Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Writing Without a Blueprint

The past few weeks as I’ve been struggling with the mess of the first draft, I’ve questioned if my organic, writing by the seat of my pants with no outline or idea where I’m heading approach was really a good idea. But now I think it is. I never, ever would have sat down and dreamed up this story. Or these characters. They just kind of happened. And then stuff happened to them. As I got to understand my characters, I could put more story around their lives, finally build some tension, understand their goals and figure out what the big climax they’re all heading toward actually is.

I really did like the ending of the first draft. The beginning was slow, as early beginnings tend to be in my world, but it had potential. Actually, I liked the whole first draft, the way you love a four-year-old’s weird crayon self portrait that is really just two squiggly lines, because hello, the kid is just four.

So I say to my first draft, you are just a first draft, you don’t know any better. But you will grow up into a final draft, one of these days. You just need a little time and practice.

Anyway, as I’m deleting and moving so much stuff in this next draft, I wonder if I could’ve made life easier for myself by writing under a more structured plan – i.e., an outline. I hear that people do this, yet I’ve never ever tried it. It just doesn’t feel, well, creative.

My husband Mike suggested that how I write a first draft is like building a house without a blueprint. I know a house needs some basic things: kitchen, bathroom, bedroom, living room. I know a story needs some basic things: inciting event, conflict, voice, characters, climax, resolution.

So I kind of built a house that has all the basic elements, but not so much in the right place. The structure of my first draft is kind of like a house where the front door opens right into the bathroom, and you have to step over the toilet, into the tub and then through the kitchen to get to the living room. My inciting event was on page 74 or something like that.

On the second draft, I’m tearing down walls and really thinking about if I want an open floor living space or a separate kitchen and dining room. And I’m patching up that big hole in the roof. And I’m taking down the four by four room in the middle of the house with no windows or closets because who needs something like that?

It’s pretty fun, this rehabbing of my story. Would I build a house this way? No, that would be super expensive and there’d be a heck of a lot of dust. But for a story, building it without a blueprint works just fine.

So after I get the layout of the house in the right shape (plot), then I have the future drafts where I’m painting and buying furniture. And the final draft of polishing where I’m decorating and finding just the right piece of art to hang on the wall and candlesticks for the dining room table.

And then I’ll have a real house, built in stages, little by little, nail by nail. And inside it will be my book that I wrote, also in stages, little by little, word by word.


  1. Lisa,
    I have a silly question. Have you written your synopsis? Sometimes that helps you put the toilet not too near the kitchen....loved the house analogy.

    Actually LOOKED at but didn't buy a house where you had to walk THROUGH the bathroom to get to the kitchen and then the tub was inside the kitchen next to the refrigerator.*yikes*


  2. Hi Karen,

    With this WIP I didn't do a synopsis yet (too outliney for me) but I did start to work on a query letter. That helped to boil down the main conflict and Sadie's goal.

    I can't believe a house like that actually exists! Maybe I was an architect in a previous life!


  3. Hi Lisa, Sounds like your a pantser turning into a pantser/plotter combo. I've always been a pantser - but my lack of success has led me to move toward being more of a plotter. It's hard, of course, but I think my writing is better for it.

  4. What you're doing, Lisa, is an extensive outline--that's what your first draft turns out to be! Then you shuffle, reshuffle and so forth. Which is editing, revising. You're doing all the same things an OP (outline person) would do, only most of the work comes at the back end rather than the front end. I always advise NOPs to try more outlining, and OPs to be really free with that outline.

  5. Lisa, I loved the analogies for your draft stages. I'm sort of a quasi-outliner. I have the basic story in my head, but then I start making a scenes file, which is a numbered list of scenes that need to be written. Scenes are added and moved around as I write, but I do have an idea how I'm getting from A to Z. And since I include a far amount of detail describing each scene, it ends up being a sort of synopsis after the fact.

  6. Hi,
    I am the same way sometimes. When I have a really good idea I can sit and write for what seems like days with out an outline but sometimes the outline helps me develop the story in my head. I'm not suggesting that you need to read this book but it helped me; Stephen King's book titled, On Writing, addresses this. He writes like you did for that first draft (without an outline). If you can look past the profanity it is a really good book for writers. Anyway, I enjoyed your blog.

  7. Hi everyone,

    Thanks for joining the discussion -- and a special hello to the new guys! I love discovering my writing process and figuring out what works and what doesn't. I'm going on a month-long trip to India next week and have thought about doing some "practice" writing, and your comments have given me some good ideas to try out. Thanks for sharing!

  8. Lisa,
    I've had so many people ask me about process in the last two weeks that I'm finally going to take a page from you and Linda and actually talk about my writing process.
    This Thursday I'm posting something called "The writing process, when your work BLEEDS into your life."
    We'll see how it goes. If the folks like it I may delve into the process periodically.
    Have a safe trip. Come back with many many inspirations for your writing!
    Karen :)

  9. I've seen a similar "house" analogy used in a Writer's Digest article. It's a strong comparison, and I appreciate that yours didn't go over the top or use a ton of crazy architectural terms like the article did.

    My Advanced Fiction professor talked about "baseball writing" - knowing where your character's story starts, where it ends, and a few key points in the middle, but then just describing the journey around the bases as it plays out. My favorite author, Diana Wynne Jones, describes a similar process on her website. That's always worked for me: I tend to start with a strong image of the beginning and one of the end, plus a few snapshots from the middle, but have no idea what events will connect them until I'm writing them. :)

  10. Hi Anica,

    I love the baseball analogy! I'm a big baseball fan so that really works for me. The tension of moving from base to base, conflict between pitcher and batter, the climax of the tag at home plate. Love that!

    Welcome to my blog and thanks for sharing!