When Outlines Get in the Way of a Good Story

Hi all,

I’m in the throes of “outlining” my next WIP and, I must admit, I lean a bit toward the pantser method of writing when it comes to plot planning. While I do initially outline major plot points, I have found from past experience that they are organic, fluid, as my characters have a way of shaking their heads at me and moving events in a new direction once drafting is underway. I often end up with a story quite different to the one I originally proposed.

And that’s why I was so enthralled at last month’s Writer’s Digest Conference http://www.writersdigestconference.com/, when I listened to author, Steven James http://www.stevenjames.net/, speak on why story trumps structure and why, as the blurb on the back of his writing book by the same name says, “All too often, following the ‘rules’ of writing can constrict rather than inspire you”.


Yes, yes, YES!

I had found someone who understands how I write and doesn’t whack me over the knuckles for it!

One of his key arguments is that the story should arise organically out of who the characters are, the desires they have, and the obstacles/challenges they face. Believability of story can suffer if the behavior of characters is made to fit a planned plot, as it takes time to get to know our characters, and to understand what they will do in given situations.

I loved his session so much I scrambled to the conference bookstore to purchase his book, only to find it had already sold out. When I asked Steven if his book was available for purchase in Australia, he came to my rescue, giving me one of his personal (and signed) copies – thank you again, Steven!

Anyway, while I am still reading through his book (and labeling key parts with sticky flags), I thought I’d share some of my favorite points from Steven’s conference presentation:

  • Outlines can sometimes hinder answers to the question:
    What would a character actually do in a situation?
  • If you can separate theme from the story, you don’t have a good story.
  • Instead of rules, think about the movement of the story.
  • There are only tension-driven stories (not plot or character driven). The goal is to always tighten the tension. Tightening tension is not necessarily rising action.
  • Stories need to have believable action, clear character intentions, and escalating tension.
  • If you’re not surprised when writing your book, your readers won’t be surprised when reading it.
  • Step back from your characters and let them act.
  • A protagonist’s strength is measured by the strength of the obstacles they must overcome.
  • Twists should be unexpected and inevitable.
  • Write yourself into a corner to come up with the unexpected and inevitable.
  • Keep your climax fluid.

So would about you? Are you a die-hard plotter, pantser, or something in between?

Whatever process you use, happy writing,



How David Baldacci Reminded Me to Not Be Too Hard on Myself as a Writer

Hi all,


I had a very “up and down” day yesterday. One minute I felt I knew what I was doing as a writer, and the next, I was realizing how much more I needed to learn. For a good couple of hours my inner beast gave me a beating for not succeeding at something I’d attempted, until I remembered something an author recently said.

The author is David Baldacci (you may have heard of him…) If you are one of the few people on the planet who hasn’t, you can check his website out here: http://davidbaldacci.com/ David was one of the keynote speakers at the Writer’s Digest Conference I attended last month in New York City.

Now while Mr. Baldacci is one of my mother’s favorite authors, I must admit, I have not read any of his books. However, when you get the chance to listen to a best-selling author speak (and I know the term “best-selling author” is thrown around a lot these days but, hey, this guy has written and sold a gazillion books), then there’s a chance you might learn a thing or two if you listen. Anyway, David said something which resonated with me. He said:

“Fear is a great antidote to complacency. The day you think you know what you’re doing as a writer, is the day you should quit”.

What? Even authors who have more than 110 million copies of their books in print, translated in more than 45 languages and sold in more than 80 countries, can have DOUBTS about what they are doing as a writer?


I felt a lot better after remembering that.

So if you are having one of those days where slip-ups are the norm, or where the sentences you are creating remind you of dribble; if you’re having one of those days where the rejections are coming in faster than the time it takes to close down your laptop, or where that inner critic is telling you to get out NOW before you make an absolute fool of yourself, remember that even best-selling authors who have been at this thing we love called writing a long time may experience doubts at times. Hell, they may even make mistakes.

So don’t let it get you down. And don’t give up.

Pick yourself up, dust off that keyboard, and happy writing,


P.S. Other great snippets from David on writing:

  • Readers remember characters more than plots due to the human connection (he lets characters speak to him about where they want to go in a book too).
  • Write what you know, then write what you would like to know about.

And finally, David does not write from outlines, and never knows the ending when he starts writing a book.

And he’d rather not be mistaken for another best-selling author but it has happened…