Accidental Drive to Mexico

PhotobucketToday we feature another of our fab WU finalists for the Unpubbed Writer position. Kristan Hoffman isn’t just a terrific writer (she was a quarter-finalist for the Amazon Breatkthrough Novel Award), she’s one of our most loyal commenters (TY, Kristan!). We know you’ll enjoy her post about outlines, word counts, momentum, and writerly frustrations.

A while back, urban fantasy writer Justine Musk wrote a great post about “outlines and word quotas and why they sometimes might lead to sucky writing.” While I do recommend reading the whole thing, here’s the gist of what she said:

I believe in outlines. Except when I don’t.

I believe in daily word quotas. Except when I don’t.

I believe in encountering the work, which an outline can prevent you from doing.

Unfortunately, this is extremely relevant to my new WIP. See, I decided to set word quotas, but I didn’t outline, because I too believe in “encountering the work.” However, what I encountered this time was a big fat BORING first chapter.

Why? Because I wrote back story. I wrote 3,500 words about Jake and Yvonne (the two main characters) that could have been summed up in one simple sentence: Their relationship has gone stale.

When I realized what I’d done, late on a Sunday night, I kind of wanted to die. Because I was exhausted, I still had a word quota to fill, and my writing was garbage. (Garbage!)

Did I cry that night? You bet I did. Teeny tiny tears of frustration. It sucked.

Did I write that night? You bet I did. All 1,000 words. They sucked too.

So why did I even bother to finish my quota if I knew I might have to chuck most of it?

Because I didn’t want to lose momentum. A more disciplined writer probably could have afforded to just stop, take a step back, and focus on fixing Chapter 1, but I’ve proven time and time again that if I don’t keep my momentum going, I will lose it. And 2010 is about winning, not losing.

(Plus, you never know what you might be able to reuse in another place or on another project. I don’t really believe in “wasted” words.)

Anyway, to avoid that kind of a situation from recurring, I am now outlining. But wait, Kristan! Didn’t Justine say that outlines are bad and lead to sucky writing?! Well, yes and no. Justine said that outlines sometimes lead to sucky writing, because they can make a writer feel tied to an idea that doesn’t truly fit the story.

But sometimes you really need an outline, otherwise it’s like you’re driving from Maine to California with no map. Sure, you might know to head southwest, but guess what? Mexico is southwest of Maine too. And though there are a few similarities, Mexico and California are most definitely not the same.

Some people have a really good sense of direction, and they would have no problem getting to California without GPS or Google Maps or even road signs. But me, I need a map. If something comes up, like heavy traffic or construction (cough cough metaphor for part of the outline that isn’t working cough cough), then I’ll find a detour. But driving across the country with nothing more than my instincts? Apparently that’s not for me. Not this time.

So what about you? Do you have a good sense of direction, or do you prefer to use a map?

Photo courtesy Flickr’s Wonderlane


About Kristan Hoffman

Kristan Hoffman was a finalist in our search for an unpublished contributor; a quarterfinalist in the Amazon Breatkthrough Novel Awards for her novel The Good Daughters (women’s fiction/multicultural); and the winner of the St. Martin’s Press “New Adult” Contest for her web series, Twenty-Somewhere (now available as an ebook).


  1. says

    Welcome, Kristan! Great first post! I love that quote in the beginning: “I believe in…except when I don’t.”

    In response to your question, outlining feels too mathematical to me. I write historical fiction, so I do create a timeline of historical events. Then I pull back the bow and fire. I don’t always hit the target I thought I was aiming for, but I feel like the story works itself out the way it’s supposed to, and I enjoy getting surprised by my characters.
    .-= Erika Robuck´s last blog ..Authors to Watch =-.

