By Tosca Lee
The Line Between, my novel about a young woman who escapes a doomsday cult on the American Prairie just as a pandemic is sweeping across the nation (yup, I wrote a pandemic duology that released in 2019), was my tenth published novel. It taught me more lessons than I wanted to learn… but exactly the ones I needed.
Somewhere during the planning of the novel, I had this conversation with myself:
Okay. Time to outline.
This is novel number 10. Isn’t outlining innate by now?
You mean I’ve become a pantser like Steven James?
Yup. You are now Steven James.
Steven James is a brilliant author friend of mine and well-known “pantser” (an author who does not outline in favor of discovering the story as it comes—AKA “writing by the seat of one’s pants”). So many of my successful, highly decorated author friends write this way, not knowing whodunit until they reach the end of the novel. It keeps it exciting.
So I wrote the novel. And the first lesson I learned when the editor sent those mangled pages back…
Is this: I am not Steven James.
Also, that I should’ve known better. I always teach writers to know how they work best—during the day or at night, with music or ambient noise, with regular feedback or in a vacuum until the work is finished…
With an outline or without.
In addition to time, my error cost me confidence as I spent four arduous months reshaping the story. And then—already behind schedule—I started the sequel.
With no time to spare, I dug into the outline. Outline in hand, I wrote A Single Light swiftly. And then something happened.
I realized I wasn’t so stressed. That I was doing something I hadn’t done in a while…
I was having fun.
I spent that entire novel excited to write each day, giggling maniacally on more than one occasion.
Why? Not because I had an outline. But because I was honoring the way I work best.
The Line Between went on to win an International Book Award, Killer Nashville’s Silver Falchion, and the Nebraska Book Award. It finaled for the High Plains Book Award, and was a semi-finalist for the Goodreads Choice Awards. A Single Light also won an International Book Award and finaled for Killer Nashville’s Silver Falchion… but lost to The Line Between. (D’oh!)
Four months after the release of A Single Light, Covid struck, bringing with it new lessons about creativity in lockdown, writing during chaos, and surrendering the results.
Have you learned how you work best? Tell us about it.
You certainly are “prescient”! Your thriller, THE LINE BETWEEN, was terrific (outline or no outline) – congrats on all those wonderful awards for it. It is obviously a must-read…..Karna Small Bodman
I have always written with an outline. It might just be scribbled notes on the back of an envelope, but I always know how it will begin, how it will end, who the killer is, who gets killed and why, and usually the major clues that my protagonist will use. The few times I’ve tried to not do that, I quickly write myself into horrible corners.
I’m writing the 5th in my series of pre-published novels based on my real life death penalty cases when I was working in a public defenders office during law school. And yeah, I want to write them all down first, then polish and shop. I always outline, even though I know how each story starts (with a murder in the desert) and ends (in tears and conviction). The outline propels me and un-sticks me, but doesn’t always inspire me. But it’s there to stab me and poke me, and that feels like the same thing. And so I persist.
I’m glad I’m not the only one who occasionally takes a flying leap of faith, falls off a cliff, then has to dig myself out of the hole I landed in.
Love how you honor your process!
OK. That look on Tosca’s face is a classic pantser expression. I should know. I’ll admit it. I AM A PANTSER. I don’t know nothin’ until I know it … and it’s a scary way to write. Or not write, depending on how a day goes. I wish I could outline. I’ve tried. My brain, however, muddled as it sometimes is, just will not comply. So I pick my way through, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, page by agonizing page. Tosca’s right. Every writer’s different. Every writer must find their groove. That look, though. Priceless. LOL.
“Honoring the way I work best.” That’s a great quote! Sometimes it does take a while to figure out what that way is. When I first started writing I thought there must be a right way, and I was certainly doing it the wrong way. Then I found this quote by W. Somerset Maugham: “There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”
That has always been one of my favorite quotes!