Why outlining my stories just isn’t going to happen

Anna J. Stewart

Some writers are more productive when they outline their stories in advance, but this author explains why for her, it’s just the opposite.

by Anna J. Stewart

This is, I believe, one of the most frequently asked questions among writers, is it not? I see the debate come up time and again on social media and among my writing compatriots. I always find the discussion interesting and oftentimes discover myself leaning in a new direction. Until I start to write.

I’ve long declared myself to be a “pantser” (one who does not plot and simply writes by the seat of her, well, pants). At least in a way. I write for two different publishers, Harlequin and Arc Manor (their Caezik romance line). To sell a new book to Harlequin, I need to submit a synopsis, which *bites nails* requires plotting (to a degree). With my Caezik books, on the other hand, the story is completely in my hands, and I simply dive in. My process, I’ve discovered now that I’ve written more than fifty romances, completely depends on the kind of book I’m writing.

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For Harlequin, my synopses focus on the conflicts between my characters and whatever big-picture plot takes place in the story. Everything else (I think my editor has learned) tends to fly up in the air as soon as my fingers hit the keys. For me, not having a solid, locked-in plot gives me enormous freedom in how the story decides to write itself. And let’s face it, when you hit that “zone” (IYKYK—if you know, you know), that’s precisely what’s happening. Those synopses do serve a purpose, however, especially when I get stuck or lost. Having something to go back to as a road map is a good weapon to have in my back pocket. One of the benefits to writing romance is that the end is a given: a happily-ever-after, or at least a happy-for-now for my hero and heroine. It’s how I get there that oftentimes gets a bit muddled.

It seems not plotting is indeed my process. It’s just time to accept and embrace it.

There comes a time, in every book I write, that I mentally kick myself and swear that for the next book, I’m plotting it out. Especially if that next book is a romantic suspense. It makes so much sense to do this. Logically, I get it. But then the time comes when those opening blank pages are in front of me and … yep. I just dive in to see where the characters want to take me. Plotting it out would seem to ensure productivity, right? But it seems as if my brain simply can’t take that leap. If only because I fear I’ll miss some surprises. Those magical plot twists that appear (and sometimes wake us up in the night) wouldn’t happen if I kept myself to an outline or strict map of the story. Having that fluid “I’m not sure where this is going” mentality is part of what keeps me inspired to sit down at the keyboard. What am I going to discover today that I didn’t know yesterday? Now that’s temptation at its best.

It’s because of those surprises that, despite my best intentions, I don’t plot. I don’t want anything written in stone, especially when it comes to a suspense novel. If I already know what’s going to happen, what’s to stop me from accidentally revealing it too soon? Or laying out clues that are so obvious they could be seen (read) from space? Nope. I shall remain a pantser or, if not that, a plantser—where some of the ideas and story elements are locked in, but the rest can flow with the tide of my mind.

Of course, I’m saying this as I prepare to dive into the third book of my Circle of the Red Lily series. Exposed (book 1, out now) taught me so many lessons when it comes to writing mainstream romantic suspense. From pacing to character development to balancing the romantic aspect with the darker, mystery plot. Book 2 (Vanished, releasing this November) had its own things to teach me, like how to include a spunky eight-year-old into a story with very dark and disturbing elements. I actually ended up writing this book three times before I was happy with it and, as always, when I got to the end, I made the declaration yet again that book 3 would be plotted. Like, down to the comma plotted. And yet …

Yeah. Who am I kidding? I’ll be winging this one, too. It seems as though not plotting is indeed my process. It’s just time to accept and embrace it. So.

Not plotting, here I come!

Happy writing, everyone!

Anna J. Stewart is the USA Today–bestselling author of more than fifty sweet to spicy romances. Primarily writing for Harlequin’s heartwarming (sweet) and romantic suspense (spicy) lines, she also writes for Arc Manor’s Caezik Romance. In addition to being a Holt Medallion winner for Bride on the Run, Anna has finaled in both the Daphne duMaurier and National Readers’ Choice awards. When she’s not writing, she is usually cooking, baking, binge-watching her newest TV addiction, or re-watching her all-time favorite show, Supernatural.

Read more about Anna, her books, and the writing workshops she offers at her website.

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