Writing a novel is filled with hundreds of plot decisions, both little and big, let’s call them forks in the road.Your character has a problem: should they do this or that?
Stephen King has described his process as one of archaeology, unearthing a story that’s already there. George R.R. Martin calls his method gardening, planting a seed and seeing what grows. This used to baffle me, but now I suspect they’re just better at choosing the right fork subconsciously.
My subconscious is a lazy jerk. If I try to write without an outline, I end up paralyzed by indecision every few pages or bored with what I’m writing because I’ve taken the wrong fork. A writer friend of mine, Barbara Geiger, calls this taking door number one. She says that the first two options your mind throws up as solutions are often dull and predictable and that it’s the third more original option that’s the way to go. Having figured out door three in advance allows me to write much faster.
Not that outlining means I know everything that's going to happen. I usually know where the road is going in general, but but as I’m writing a little voice will often pipe up telling me that the heroine has it too easy and that something should go wrong. What’s supposed to be a short scene balloons into a chapter. These small forks tend to be decided upon during the act of writing, during what’s called ‘flow’. For example, I'd always planned that Belinda would be kidnapped during the climax of In Truth & Ashes, but falling into a pit in the dark was something that just happened as I typed and I went with it. Unfortunately, I seem to spend half my writing time trying to enter the 'flow' state. Or getting pushed out of it because I've hit a snag.
Maybe pantsers are better at entering a 'flow' state than I am.
When I get stuck writing, it’s usually a sign that I’ve made a wrong decision somewhere. If I backtrack a page or two I can usually pinpoint the moment and choose a different fork. If I’m really stuck I get out a piece of paper and list off options. Sounds mechanical, right? But the fork that I pick is chosen the same way pantsers write their entire novel: I go with the option that seems in some nebulous way ‘right’ or more interesting to me. There’s really no other reason for changing paths other than artistic sensibility. Trying to continue with the ‘wrong’ path feels like pushing a boulder uphill.
What about you? Do you make the plot up as you go along or outline first? Does your method always work for you? What do you do if it goes wrong?