  2. says

    Kristan, great post! It’s this endless debate, outline or no outline, that keeps swirling around the heads of writers because there is no definite answer. I think even pantsers like myself need a general direction, a pencil-drawn map, if you will. I wrote my first draft with no direction, but I found my way most of the time. Then on my second draft, I knew my characters enough to use pen to draw my map. It made me realize how much easier writing can be with an outline…more efficient, less wasting time. So, I’m going to continue with this, and, like Miley Cyrus says, have the best of both worlds. :)

    p.s. I might like a drive to Mexico. Must try that one day.
    .-= Sarah´s last blog ..I’m Just Saying… =-.

  3. says

    I hear you, I totally do. Whenever I try to get ‘organised’ (read: actually properly outline my story) I get stuck somewhere during the writing of the first chapter or so (usually about page 7), because the characters don’t think the outline is the way they want to live their lives. On the other hand, when I try to just go for it, writing paragraph after paragraph to see where it takes me, that gets stuck, too, because at some indefinable point I lose my way (also, strangely, on page 7 or thereabouts).

    Result: I have several stories outlined to death, and a couple with the first few chapters written, but none that’s finished.

    Like you said, the important thing is to keep going… I’m sure I’ll get the hang of it eventually. Meanwhile, I’ve decided to go with Winston Churchill’s advice, who said the following:
    If you’re going through hell, keep going.
    .-= Tessa Conte´s last blog ..Take a peek =-.

  4. says

    Thanks. I LOVE your target analogy.

    Thanks, girl!

    Flight to Mexico would be easier. :P But yeah, I think there are different levels of outlining too. As writers, we all have to find what works for us. (Unfortunately, a lot of times that happens by process of elimination: we find out what DOESN’T work for us first.)

    Thank you for having me! I’m so honored.

    It’s great that you’re trying different things. Maybe a full outline is too rigid for your taste (or your characters, hehe) — maybe a bit looser of a plan would work better? Like, instead of Google Maps step by step directions from Maine to California, just figure which states you want to go through. That might offer you more flexibility but still give you direction. Just a thought.

    Also, one thing that helps motivate me is to write exciting/climactic scenes and then refer back to them when my excitement is dragging or I feel lost.

    Another benefit of an outline is that, in theory, you don’t have to write chronologically because you can string the parts together later.
    .-= Kristan´s last blog ..A few notes =-.

  5. says

    “Not this time”

    That is the thing! Each project, is different and we have to be ready to chuck what worked last time and embrace a new approach. Congrats to you for recognizing that and moving forward.

    Momentum is my best friend too. When I am hitting my word quotas, even when the writing hurts my eyes, I feel so damn good.
    .-= Rebecca @ Diary of a Virgin Novelist´s last blog ..What’s really preventing me from writing? =-.

  6. says

    I’m somewhere in between. There are some major cities I want to hit on the way but I let my gut tell me which back roads to take to get there.

    Great post!

  7. says

    I’ve learned that the writing process is one big, gray blob between outlining and winging it. I’ve also learned that I tend to extremes, which is why I’ve done and hated both far ends of the spectrum. Not sure where in the gray continuum I’ll end up, but discovering that is necessary to moving forward in my writing. Luckily, the discovery comes through the writing.
    .-= PatriciaW´s last blog ..2010 Christy Award Nominees =-.

  8. says

    Thanks for the advice, Kristan. I’ve decided to try the following: start with a rough idea of where I’m going (like you said, decide which states to pass through), then get to know my characters to they don’t interfere too much…followed by a little more planning (maybe what sights to see) and then, ready, steady, go! ; )
    .-= Tessa Conte´s last blog ..Take a peek =-.

  9. says

    Ha! Great minds think alike! I just posted on my own blog a piece about outlines/word quotas and why I need them. I mean, if I headed SW from Maine I’d probably end up in a sinkhole somewhere south of Des Moines!

    Love your post, Kristan, and your blog. And I couldn’t agree more: 2010 is all about winning!

  10. says

    @Stormy & PatriciaW-
    Precisely! There’s such a vast spectrum of gray. I think most people (including myself) live somewhere in the middle ground.

