I’m a pantser, as most of you other writers know. I’ve done a fair amount of writing about being a pantser over the years. You can read the article I wrote featured on the Magill Review here.
Because I’m a pantser who abhors all things outline related, my stories come out a bit on the messy side in the first rough draft. I’m aiming for a particular goal when a great idea or plot point derails me, and I’m off chancing that rabbit until I sort out how it connects with the rest of the story.
Case in point, my WIP(work in progress): Icicle Rain started out as a revenge story. Two friends commit a crime. Deke goes to prison. Jonah accepts the mercy offered to him. Deke languishes in prison feeling betrayed by Jonah. He breaks out determined to get revenge. Now that I’ve grown more comfortable in my new world, gotten to know my characters better, and fleshed out the political lines, the story has turned into an epic war story. (Surprised?) The kernel of the revenge story is still there, it’s just no longer the main driving force.
Let’s look under the hood of novel-writing. Behind every well-written story is a complex timeline of events. One the reader may never ever see. It lists out everything from hair and eye color to seasons and day-by-day actions. It tracks where and when each major player is at all times regardless of whether it’s a scene in the book or not. It tracks weather. It makes sure everyone ends up at the right place at the right time. It even tracks chapter breakdown and has character portraits. (A writer has to remember who has a big nose and who doesn’t.)
So, each morning as I add a new scene, or edit an old one, or both, I make little adjustments to my Timeline page. When I first started writing, I wouldn’t start the timeline until I finished the first rough draft. But as I developed stronger writing muscles and my stories became more complex, I began my Timelines whenever my brain became confused and muddled by facts.
With Icicle Rain, I started the Timeline at the same time I started the book. I had three or four characters in my head, one or two magical abilities, a couple of scenes, and an undeveloped setting. Over the next few weeks, that grew into a handful of chapters, ten or so characters, and four days of plot points.
For the first time, I’m recording events on my Timeline as they happen in the book. I’m adding and adjusting the Timeline as I add and adjust the story. I always make sure the Timeline file is open alongside the story file.
What has this done for me?
- First, it’s let me see my progress as a writer. I believe having the Timeline open from the beginning shows a level of commitment and professionalism. It shows my growing confidence in my storytelling and writing abilities. Before I would have just written, let the chips fall where they may, and sorted it out later. Now I know what editing is like and I’m trying to save myself some work up front in the initial rough draft. I think, and hope, that this is growth in my ability to write. I know what’s coming when the books done, so I plan for it now.
- Second, it’s let me watch the world grow. This is a new world, a new writing style, a new voice for me. No matter what genre or age group I write, I have signature elements: darkness, damage to the hero, healing heroines, grace, mercy, hope, friendship, and ultimately light overcoming the darkness in the end after a long hard road. But this brave new world is not modern, it’s futuristic, it pulls from my other world, for sure, but it’s very different. It’s a fairy tale. This has allowed me to be more poetic in my descriptions, mythical in my creations, and mysterious with my magic. Those of you who have read any of my other stories will recognize some echoes from those worlds, but seen in a new light. The Timeline allows me to see the world grow in a more truncated format than the chapter-by-chapter story.
- Third, it’s helped me be aware of timeframe conflicts earlier on. Instead of writing, writing, writing, reaching plot point 24 and realizing nothing is coming together correctly, I’m on plot point 4 making sure everything’s moving forward at the right pace. When I see they aren’t, I adjust either the story or the Timeline. This gives me a greater sense of control and helps me see where I need to go.
How is this not outlining the story? It is in a way. It’s outlining in hindsight.
Gamers are familiar with the Fog of War.
Any story I’ve ever written has a goal. I’m either working towards a scene or exploring two characters. But, I still don’t know what twist and turns the story is going to take. Icicle Rain still has big dark patches. I know how I think I’d like it to end at this point, but I’m not sure of the exact path to get there. I know what I want to happen in the next few days to each of the main characters, but I’m not sure how that’s all going to play out. Keeping a Timeline as I go let’s me see where I’ve been but leaves the future dim.
And, I like it that way.
I like the not knowing because it lets me hear the story for the first time. I get to be sad, happy, touched, and angry as I’m writing. I don’t know yet how all the threads weave together. It’s exciting and motivating just like when I read a book I’ve never read before. I can’t wait to pick it up and find out what’s going to happen and how it’s all going to come together. It keeps me turning the pages. It keeps me typing and dreaming. That’s why I’m a pantser, a reverse outliner, a Timeliner.