jazz remains close to my heart. There are many ways to define jazz, but one of the key characteristics is structured improvisation. Professional jazz musicians practice as much as their orchestral counterparts, to the point where OCD seem normative. However, unlike most other music, jazz is often performed by musicians who haven’t practiced together. Someone like Hobgood will show up at a venue the day of the show and meet with some cats who’ve spent a bit of time practicing with the sheet music. From that point, they get on stage and improvise.
On the extreme end of jazz, it bleeds into free music where sheet music disappears and music is created purely by the act of a group of musicians listening to each other and letting their intuition and imagination direct them. Free music does not sell a lot of records, but often produces challenging, engaging music.
Throughout my writing career, I’ve been not only an improviser, but a rather snobby one. My stories flowed from a place of imagination and character, not sullied by an imposed structure or the artifice of plot. Sure, they had plots: I’ve gotten complements on my tight plotting. But plot was never the raison d’être of my writing. Like David Watts, I was a pure and noble breed.
I’m no ‘Trane
Listen to John Coltrane’s early take on My Favorite Things (no, I’m not responsible for the picture.) This is the work of an incredibly gifted artist who has mastered his craft. Now listen to the two part solo from Newport five years later: Part One and Part Two. You’re likely to have a much stronger reaction to his later version (positive or negative). From 1961 until his death in 1967, ‘Trane increasingly integrated avant grade and modal improvisation into his art. Whether you like the results or not, his relentless pursuit of his vision changed jazz forever.
Coltrane started his career more than two decades before he played the Newport Jazz festival in ’66. He started out playing with none-too-shabby musicians like Dizzy Gillespie and began recording with Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk by the mid ’50s. By the time he formed “the Classic Quartet” with McCoy Tyner, Elvin Jones and Jimmy Garrison, he’d already developed a unique “sheet of sound” technique consisting on cascading hundreds of notes a minute, and released Giant Steps, on which “‘Trane began actively shifting the paradigm of jazz.”
After a novel, two novellas and a bunch of short stories whose plots arose organically from whatever drove me to write them in the first place, a character burst from my head like Athena. Fully-formed and unique from any other character I’d written, I had no choice in bringing Jinxx to the page. Not to do so, and do so better than anything I’d ever done before, would be a failure I couldn’t live with.
Alas, despite my past writing, I hadn’t sat in front of the keyboard long enough dealing with a truly complex story like Jinxx’s to master imrpovising. A half-draft was thrown into the garbage with nothing saved. A first draft was completed, but lacked a sense of urgency. Jinxx did her duty gleefully, charming readers on every page, but my structure continually let her down. A second draft added tension and clarified her antagonists, but as I approached the ending, I knew I was no literary John Coltrane.
Outlining to the rescue?
I could keep pounding away at my manuscript like a junior varsity jazz band member, hoping my free-form improvisations would deliver me A Love Supreme. Eventually, I would likely reach something satisfactory, perhaps even brilliant-ish. I had a relatively well-developed technique for overcoming plotting problems: long walks and bike rides, free-associating on whatever wasn’t working. That had gotten me through two tricky love triangles and a heart-broken trip to Antarctica. However, as I sat looking at my table of contents, trying to figure out how to make sense of the ending, I knew it would take me years to give Jinxx the story she deserved if I didn’t try a new approach.
Enter outlining. In preparation for interviewing K.M. Weiland about typography and her novel, Behold the Dawn,, I also bought a copy of Outlining Your Novel: Map Your Way to Success. There’s a lot of specifics about outlining in Weiland’s book, but the important lesson for me was that the process wasn’t as rigid as I thought it was. I’d tried creating an outline of sorts before, but I hadn’t gotten messy.
K.M. Weiland, Outlining Your Novel, p.68.
On my first day of outlining, I created a hierarchy of parts and chapters in Curio, the general purpose mind-mapping, outlining and notecard program I’ve discussed before. My initial thought was to write a synapsis of each scene, but as I started to work on the ending, Part Seventeen, I found myself using the mind-mapping tools. Rather than describing what I’ve written, I realized asking questions was the more important task. Suddenly, I had a complex diagram of the chapter that begins my third act.
I can’t show you those mind-maps without giving too much away, but the above screenshot shows how I took my table of contents and began notating where acts began, how many pages each section currently takes and what the goal is, along with some preliminary questions I have about structure. It also exists to make Katie jealous, since her outlining is done on paper in handwriting she claims is almost illegible to herself. Ah, the joys of working digitally.
Even early in the process, I can confidently state outlining will streamline my process and—sigh—yes, improve my novel. I don’t want to admit this. I love improvising. I love making up structure as I go along. But with this novel—with multiple major themes, a bunch of magical, political and religious details I needed to make clear, and a character too important to treat casually—I must surrender.
The Forty-Seven Words of the Broken Girl is the first book of a duology about Jinxx. The second book involves so many layers of shifting loyalties, factions, and betrayals that even before I surrendered to outlining my current manuscript, I knew I’d have to grudgingly resort to it for the second. That said, until I try outlining a book without all of the details I arrived at via improvising, I’m still ambivalent about the process. It may have taken me all of five minutes of outlining to find an important discovery, but that was putting two pieces together that I found improvising a scene with Jinxx and her father. All of the key elements I’m working with in my outline came from improvising first and applying structure later. My imagination may be too attuned to watching characters interacting on a blank page to shift to notes and dialogue-free skeletons.
The one thing I am sure of is that by neglecting outlining for so long, I was depriving myself a valuable tool. Even if it becomes a post-production technique, I’ll be using it at some point for every novel I write from now on.