Plotting by the Seat of my Pants

Should you plot your stories with meticulous care or should you write spontaneously and see where the muse takes you? I know writers who have an almost religious devotion to each approach and there are certainly pros and cons to each approach. My ability to plot stories before I write them has helped me make sales before I’ve taken the time to actually compose them. In this case, plotting can effectively become a pitch. An editor might solicit an idea from me. Afterwards, I go away and think about it for a time and then throw some ideas about how I would handle the story to the editor. The editor then gives me feedback on what works and what doesn’t work. This can be a very exciting process and it’s one I recently went through with an anthology editor and it’s also how I created the outline for my novel The Astronomer’s Crypt. Hopefully I’ll be able to share news about the story I just wrote before the year is out.

Those who write by the seat of their pants argue that you don’t always know your characters when you start. The more you write, the more you understand their motivations. If you plot, there’s a danger you force your characters to take actions that aren’t true to them as they’ve developed. That’s a valid point, and one of the ways I counter that is to treat my outline more as a set of goals than as a detailed roadmap. For a short story, it tells me what my characters are going to do to set them off in a direction. It suggests complications they may encounter along the way. I don’t always write an ending. Instead, I think of ways the story might end depending on who the characters turn out to be. It’s exciting when I get to the end and the characters do something I don’t quite expect because its right for them. That happened to me this last week and I like the ending much better than any of the ones I actually plotted in advance.

In a novel, the plot points are a little more defined, but again, I try to keep them general enough that they serve as complications the characters encounter. There is a challenge if the characters diverge far enough from the original conception that they don’t encounter the complications laid out for them. At that point, there’s no choice but to revisit the outline. Figure out what path the characters are on and see whether there’s a way to get them to encounter the original complications or see if you just have to create new ones altogether.

Now, if an outline serves as the basis for a pitch, what happens if the story becomes very different from the outline? This is something I don’t worry about too much for two reasons. First off, good editors are more concerned about finding good stories than assuring your story perfectly matched the pitch you gave them. If the story works and doesn’t violate any guidelines, you’ve still got a really good chance of selling the story to an editor who solicited one from you and liked the pitch. Second, when you make your pitch, you’re not likely to give the editor your entire outline. Mostly you’re laying out the initial situation and the problem the characters are going to be faced with along the way. If you resolve those issues in a different way than you envisioned, no problem. The editor doesn’t necessarily know that. Again, what the editor will care about is whether or not the story works.

For pantsers, I recommend trying your hand at plotting a story or two. It could prove a lucrative and useful skill down the road. For plotters, I recommend leaving enough room in your outline to let your characters breathe and do things you didn’t quite expect. You might be surprised at the result!

The Pointing Dance

This week, I have been engaged in an important, albeit tedious activity at the WIYN 3.5-meter telescope. I have been building pointing maps. Telescopes are large, bulky machines that have to point with extreme precision and track the almost literal clockwork motion of the sky. They are engineered carefully, but like any machine they are subject to wear and tear. What’s more, to keep getting the best science, telescopes have to be upgraded from time to time. This changes the telescope’s behavior with time.

The WIYN Telescope ready for a night of collecting pointing data

Because the Earth turns constantly, the sky overhead appears to move at a constant rate. To keep objects in the telescope’s field of view, the earliest telescopes were literally mounted to clocks that moved at the sky’s rate. To make these work, you have to imagine a line in the sky that’s a projection of the Earth’s equator. Then you have to tilt your tracking axis to be at the same angle as that imaginary line in the sky. Another way to think about it is that here at Kitt Peak National Observatory, we’re at 32 degrees north latitude, so you have to tilt your telescope 32 degrees up from the southern horizon to track the sky.

Now, if you look at the photo of the WIYN Telescope above, you’ll notice that it’s mounted flat to the floor and it’s not tipped to match our latitude. That’s because it’s expensive to engineer big heavy telescopes so they can be tipped up at an angle. So, the WIYN telescope actually has to track the sky in two axes: azimuth and elevation, kind of like a radar mount. To track the sky, we have to use computers to adjust the tracking rates constantly. The computers only know how fast to track in each axis if they know where we’re pointing in the sky. If there’s an error in pointing, there’s also an error in tracking.

When I tell people I’m a writer and an astronomer who operates telescopes, it’s often assumed that I have lots of free time on quiet nights at the telescope to write. That doesn’t happen on nights of pointing maps. Instead, it’s a busy night of pointing to a star, noting how far off it was from where we expected it and then moving on again. We do this for anywhere from 75 to 100 stars with a telescope like WIYN and the exercise takes about half the night.

The way pointing and tracking are interconnected also make me think of how I use outlines as a writer. With the telescope, we can imagine that I point to a star and correct the pointing at one spot, then let the telescope track. If the computer thinks the star will be a different point in an hour than it really will be, it will track toward that different point and it won’t follow the star. You need to know where the star really will be in an hour.

For me, an outline is like a little like a pointing map. It tells me where the plot is at point A and it tells me where I want to be once I reach point B. With the telescope, it better be pointed at the star at both points A and B. An outline is more flexible. It’s more like a guideline. I try to listen to my characters when I write my outlines and make sure that points A and B make sense for them. However, sometimes as I write, I find characters do things I didn’t quite imagine the first time. The beauty of an outline is I can change point B. The challenge is that when I do, I realize I may also have to change points C, D, and E as the plot progresses!

