29 August 2015

OPs and No-OPs



by John M. Floyd



I have read with great interest the recent SleuthSayers columns by Melissa, Jan, and others on the subject of outlining. It's a fascinating topic, and at the risk of beating a dead horse, I'd like to offer a few more views.

First, let me--like Donald Trump--clearly state my position. I always outline my fiction. Having said that, I should point out that I don't usually outline it on paper. I write mostly short stories, so I outline them mentally. But believe me, the result is still an outline, and I depend on that pre-determined structure to guide me through the writing of the story.

Decisions, decisions

I should mention several other things as well.  The first is, I don't choose to outline rather than fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants. For me, it's not a choice. I outline because I have to--I couldn't do it any other way. Well, I suppose I could, but if I did, it would take me much longer because I'd go down all kinds of wrong paths and have to constantly retrace my steps and start over again. Life's too short for that.

Another thing. Although I always have an outline in my mind when I begin writing (in fact I never write a word until I'm pretty sure I know where the story's going), I often wind up changing the outline during the writing process. Sometimes I think of a better ending, or an additional character or two, or a reversal in the middle that adds something to the plot, etc. So my outline, unlike my head, isn't rock-hard. But I do have to have a map spread out on the dashboard before I start my trip.

And yes, I do plan things all the way to the end. I don't necessarily plot backwards from the end, as I've heard some folks do, but I have to know the conclusion before I begin. Again, it might change during the course of the journey--I might travel a little farther than I'd thought I would, or make detours, or stop a little sooner than planned--but I feel that knowing that destination before I start out helps keep me on course throughout the story.

Sneak peeks

Unlike my friend Janice Law--who is a wonderful writer, by the way--it doesn't bore me to "know" ahead of time what I'll be writing about. I've also never felt that that prior knowledge stifles my creativity. Instead, it gives me a feeling of security, an assurance that I won't stray too far off the path. Besides, the process of pre-plotting is probably (can you say "alliteration"?) the most enjoyable part of the writing experience, for me. I love coming up with the storyline. Since it's done in my head and not on paper, I don't go into painful detail with this mental preview, but I do spend a lot of time putting it together, and--again--when it's done, the framework is there for me to build on.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying outlining is the only way to go, or that you should do it. Or even try to do it. In fact, I agree with another comment Janice made recently, in a different post: she said every writer must do whatever works best for him or her. We're all different. I think the need to outline or not is already wired into our brains, and that circuitry would be difficult--maybe impossible--to change. Some of us are always early to appointments and some are always late; some are night-owls, some are early risers; some of us squeeze the toothpaste tube from the end and some don't, or prefer the toilet paper hanging forward over the roll instead of backward, and so forth. Same thing applies here. You're an outline person or you're not (author James Scott Bell says you're either an OP or a No-OP). I've even heard that engineers, programmers, accountants, etc., are more likely than "ordinary" people to be OPs. Maybe that's my excuse.

Truth be told, I respect and envy those writers who don't find it necessary to plan things out beforehand, who just sit down and start typing away with no idea where things are going from there. How convenient that must be. I also envy their confidence, that things will turn out well. That ain't me. If I did that, I'm fairly confident things would not turn out well. And I confess that I find myself a little suspicious of famous writers who insist in interviews that they never, ever outline their fiction in any way or to any degree. My response would be that veteran writers have been through the process so many times that indeed they probably don't need a blueprint anymore in order to build the house. The plan is probably in their heads whether they realize it or not.

The same old song-and-dance

You know what I'm going to ask. Are you an outliner or a seat-of-the-pantser? Do you ever go halfway, and plan only the beginning, or a few plot points, and then free-wheel the rest? Have you ever tried or seen the need to change your approach? If you're a No-OP, do you ever find yourself taking the wrong path, maybe to a blind alley? If you're an OP, is your outline on paper or just in your mind?

Either way, I wish you good writing and successful narratives.

And don't touch my toothpaste tube!



NOTE: My friend Art Taylor, who I'm pleased to announce will be permanently joining us at SleuthSayers in October, will be guest-posting in my slot on Saturday, September 5. I don't know if he's an outliner or not, but he's a fantastic writer. Be sure to stop in for his column next week.







21 comments:

janice law said...

No argument that outlining works most successfully for you!
I'm guessing that it is almost essential for some mysteries-especially the classic type with a clever plot twist or anything dependent on rail road timetables- or now, I guess, the mysteries of the computer.

I'm curious to know if you were subjected to the traditional training in outlines like me- starting with Roman numerals and working your way down though the alphabet twi- caps then lower case and ending with numerals. I blame that entirely for my dislike of outlines.

