So Much for Being in Control

First, find out what your hero wants, then just follow him!

~Ray Bradbury


I never thought I would be a seat of the pants writer. Not me. I outlined everything. I had to be in control, needing to know what came next in the story. In as much detail as possible. No rabbit trails for me. Sometimes, I think we obsessive-compulsive people (and we know who we are) are the most creative in the world. We’re always coming up with new ideas to keep ourselves organized, to ward off threats to our existence. And I make lists of them, so outlining comes naturally to me.


For one novel, I spent over three weeks outlining. It was one of the most detailed I ever did. For my current work, I spent two weeks outlining, then another two weeks developing characters. And I’m planning a research field trip with my questions and topics outlined by category. I’m thinking I need to add more days to it.


But then I got itchy. I had all this material, all these ideas. I wanted to start writing the story. Let me correct that. My characters wanted to start writing the story. Like a box of toy soldiers, they clamored to be let out, to start living their lives. Think of a dozen new golf balls winging around a tile bathroom.


At times, they sounded like a bunch of pre-schoolers trapped inside on a stormy day. So I decided to let them out. Better to let them play in the mud than listen to their whining.


So out they came. In the beginning, we followed the outline and the story progressed smoothly. But, little-by-little, things began to happen which weren’t in the outline. A minor character showed up and provoked the heroine into showing more of her personality, more of her story knot, more of her values.


A secondary character dropped hints of a history of conflict with the heroine but won’t tell me what it is. And the heroine tells me she has no idea what the other character is talking about and changes the subject.


What I had planned and outlined to be a nice romantic subplot has turned nasty. The conflict is great but totally unexpected. However, reading what came before now shows me it was inevitable.


So I’ve turned into a seat of the pantser, sort of. It feels very uncomfortable. Must be that whole control thing I can’t let go of. At least the characters are nice enough to let me look at the outline every once in a while. With the understanding I can change the outline to match the story, not the other way around.

12 Responses to So Much for Being in Control

  1. Lori Freeland June 27, 2012 at 2:49 pm #

    Welcome to my book! My first book turned out to be the third in the series and now I have two written and the third rough drafted. The story has changed a lot since I started 18 months ago and I’m having to go back and outline a little to pull it together. Something between neurotic planning and running wild the perfect book will emerge!

  2. Patricia PacJac Carroll June 27, 2012 at 2:56 pm #

    LOL I love it when the story comes alive. Characters take off on their own and throw you clues so you’ll catch on. It’s what I love most about the process. Let’s me know something far bigger than me is involved. Yes, I am a sotp.

    Happy Writing,
    and hang onto your hat.

  3. TNeal June 27, 2012 at 5:22 pm #

    Henry, your topic is a difficult one to understand if you’re not an author. Readers figure you, the author, must pull the strings. But other authors know exactly what you mean. Writing has helped me as well understand the whole “how can God be sovereign and people have free will” question much better.

    By the way, I’m nearing the end of the CWG Apprentice course and found the plotting lesson enlightening. Until that moment, I would have said I’m pure pantser but it moved me closer to the plotter side of writing.–Tom

  4. Henry June 27, 2012 at 10:02 pm #

    Thanks, Tom.
    I am still a plotter and outliner, despite what my characters may tell you. The lesson I’ve learned is that, while I must plot and outline, I can trust my characters to be who they are and to live out the story in their own ways. My characters frequently tell me, as Bette Davis once said, “Hang on, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.” Oh, but it is so satisfying at the end.

    Congratulations on finishing Apprentice. Are going to do Journeyman?

  5. Henry June 27, 2012 at 10:04 pm #

    Thanks, Patiricia. I’m not completely converted yet but, at least, I’ve reached a compromise with my characters.

  6. Henry June 27, 2012 at 10:05 pm #

    Outlining provides that nice tree to hang things on while the story evolves.

  7. DiAne Gates June 28, 2012 at 2:15 am #

    Henry,loved talking with you at NTCW Conference last week. And, welcome to my world. If ADD had been diagnosed when I was in school I would have been first in line.

    Outlining is my worst nightmare. One teacher told me “If you’d learn to outline it would save you yards of time.” So much for saving time.

    Perhaps with more exposure to you plotters and outliners my brain will shift to the middle instead of hanging onto the ragged right edge.

    I enjoyed hearing what your characters are doing to you. It’s fun, isn’t it?


  8. Rachelle June 28, 2012 at 7:57 pm #

    Love it – I’m a blueprint person, I guess you could say. I love to plot out the story, but then I let the characters fill in the parts I don’t know. And, if they want to change the end, they get to. My book had a totally different end on the first draft than what it has now. Funny how that works! That’s what I love about writing – it’s always an adventure!

  9. Henry June 28, 2012 at 8:14 pm #

    Rachelle, I think we have a lot in common in our approach to writing. Right now, for example, I’m having a hard time getting my lead character to say goodbye to a minor character so I can get her on the train out of time. Picture me standing there tapping my foot while I wait for her to get on track (pun intended).

  10. Henry June 28, 2012 at 8:16 pm #


    I couldn’t write without outlining. But I’ve learned to respect and trust my characters. Letting them go and following them is always an adventure.

  11. Marney McNall June 30, 2012 at 2:47 pm #

    Characters eventually let you know on no uncertain terms that they are the boss. This is their story and you better write it the way they want. I do outline, but the more I write, the more I see the characters emerge in their own unexpected ways. But we’re always searching for the perfect balance in life, right? I guess writing is no different.

  12. Henry July 1, 2012 at 5:14 am #

    Thanks, Marney. You’re right about searching for that perfect balance. I think the word “perfect” is the clue that we’re not going to get there but the journey is well worth it. I really do enjoy the surprises the characters spring on me. So far everyone of them has made the story better.

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