Em's place

Writing, anxiety-wrangling, tea.

On agility, pants and outlines

By Emma on September 27, 2010

So I asked you lovely people if you’d like to hear my thoughts on first drafts, and many of you said yes. For those of you who shrugged and thought “meh”… sorry.

First drafts are strange beasts. They are gloriously exciting; the unexplored land, but they are also terrifying too. But by now you should know I find everything scary, so that’s obvious.

I’ll talk about the emotional aspect later, let’s start with the technical side. I write a first draft in the same way that a certain type of coder approaches a huge project.

Now wait a moment, I hear some of you cry. Coding? What, like websites?

Yes. I am about to take you into a new territory of geekery: the coding analogy of writing the first draft of a novel.

You see, for a long time, when tech companies were given a huge project, e.g. “Build a website served by a database that provides information used by millions of users every day” the techies would sit down for weeks and weeks planning out what it should do, how it should work, and sometimes even what the users would need too.

Sorry, that’s a bit of my past creeping in there.

In short, they would make the best plan they could, spec it all out in entirety and then go and make it. That’s called the “waterfall” approach to coding a huge project.

However, what usually happens is that it takes far too long, sometimes they code themselves into a corner by not predicting a bit of functionality that turns out to be critical later on and then extra money is needed (or lost) to correct it etc etc.

Now lots of coders are using what’s called the ‘agile’ development approach to big projects. (Stay with me, this is relevant to novel writing, I promise.) Instead, they split the project into “sprints” which begin with specs (initially of a prioritised piece of core functionality), design, then a burst of intense coding to create a part of the bigger project, then an evaluation phase with the client who can feedback earlier, and realise they wanted something completely different when only 10% has been done, rather than 100% three months late.

I’m sounding bitter again aren’t I. Sorry.

Then they move onto the next piece of functionality on the prioritised list and repeat the process until the whole thing is done.

Ok, so that’s all well and good, but what about novel writing?

Well, the usual debate online is whether you’re a pantster (as in writing by the seat of your pants and not knowing where it’s all going) or an outliner – usually discussed in the form of outlining the entire novel, then writing it. There’s also the phase writing approach, in which people spend a fortnight or so writing an incredibly detailed outline of several thousand words that is fleshed out for the first draft.

Unsurprisingly, I don’t like any of these extremes. I am speaking purely for myself here – don’t for a moment think I am advising anyone to do it my way. I am not.

The agile approach

I approach my first drafts like an agile developer. I guess that means I could call myself an agile writer, but that creates all kinds of inappropriate associations. I’ll take you through the steps I went through on my latest first draft, the sequel to my debut novel 20 Years Later that is due to be published very soon.

When I started, I knew the characters and the huge plot arc that goes across the whole trilogy. I knew several major plotlines – they’ve been in my head for years – and I knew what kind of character interactions were on the cards as a result of what happened in book one.

At the beginning, it all feels like a huge great big mess. All I know is that there is a way to tease them all out into distinct strands with logical progressions. Event B can’t happen until event A has taken place for example.

So what this amounts to is a living room covered in post-it notes.

Then those post-it notes get laid out as plot threads from left to right. By that I mean what happens sequentially in each plot, without any detail other than the level of “person X kills/maims/worships person Y” etc.

I should add that this takes quite a while and several cups of tea.

Once they’re in order, I stick them to a big piece of card and then fail to find a proper home for it for months. It moves around my office, generally getting in the way and refusing to stay blu-tacked to my wall.

I then weave the threads together. Once I see where they intersect, distinct scenes come to mind, whilst in the background I start to consider the pacing of the action, the events that need to take place by certain milestones in the book , e.g in the first third, second third and the end-game. This is a bit fuzzy to explain as a lot of it is on an instinctive level.

By the end of this stage I have an idea of the kinds of events that need to take place by certain points.

Sounds like I’m an outliner. Yes, I am, but there’s more.

When I have a good idea of the shape of the book, it’s time to start outlining chapters, with a few words describing each scene. A chapter is usually described with no more than three phrases.

I plan about five chapters at a time, using the threads, the pacing thoughts and the key events and then I write them in what I’ve come to call a sprint, just like the agile developers again.

This is where I diverge from some of the outliners I’ve read about and where the pantster aspect comes in.
When I write a scene, I have an idea of what is going to happen. I make a directorial decision about point-of-view, setting and where the scene will begin – in the middle of action, the exact point in a conversation etc – and then I hand it over to the characters. I simply sit back and watch and listen. My fingers move themselves over the keyboard.

Of course, some days it isn’t like that. But 9.5 times out of ten, it’s because I’ve made a poor directorial decision. The writing of book two has done a lot to hone my instincts – and I am finally learning to trust that when a scene is feeling like it needs to be forced onto the page, it’s because it doesn’t work.

The outline is thrown out of the window. Invariably things take longer to show than I think, and so the numbers of the chapters are inaccurate very quickly.

It’s those characters you see…

Most importantly, characters sometimes say things, or decide to do things, that I simply haven’t foreseen. Erin, one of the major characters, pulled an absolute blinder on me towards the end of book two and did something that I hadn’t planned at all, but when she was there, living it, she made the decision and I went with her.

This is where purest outlining falls down for me. (And where I sound like I am utterly, utterly insane.) I love her decision – it’s opened up new subplots for book three and brings in some really interesting character development and tension with the others.

And this is what keeps me excited every time I sit down to write the next scene. I can’t imagine using the phase approach; I fear I would be bored before I had even begun to flesh out into a first draft.