A good piece.

John Floyd said...

Thanks, Janice! Yep, I was trained in the I, II, III, A, B, C, etc., outline structure, but I never actually imagine those "sections" in the outlines I come up with for my fiction. I just put together a beginning, the scenes (at least most of the scenes, if the story's a long one), and the ending. It might be more accurate, in my case, to say I come up with a very rough draft of every story, start to finish--usually in my head instead of on paper--before I ever start writing. And I seem to think more in a three-act-structure way than in a section 1, 2, 3, etc., way, if that makes any sense.

I meant what I said about NOT outlining--I like the idea of beginning only with a vague premise, or an interesting character, or a setting, or a plot, and actually starting writing without being sure where the story will take me. I wish I could do that. But the reality is, I can't seem to produce good stories that way.

Barb Goffman said...

I call myself a plantser. I plot at a high level. I know the beginning, I know the end, and I know the high points of what will happen in the story before I begin. I liken it to a cross-country drive. I know I'll leave from NY and go to LA, and on the way I'll stop in Cleveland and Denver, but otherwise, the rest of the route will be decided on the drive.

John Floyd said...

Barb, I like that term. What you do sounds pretty much like what I do. One of the things that I think makes me (and you, too, maybe) different from many writers is that I truly must know the ending beforehand. I don't think I've ever successfully begun a story when I didn't know where/how it would end up. I wonder if that's the main difference between an outliner and a seat-of-the-pantser. I guess it could be.

Eve Fisher said...

I'm with you, Barb: I know the beginning, and I usually know the end. Although sometimes the journey will throw a monkey-wrench in it and I find out that someone else did it, which... oh, well. I live with my characters, and they're a strange bunch.

Melodie Campbell said...

John, I work in a similar way to you. I always know my ending before I start, but I might take detours on the way to it. Or, I might even devise a better ending along the way. But the path is lighted. It's not dark.
I've tried writing crime from a "great idea - don't know where I'm going with it" start, and invariable end up hitting a wall about half way through, where the motivation isn't strong enough, or the risk isn't big enough.
I can't be the person who outlines every chapter meticulously, in that then I would get bored. But I must know where I'm going.

B.K. Stevens said...

John, I'm impressed that you can do your outlining in your head. I have to do it on paper; otherwise, my thoughts wander off in unproductive directions. Before I attempt any sort of an outline, I usually take notes--many, many pages of notes--to think possibilities through on paper; often, the notes are longer than the finished story (sometimes much longer, if I'm having trouble making the plot work). Like you, I often depart from my plans when new possibilities occur to me while I'm writing. Occasionally, I've even changed the ending. I find that I do more planning when I'm writing whodunits, rather than other sorts of mysteries. Before I start writing, I want to be sure that I have enough evidence in place, so that my detective will be able to build a convincing case at the end.

John Floyd said...

Thanks, ladies, for the comments! Eve, I probably do more outlining (if we even want to call it that--maybe it's "pre-planning") than you do, less than Bonnie does, and about the same as Melodie.

Bonnie, I think you're right that whodunits require more prior knowledge before the writing begins. And I too make some notes to refer to later--but the overall structure is just in my head. BE AWARE, though, that most of what I write is short stories. I've done two novels and a couple of dozen really really long stories, and for those I usually jot down scenes on paper beforehand.

Melodie, I've heard some novelists say they do outlines that are several thousand words in length, containing extremely detailed chapter summaries. To me, that sounds more like a first draft.

Eve, I too have done a few stories in which a different character winds up being the antagonist than the one I'd planned. But not many.

Herschel Cozine said...

Thought provoking article, John. I don't outline, at least not consciously, when I start writing.
I am intrigued by opening sentences, experiment with them, and take it from there. Sounds crazy, but somehow it works, (although I must admit, not all the time!) I am sure there is more to it than that, and at least subconsciously I have a story in mind. Who knows? What I am certain of is that I cannot work from a written outline, find it too restrictive, especially for fiction.

Speaking of opening sentences, my favorite is "It was the best of times..." Not necessarily the best book ever written, but one is hard pressed to find a better opening.

John Floyd said...

Thanks for the insight, Herschel. Once again, I envy those who can do what you do, and start with nothing but an intriguing opening sentence or thought. The idea that possibly you do have the "flow" of the narrative available subconsciously beforehand is interesting--I wonder if that's really the case. Most interesting, though, is the fact that--as has been said--almost every one of us falls into one or the other of the two camps: (1) plot most of it out ahead of time or (2) don't. I find the whole "outlining vs. not-outlining" issue one of the most fascinating things about fiction writing and fiction writers.