I’ve been having a lot of fun rewriting my novel, The Pirates of Sufiro for its 25th anniversary release. I actually wrote some of the original draft when the WIYN telescope was first being built in the 1990s. Rewriting the book is the ultimate case of writing to an outline, especially since I don’t want to change it so much that people can’t pick up older editions of the sequels and follow them. I’m expanding the story and letting my characters breathe more. I’m letting them guide me and asking if what they did entirely made sense for those characters. I’m taking them from point A to point B. Those points can’t really deviate, but I do allow myself to add points A.1, A.2, and A.3 to better explain how they moved from point A to point B.

You can read chapters from the previous edition and see how I’m following my version of a “pointing map” by following me Patreon. My site is at: http://www.patreon.com/davidleesummers

A Full Head of Steam

I just spent a busy weekend tearing my latest novel-in-progress apart, putting it back together and then moving forward again. Basically, I had a couple of story threads that just weren’t working for me and I needed to figure out what to do about them. Fortunately, the fixes weren’t too difficult and when I made them, I was able to continue the story easily.

I like to outline my projects. The reason is that I sometimes have to write them a little bit here and a little bit there when I get the opportunity. The outline serves as my road map to help me remember the plot threads that run through my books. That said, I think it’s important to let the characters grow and develop naturally. The issue I had to address was essentially a case of the outline and the characters wanting to go in different directions. Even though I believe in outlining, I also believe it’s important to be flexible. My outlines have a habit of changing considerably from the point I begin a project to the point I end it.

What’s more, in the process of tearing my novel-in-progress apart and putting it back together, I discovered a new title I liked. The novel in question is the sequel to my wild west steampunk adventure Owl Dance. I’ve been using Wolf Posse as a working title, but the title Lightning Wolves started speaking to me. Just as a little background, the lightning wolves are a set of machines built during the course of the novel. The wolf posse of the earlier working title were those who used the lightning wolves to bring others to justice.

I took the title choices to Facebook and asked for people to comment on them. Lightning Wolves was hands-down the most popular of the two titles. Although I have essentially decided to make this change, I would be happy to hear your thoughts on the two titles, especially if you haven’t already weighed in on Facebook. Which of the two titles do you like and why?

Keplers Dozen

I’ll wrap up this week’s post with a couple of updates. We’ve just finished edits on the anthology A Kepler’s Dozen: Thirteen Stories About Distant Worlds That Really Exist. I co-edited the anthology with Steve B. Howell, project scientist for the NASA’s Kepler space probe, which is looking for Earth-like planets around other stars. The book is being sent to press this week. You can learn more and pre-order a copy at http://www.hadrosaur.com/kepler.html.

Now that A Kepler’s Dozen is nearly finished, I’m turning my attention to finishing the second special steampunk issue of Tales of the Talisman. The layout is nearing completion and I’m just waiting for illustrations. The issue features stories by O.M. Grey, Douglas Empringham, Christine Morgan, and Lyn McConchie. There’s also poetry by such luminaries as Denise Dumars, Simon Perchik, N.E. Taylor and W.C. Roberts. This is an awesome issue and I hope to get it to press just as soon as possible.

Outlining Success

One question I have been asked in some recent discussions is whether I’m an outliner or a pantser. In other words, do I outline my stories and books or do I write by the seat of my pants? Over the years, I have written both ways, and I have even combined the two approaches. These days, though, I’m primarily an outliner.

In the most recent issue of the SFWA Bulletin there was an excellent article by C.J. Henderson that dared authors to consider whether or not they were ready for success. People who want to be writers often hear how they need to be prepared to face rejection and failure, but what happens when you’ve stood up to all that and suddenly find yourself with a contract for a book you haven’t written? Part of my personal answer to that question is to be an outliner. Admittedly, this might not work for everyone, but it’s a technique that works for me.

You see, there have been two cases where I tried to write novels by the seat of my pants and failed in my first attempt. The first was Heirs of the New Earth. The second was The Solar Sea. In the first case I wrote myself into a corner and I could see no way out, so I set the novel aside and wrote Vampires of the Scarlet Order instead. In the second case, I was getting bogged down in plot and character details that were neat, but didn’t drive the story forward at all. I ended up abandoning that version of the manuscript altogether.

The problem is, when confronted with a contract for a novel or a series of novels, I can’t afford to write myself into a corner or spend too much time on details that don’t matter to the story’s ultimate outcome. Sorting out the major plot points, understanding the novel’s direction, and turning that into an outline is one of the best ways for me to avoid that trap.

With that in mind, let me present some outlining techniques that have worked for me.

  1. Outline on note cards instead of using the computer. Each note card contains exactly one plot or character point. This allows you to shuffle the points and add new points as necessary until you create a strong plot with good character growth. This is exactly the method I used to get out of the corner I had written myself into with Heirs of the New Earth.
  2. Be mindful of your characters and their reactions as you outline. When you create a plot point, think about how all the affected characters will react. Sometimes you’ll find your story comes to life even as you’re writing the outline. In this way, you preserve some of the organic essence you can get when writing by the seat of your pants.
  3. Don’t outline too tightly. Restrict your outline to simple plot points. This gives your imagination some freedom as you’re writing.
  4. Don’t be afraid to deviate from your outline. If your characters say or do something surprising while you’re writing, let them. Feel free to explore a subplot or a ramification. Your outline is a map, but having a map doesn’t mean there there aren’t multiple ways to reach your objective.

Just to note, I ultimately did write The Solar Sea from scratch by the seat of my pants during the National Novel Writing Month in 2004. So, I’m by no means against being a pantser. That said, I outlined both Owl Dance and my vampire novel Dragon’s Fall. Outlines are useful tools for marking the trail. Don’t be afraid to deviate from the trail periodically and explore the surrounding countryside, though! The outline only exists to help you find your way back to your objective.

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