    Haha, even when it hurts your eyes, your wrists, your neck, your back… yeah, I know that feeling. :)

    Yeah, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t make it out of the Northeast, if we’re being literal. :P
    .-= Kristan´s last blog ..A few notes =-.

  11. says

    Good post, good comments.

    For my first completed novel (wish me luck on finding an agent!), I wrote and wrote and wrote. Then I realized I wasn’t even getting to the story I wanted to tell. Ended up scrapping 100 handwritten pages, four months of work.

    It wasn’t wasted, though. Those 100 pages of crap gave me valuable information on what made these two characters tick and what their voices were.
    .-= Laura Droege´s last blog ..The Terror of the Blinking Cursor =-.

  12. says

    Great post, Kristan!

    I’m in the big grey blob camp–I think I do better with an outline, which I then have the opportunity to diverge from at will. What I need, really, is a first draft–it almost doesn’t matter how bad or what the plot–which I can than rewrite a dozen times.
    .-= Sarah Woodbury´s last blog ..Welsh Independence =-.

  13. says

    I love outlines, but I’m very flexible with them. Often I found that when I deviated from my outline, the chapter either didn’t work or worse, it was just flat-out awful. When I got back on track, everything seemed to flow.

    I’ve also had times when the outline didn’t work at all and I had to deviate into a different plot-line that worked. The key is allowing myself to be flexible.

    In terms of daily word counts, I don’t bother with them. I could do what you did, Kristan, and write a ton of backstory to reveal a one line truth, but I’m okay with that! Sometimes I have to wander into my characters’ backstories so I can get that one line, and I really enjoy free-writing my way into a character.

    What a great post.
    Thanks, Kristan!

  14. says

    I completely agree that there’s essentially no “wasted” writing. In fact, I think that sort of writing is sometimes the most valuable, even if it’s never seen. :)

    Thank you! I have a feeling our writing processes are rather similar…
    .-= Kristan´s last blog ..A few notes =-.

  15. says

    I don’t outline per se. Using your map analogy, I guess I’d say that I say to myself, “I’m in Maine, and I want to go to California.” Then I look at a map of the entire country, and I go, “I think I’ll drive south down to North Carolina, and then I’ll head west.” Then I might say, “Which roads look good to get me to North Carolina?” I probably won’t look at a map again until I’m in North Carolina (although I might decide on a detour). Once in North Carolina, I’d get out the big map and go, “Hmm, now where? Kentucky? Which roads go there?” etc etc.

    So um, yeah, that pretty much describes my “outlining.” I’d say I virtually always make it to California in the end, but once or twice I’ve ended up in Mexico. It does happen. And Mexico can be quite lovely.
    .-= Sonja´s last blog ..Hello, private school! Buh-bye, money! =-.

  16. says

    Great post Kristan! You had me at the title, because when I lived in San Diego I accidentally almost drove to Mexico (more than once). As in my writing, I needed a compass to tell me which direction I was heading. Thanks for the great analogy.
    .-= Kelly´s last blog ..Balcony Garden =-.

  17. says

    I prefer to wander on the first draft and get more ‘serious’ about accuracy etcetera on the second draft. first draft for me is organic, second draft is technical. This theory is working for my current project but I wouldn’t dream of saying it will always apply.

    Great article.
    .-= denice´s last blog ..eating well made easy with these 3 tips =-.

  18. says

    LOL as a girl who grew up in Houston, I can totally believe that.

    I think a lot of successful writers work that way too. I applaud your ability to “drive” so fearlessly!
    .-= Kristan´s last blog ..A few notes =-.

  19. says

    What a great post, Kristan! And I’m exactly the same–I believe in word quotas, except when I don’t, and in outlines–except when I don’t. I think you really have to just learn to listen to the story. If it’s telling you to take a few days off from meeting your quota so that you can re-center yourself and figure out what needs to be fixed, then by all means ignore those quotas and do just that. Same with outlines. I do outline tons before I start writing, and while I’m writing, as well. But it happens all the time that something that sounded great in the outline doesn’t work at all when it comes to actually writing it–and I’ve learned that all you can do in those cases is say, Okay, out it goes.