Dixon Hill said...

I know I call myself a pantser, but the truth is what I do is much closer to what you described. I definitely understand where I expect to work to end, and I have several definite scenes in my mind, which I might think of as way-stations through which I know the story needs to pass. finding my way into the opening is often one of the most difficult parts for me, because I know it has to hit the right note to ring or resonate properly with the ending at the conclusion.I almost never put anything down on paper, except for creating a flowchart, which I have used for some very complex plots. The the flowchart acted like a map in my mind and gave me a touchstone that I could refer to when beginning a new day's writing on that project. I find that using A text outline causes me problems, because -- I suspect, at least -- I psychologically feel as if I have already told the story. I'm afraid that this feeling relieve the pressure that I need to feel in order to keep writing; essentially my motivation evaporates.

Dixon Hill said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dixon Hill said...

I know I call myself a pantser, but the truth is what I do is much closer to what you described. I definitely understand where I expect to work to end, and I have several definite scenes in my mind, which I might think of as way-stations through which I know the story needs to pass. finding my way into the opening is often one of the most difficult parts for me, because I know it has to hit the right note to ring or resonate properly with the ending at the conclusion.I almost never put anything down on paper, except for creating a flowchart, which I have used for some very complex plots. The the flowchart acted like a map in my mind and gave me a touchstone that I could refer to when beginning a new day's writing on that project. I find that using A text outline causes me problems, because -- I suspect, at least -- I psychologically feel as if I have already told the story. I'm afraid that this feeling relieve the pressure that I need to feel in order to keep writing; essentially my motivation evaporates.

Dixon Hill said...

Please excuse my oddly phrased comment, and double posting. I was using my cell to post my comment and things got messed up. Can't figure out how to delete or correct without making things worse.

John Floyd said...

Dixon, the word "outline" can mean different things to different folks. As you and Janice have both said, the traditional outline, with numbered (or lettered) sections, is something I think very few fiction writers would want to do, in planning what they're about to write. I use the term loosely, and my point is that I have to have some kind of story structure in my head in order to write effectively.

As for getting bored with what I'm writing, I find that that happens to me when/if I discuss my work-in-progress with anyone else. I feel it's always a good idea to have a friend (or spouse, or whatever) read your work before it's submitted to an editor/publisher, but I don't enjoy sharing it with others, verbally or in written form, before I'm finished with it--or even when it's just in the idea phase. I have writer friends who love to do just that, though, so I suppose this is just another of my quirks.

Jeff Baker said...


My outlining has come in handy for when I write during my lunch break on the job----having most of it plotted out means I can write out whichever chunk of my current work in progress I can do at the moment. That's progress!

John Floyd said...

That IS progress, Jeff. I feel the same way.

I've probably mentioned this before, but in every writing course I've taught--2 hours per class, 42 classes a year, for 14 years now--I've asked the students how many are outliners and how many are pantsers. It's almost always half-and-half. An unscientific sampling for sure, but interesting.

Leigh Lundin said...

John, I work much like you (although far less organized and prolific!) I build the story in my head and sometimes make notes and charts so I don't forget… I learned that the hard way.

Bell's remarks apply to me. We both know really, really bad seat-of-the-pants programmers who sit down to code without a plan in their head… and it shows in the end result. I realized the planning that was important in software architecture worked for me in fiction. Even better: Because it's not rocket science, a coding error in EQMM doesn't blow up a multi-million dollar space launch– unless we want it to.

John Floyd said...

Leigh, I really do think our computer background plays a part in the fact that we're both outliners. I simply don't know how to do it any other way.

Art Taylor said...

Hey, John --
Thanks for the great post--and for the quick shout-out at column's end about my appearance next week! A high bar here, and hope I don't fall short myself.

Like you, I tend to do a lot of planning in my head before I ever set down a word on paper. I've had a couple of stories that I've played around with mentally for a long time before ever getting "started" on them, and while there can be surprises along the way in that drafting stage and sometimes even bigger changes at the revision stage, it's that mental planning that gives me the direction I need.

Interesting to read the other comments here as well, different people's approaches. Catching up on reading and stuff here at end of weekend. School starting tomorrow--and too much mental energy going toward THAT planning, outlining lesson plans, etc. etc.

Art

John Floyd said...

Thanks, Art. Yep, all kinds of different ways to do this, but it sounds as if you and I work in much the same way.

REALLY looking forward to having you on board here regularly, beginning in October--and to seeing your column here next week as well.