When two editors who are also writers work together, they get into a lot conversations about writing. One of the perennial conversations we have here at Flourish is about ideas we get for novels. Having had these conversations for a couple of years now, I've come to realize that each of us has a distinctive way of coming up with ideas that matches the kind of writers we are.
Tim thinks of plot ideas first. He outlines in fairly great detail. He writes everything in order. His characters develop as he outlines.
I think of characters first. Plot develops as I write. I outline very sketchily at first, waiting for the idea to take hold. Later in the writing process, as the pieces have fallen into place in my head, I do a loose outline, about four ideas per chapter. This is evolution, inspired by Tim who has tried to teach me to outline.
We're two distinctive types which are referred to as planners or plotters, and pantsers. (Pantsers meaning people who come up with stories by the seat of their pants, or as they go along.)
There are many famous pantsers in the world, although they probably don't think of themselves by that term. William Gibson comes to mind as someone who sits down and writes his book from scratch without an outline. My guess is that others, like Molly Gloss, Ursula LeGuin, and a host of literary writers are all pantsers.
There are also a lot of famous people who outline, including J.K. Rowling, Henry Miller, William Faulkner, and many others.
When I started writing I was a pure pantser, but in the past couple of years, I've benefited by using a small amount of outlining. The thing about outlining is that you have to figure out in advance what's going to happen. If you attend a literary writing based MFA program, you'll be encouraged to write character driven stories and told that plot driven stories are formulaic. I was, anyway. But as long as I was writing purely character driven stories where the plot was undefined, I found it very difficult to finish anything. I even found it difficult to write longer pieces in order. I didn't know what happened everywhere, so I'd skip around filling in sections that were clear to me. This is a technique that can work but it can also fail. The failure to finish a long piece of fiction can be demoralizing to a writer.
But the real reason I tried to learn to outline was as a way of understanding what stories do. There are some very specific things that need to happen for a piece of fiction to be a story. The easiest way to see this is to look at your life. Your life is not a story. There are many events in your life that don't really relate to each other except that they all involve you.
If you wanted to tell a story from your life, you would pick a series of events that are connected. There's a destination these events are leading to. Usually there are surprises, unexpected twists or turns. And then there is 'what happened.' The big event. The end. The point. The story leads us to the point. It builds our interest. It makes us like or hate the characters. It creates a bond between reader and character, whether good or bad, or it fascinates us with the unfolding of events. Or both. The story gives the ending meaning and vice versa.
What happens if your book doesn't do what stories do? Well, think about someone who talks about themselves all the time, reporting on mundane events. Most likely you get bored. You tolerate them or you avoid them. Writing that doesn't pull the reader along in the form of a story is most likely going to lose the readers right away.
You can also lose your readers if the story doesn't fulfill its promises. It's very intriguing at first, but then it never seems to get anywhere. The things you allude to are never resolved. We call this 'cheating the reader.' Readers don't like to be cheated. They'll let you get away with it at first, if your writing is good, but eventually they'll get angry or bored.
It's absolutely possible to be a great writer as either a pantser or a plotter. But if you're having trouble, as one, consider what you might learn from the other style of writing. You can use a combination of techniques. Writing is, after all, an art, not a science.