Every now and then, this quote of JRR Tolkien shows up as part of a meme that claims that all great novels are the product of inspiration, not planning and outlines. Not surprisingly, professional writers have a technical term for that theory. I’d share it with you, but it involves words I don’t use. No outline, just starting to write and letting your story dictate where you go is not the hallmark of a great novel. It’s the beginning of an unfinished novel. Because while it’s true not all who wander are lost, it’s also true that a journey without a destination never ends.
I’ll be getting back to what JRR Tolkien was really doing in a bit.
The opposite end of the outline spectrum is, I think, well represented by K.M. Weiland. I have read two of her books, the paranormal romance Dreamlander and the writing how-to Outlining Your Novel. (I read the second because I was researching writing methods while working on my MFA and read the first because I wanted to see how a novel by a person who wrote like that read.) Weiland also writes historical, dieselpunk, and Christian romances – but her primary focus these days seems to be teaching writers to outline. Weiland advocates everything – every bit of character development, every word of dialog, every setting, every action, everything – be thoroughly and formally outlined before the first word of the novel or short story is written. As I recall in Outlining Your Novel she states she never writes anything – including blog posts – without first developing an outline.
The reason she outlines everything down to the heroine’s dental work, brussels sprouts fetish, and stance on solid waste management is it saves time. That sounds counterintuitive, but what she means is, if something new occurs to you or you discover a problem with the plot while planning things down the nth detail, it’s far easier and quicker to change an outline than it is to rewrite a manuscript. Because once you’ve hammered everything out in your outline, writing the novel itself is just a matter of typing up an expanded version of the outline.
As is common among outline-only writers, Weiland refers to writing without a detailed outline as “pantsing” – a pejorative derived from the aviation expression “flying by the seat of your pants.” Before the development of instruments that worked on airplanes pilots navigated and made decisions about altitude and airspeed, etc., by observing their surroundings and using their own judgment. In the 1930s, when radios and compasses were becoming common on planes, a skilled and experienced pilot who could navigate as well or better without instruments was said to fly by the seat of his pants. When outliners say “pantsing,” however, they don’t mean a professional effectively applying skills earned through years of experience, they mean someone starting out with no idea where they’re going or how to get there. This assertion inspires me to other words I don’t use.
(On the other hand, in researching her work I discovered Weiland’s dieselpunk heroine is named Jael, so we have more in common than I thought.)
Of course every novel has a frame, a skeleton, an outline that holds everything together on on which everything else hangs. That frame can and will grow and change as the novel progresses, as the writer becomes more comfortable with the characters, or discovers new possibilities within the plot, but it’s there. And, to exactly the same degree that it's true all nine-year-olds wear size nine shoes, the frame is the same for every writer.
My first love was theatre – I wanted to be an actor and playwright. Turned out I was really bad at one and stunningly mediocre at the other, so I became a photographer (because one of the few things all the actors around be would pay for was new headshots). When I began writing fiction, a few playwrighterly habits informed my method. The most pervasive – or perhaps most noticeable – is dialog. My first draft of every scene is always – or almost always – dialog. Actors on the stage trading well-timed lines. Later the director in me will add blocking and business for them to do while they speak, but I first see the scene through the back and forth of words.That “scene” is telling – because my stories are always told in scenes and acts – I’ve never written a chapter. Writing in scenes lends itself to storyboarding – which makes sense since storyboards were developed for keeping track of scenes in a play or movie. My early organizational notes or brainstorming sessions always involved boxes with circles and arrows on graph paper.
I still do that on occasion, when I need to work through complex plot developments that involve many moving parts, or when I’m roughing in a short story on spec. But writing media tie-in reshaped my process.
There are variations between intellectual properties and editors, but broadly speaking, in media tie-in writing the project editor puts out a description of the project and invites writers to submit pitches. The pitch is a paragraph or so snapshot of how the writer would handle the project. For short pieces, under 20,000 words, the pitch is often enough. For novels, if the editor likes the pitch, they’ll usually ask for a treatment. A treatment is essentially a brief narrative outline explaining the high points of the novel’s arc. Treatment lengths vary and are often a function of the complexity of the project and how familiar the editor is with the writer’s work, but for a 90,000 word novel, a 4,000 to 5,000 word treatment would be about average. I’m a minimalist when it comes to treatments – the longest I've written (for the 93,000 word Wolf Hunters) was 3,600 words. On the other hand, my friend Ilsa Bick had a reputation at Pocket Books for submitting 30,000 word treatments for 90,000 word Star Trek projects. Where I once covered graph paper with graphics, I’m now more likely to write myself a treatment – a reminder of where I meant to be going that usually includes suggestions for alternate routes.
Most of the professional writers I know, those who produce novels regularly, use some variation of this treatment method. They know where they’re going and, broadly, how they’re going to get there – their map may be a few sentences or a few pages or a few thousand words or all in their heads, but it’s the frame, the spine, on which hey hang their story. And from that point, like the skilled and savvy veteran pilots for whom the phrase was coined, they take their experience and craftsmanship and – keeping a sharp eye on conditions around them and developing ahead – fly by the seat of their pants.
I spent one writers’ workshop, many decades ago, with David Weber, whose approach was significantly different. For each of his Honor Harrington novels (and other novels, I assume, but at the time he was revising Honor Among Enemies, aka HH6) he wrote a 20,000 (or so) word “bible” for the novel. Major players, politics, worlds, how the war (which ran through all the novels) was going in areas not addressed in the novel, etc. In other words, he had no real outline for the novel, but he knew exactly what was happening where and when and could weave it in without having to pause in his storytelling to figure out what made sense in the larger scheme of things.
Which brings us back to JRR Tolkien and his outlineless Lord of the Rings.
JRR Tolkien began inventing the world of the Middle Earth – complete with languages, mythologies, and cultures – in 1917. He was a linguist and a student of both theology and mythology, and he devoted a lot of energy and time to creating a world out of the things he knew and loved. In 1932 he wrote The Hobbit. No outline, but fifteen years of thinking about the characters, mapping their world, developing and refining every aspect of their personalities and cultures made them all so familiar to him that he didn’t need one. He then spent another fifteen years writing (and rewriting because his friend CS Lewis kept demanding better of him) The Lord of the Rings.So, if you're willing to devote thirty+ years to the project, chances are you, too, can produce a novel powerful enough to shape generations of western fantasy without an outline.
So what’s the best way to do it? For you, I have no idea. For me, that’s still evolving - it's something I'm still discovering and refining. Which is exactly as it should be.