    Welcome to WU! Can’t wait to see more of you here!

  20. says

    Great post, Kristan. I can’t really measure my progress by words. That just doesn’t work for me because the victory can feel hollow if I don’t care for what I wrote. I measure my progress by time in the chair. We’ll see how that works out, because like you, I want 2010 to be a great writing year.
    .-= Jan O’Hara´s last blog ..Book Review: Seven Steps on the Writer’s Path =-.

  21. says

    Thanks for the warm welcome! And yes, “out it goes”! Although, if a writer thinks chucking WORDS is hard, wait till they get to chucking an outline (or parts of one)… o_O

    I think time quotas are a great tool as well! For some people who write steadily, word/time quotas are interchangeable. Definitely not the case for me. :P

    “That just doesn’t work for me because the victory can feel hollow if I don’t care for what I wrote.”

    Very, very true. That’s something I still struggle with too. I just try to remind myself that (a) it might not look that bad in the morning (or 6 weeks down the road when I really come back to it) and (b) it’s all going to be revised anyway. Things that suck now might work well in the edits; things that seem great now might not have a place in the next draft.

    But some people can’t move on with just that sort of take-it-on-faith reassurance, and I totally get that. I’ve had to train myself to, after all!
    .-= Kristan´s last blog ..A few notes =-.

  22. says

    Great post, Kristan! I’m a pantser who resists outlines like the plague. But that makes me be a slow writer, unlike the critique partners I seem to surround myself with. Learning from them, I’m beginning to think that _some_ structure might be okay.
    .-= Connie Cox´s last blog ..Yes, its a dog in a stroller =-.

  23. says

    I so struggled with this! The book I just turned in to my publisher nearly wasn’t because I hate synopses and outlining and was therefore going nowhere.

    However, 3×5 cards are just anarchistic enough for me. They totally saved the book. I wrote out places I wanted to go, at some point, in no particular order. After organizing them, I had a workable outline that didn’t cause bloodshed.
    .-= Hillary Lodge´s last blog ..The Big Blue Yonder =-.

  24. says

    I begin with an outline. However, I remain flexible to the journey my writing will take me on. I continue to take notes on the sites I would like to see along the way, however. And my latest guide– log lines. I write one sentence summary for each plot line — this keeps me focused. Its brevity means I can retain it.

  25. says

    That’s pretty much where I was and what led me to consider trying outlines. It didn’t turn me into Speed Racer, but it made me consistent, so yes, I ended up producing more writing.

    Not being yourself up is HUGE. It took me a long, LONG time to stop doing that. And once I allowed myself to have a bad day every now and then, I started having more and more good days!

    I’ve heard great things about notecards. My fave professor/mentor swore by them. I admit I never tried them, but that doesn’t mean I never will. ;)

    Log lines (or even query-style hooks/summaries) are GREAT tools to keep writers on track. They really help hone in on the main conflicts and the protagonist’s arc.

    Thanks so much!
    .-= Kristan´s last blog ..A few notes =-.

  26. Shari says

    I think that flexibility you allude to is key — the notion that your ideas can take you and your WIP somewhere, but that at the same time, you’re not completely taken by them to the exclusion of everything else. With my most recent manuscript, I made a more general outline of where I wanted things to go and what ideas/changes I wanted to come about at certain points … but at the same time, I was completely willing to adjust that if need be. I definitely found the story evolving as I wrote – kind of the whole idea of going on a journey with my characters – and I ended up changing two important parts of it because of that. I was willing to let those parts of my original outline go, and I’m SO glad I did because it added more dimensions and levels to the manuscript.

    I think every writer has to find what works, even if that changes from story to story. It sounds like you’ve found that with your current WIP, and I’m excited for you! Here’s to 2010 being a winning and wonderful year!