I am simply incapable of predicting what will happen in my books at the level of detail that is unearthed in the writing of them. And I am a firm believer in character driven stories. Sure, there are whopping great big plots and things happening externally to the characters that they are reacting to – but they are interacting with and changing their world as they respond. If I didn’t listen to them, and evaluate where the story is going at the end of every ‘sprint’ I would be sacrificing believable characters on the altar of plot.


Of course, feel free to think I am mad and take this all far too seriously, but really, I am immersed in the world when I write. That’s why when I really started to work on book two, every other kind of fiction I write had to be left to one side. I never really leave the world. When I am writing for clients I am also chugging over a bit of plot. When I am making tea, I am daydreaming a scene. It. Never. Stops.

Sometimes I do have to rein a scene in. I’ve got a couple of hundred words into a conversation and it’s going off in such a tangent I know it won’t work in the greater whole – I drag it back to the outline. It’s a constant tension between the two.

I have no idea if this is making any sense. I think I am an agile outliner with big pants. Yeah, that sounds about right…

I think I’ll save my thoughts on the emotional side of first drafts for another day. Does this make sense so far?

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{ 14 comments... read them below, or add one }

  1. Icy Sedgwick says:

    I’ve never seen an analogy between writing a novel and building a website but to be honest, I think it a) works and b) makes more sense than most other analogies.

    Personally, I’m very much in the “make stuff up as I go along, and then go back and retrofit to make it all make sense when I’m finished” camp, but it’s nice to see a balance between having a sense of order, but allowed the characters their moments of chaos within that.

    Very well-balanced post, Em!

  2. Gracie says:

    Thanks for this, Em. Yes, the analogy between code and novel-writing is quite original, but it’s brilliant and makes tons of sense. Good advice, to not be a slave to the outline (boring and strained) and to let the characters have their say (fluid and organic). Seems like it would have to be a balance for any novel to work.

    Thanks again. You’ve taught me a thing or two. 🙂

  3. Josie says:

    What a fascinating post – I love reading all of this. Thank you! The geekery analogy works perfectly.

  4. Alison Wells says:

    Yes, yes very good. I like this a lot although it does sound scary. I have roughly outlined before and was going to on my new novel but was having trouble beginning and now have just jumped in and started feeling my way around. I can see that I will probably come out again and outline as I get an idea of what might go on. Am so looking forward to your post on the emotional side of first drafts! Very relevant right now.

  5. Rob says:

    Fantastic! I have to say, as a coder… I despise the agile development methods, though I’ve always been certain it was due to implementation flaws in the way management forced us to use agile and not so much that agile didn’t work.

    Your post here has made me see it entirely anew and, I think, I’m going to have to try it agian (both for coding and for writing). I am notoriously a pantser when I write, and lately I haven’t been getting anything on the page. Maybe a mini-outline to plan out my sprints would be just what I need.

    Thanks for such a great post!

  6. Adam Byatt says:

    A great analogy. I don’t pretend to understand coding (I have mates who do and I respect them wholeheartedly for their geekery).
    Never having actually written a novel, it’s given me a few things to consider when it comes time to get mine started (have a few ideas percolating).
    I’d like to think I’m a planner (OCD) but then, I think I might need to reinforce the seat of my pants with a few layers of kevlar.
    Great insight, Em.
    Adam B @revhappiness

  7. ~Tim says:

    This is wonderful. Thanks for sharing your experience and giving such insight. You rock!

  8. Megs says:

    I LOVE this. Especially this:

    “So what this amounts to is a living room covered in post-it notes.

    “Then those post-it notes get laid out as plot threads from left to right. By that I mean what happens sequentially in each plot, without any detail other than the level of “person X kills/maims/worships person Y” etc.

    “I should add that this takes quite a while and several cups of tea. ”

    Up to here, this is my writing process. Then I start writing. Threads interweave in my head. I get stumped. Repeat the post-its everywhere. Go away and write or do something else. Mull on it. Allow subconscious to steep. Keep writing.

  9. Laura Eno says:

    It makes sense to me. My characters always supply me with their own insights along the way.

  10. HeatherM says:

    An agile outliner with big pants, that’s awesome! I’m an outliner who flies by the seat of their pants. I know I’m not supposed to do both, but I do! And it works wonderfully. 😉

  11. Thanks for the post Em. 🙂

  12. Caroline says:

    Not being much of a writer, or a coder come to that, I got a bit lost here (although in life in general, I think I’m a pantster). But my inner Virgo organiser-self (perhaps I am an outliner, after all) LOVES this …

    “So what this amounts to is a living room covered in post-it notes”.

    What colour? Boring yellow or vibrant pink? What size? How many, exactly?!

    And what I really took from this post was the fact that Erin, at the end of book two, does something totally unexpected and we are all going to have to wait for months and months (and months) to find out what!

  13. Emma says:

    Thank you my lovelies.

    @Rob – that’s interesting, let me know how your experiment goes!

    @Adam – I think reinforced pants are a very important component of the writer’s toolbox 😉

    @ Caroline – They are boring normal-sized yellow ones. I keep meaning to buy multi-coloured packs and use different colours for different plot threads, but I keep forgetting… And as for how many, about sixty odd. Maybe more. Oh boy, I can’t wait for you to read all the books!

  14. Wayne says:

    I am a professional programmer and have a history of science background. I have only recently rediscovered my need to write, but I concur that writing is very much like coding, the only difference being the language you use o connect the dots.
    I have seen this broken down as a software development model as something called “the snowflake method” of novel writing. I hav never been published or even tried to submit anything yet so I am prolly just full of hot air, but I have completed a couple of novel first drafts and a fistful of short stories.
    I am scared of editing because I have an all sciency nerdy background and when it comes to Engglish and creativity I have a strong sensesation of not knowing what I am doing and being out of my depth. this post is also procrastination during wqriting time, so bye 🙂

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