by Dave GrossAt conventions, you might hear discussions of whether a writer outlines a novel or prefers to write “by the seat of her pants.” Much as I love hearing the word “pantsers” uttered thirty times in an hour, I prefer George R.R. Martin’s description of writers as “architects” or “gardeners.” The great thing about being an architect is that you have a blueprint from the start. You know where things are meant to go. Outlining makes it easier to lay pipe for character development and plot or dialogue callbacks. Outlining makes it less likely that you’ll write yourself into a dead end or need to discard whole chapters in revision. The horrible thing about being an architect is that you lose some of the pleasure of discovery, which gardeners face with virtually every scene. To a pure gardener, an outline can be a cage. Where’s the fun once you already know what’s going to happen? In my heart, I sometimes wish I were a gardener. But because I often write for shared-world settings, it’s better that I’m an architect. My editors need to know where I’ll take the characters and how they’ll interact with the established systems of the world: magic, culture, politics, and more. The editors must also play traffic cop to ensure that we various writers don’t contradict each other. To a shared-world editor, an outline isn’t just helpful, it’s mandatory. Fortunately, outlining and “pantsing” aren’t mutually exclusive pursuits. While I prepare massive outlines, I still find plenty of fertile spots to do a little gardening both before and during composition. Planting Characters Even before the outline, the architect’s first opportunity for a bit of gardening starts with the characters. Almost all of the characters in my Forgotten Realms or Pathfinder novels are ones I created. While much of the pleasure of discovery comes from sketching them out at the start, there’s plenty to come during composition. Every time they speak, I enjoy the discovery of both their inner lives and their relationships to others. Sometimes I also include prominent figures from the setting or ask permission to include another author’s character. In those cases I’m not seeking discovery so much as trying to represent the characters as faithfully as possible—I suppose it’s a bit like writing Spider-Man or Raylan Givens on Justified. These characters usually enjoy immunity from permanent change, but with some novels you never can tell: Sometimes I have permission—or orders—to whack one. Going Rogue While I stick to the map most of the time, I don’t hesitate to take a detour if I realize it’ll make the journey more exciting. If a chapter I outlined to open with a fight feels abrupt, during composition I might reverse it to build suspense before all hell breaks loose. If I feel the manuscript is coming up with way too much exposition, I might shift from the outline to create a dialogue or action scene instead. In either case, that revision gives me a sense of discovery even though I know I’m still headed for the same final destination. My most common deviation from an outline is to combine or delete chapters. To some degree I do that because the manuscript is running long, but sometimes it’s also to diminish redundant or repetitive scenes. I’m finding the shortcuts that I couldn’t see from the map. And of course sometimes I just come up with a better idea than I had while outlining. If it isn’t radically different, I simply go with it. Only once (so far) has the editor disliked the new route, but removing it was a matter of deleting paragraphs, not whole chapters. Little Things My favorite discoveries are often the tiny details. Lately those have included gestures and phrases in my Pathfinder Tales novels. For instance, a woman concerned about her pregnancy draws the spiral of Pharasma over her swelling belly to ward off death. Low-born characters from Cheliax “shoot the tines” as a rude gesture. Those who worship Lady Luck might grumble, “Desna weeps,” when thing don’t go their way, or they might draw her wings over their hearts when facing danger—like when cheating at cards. In my latest Pathfinder Tales novel, Queen of Thorns, I enjoyed extrapolating certain cultural and magical aspects of the elves and gnomes of the setting. Elves are no more all the same than humans are, and while the common folk celebrate the Ritual of Stardust, the aristocrats host a Midsummer Masquerade complete with “trees” that produce wine served in goblets formed by the tears of ensorcelled trolls. More discovery came while exploring the details of how worshipers of Calistria celebrate her three “stings”: lust, guile, and revenge. When Radovan first meets the inquisitor Kemeili, he enjoys a taste of two of those right away. My “discovery” came not in the form of invention but in application: finding ways not only to show off the established setting but also to connect them to characters and their hidden motivations. All too often I hear self-professed “pantsers” complain of having trouble getting started or of getting stuck halfway through a great story. And I know there are times when a dedicated outliner faces a scene that seemed great in outline but later feels absolutely worthless. No matter whether you think of yourself as an architect or a gardener, consider mixing those philosophies to enjoy the best of both worlds.
About the Guest Author
Dave Gross is the author of several recent Pathfinder Tales novels, including Prince of Wolves, Master of Devils, and Queen of Thorns. His Forgotten Realms novels include Black Wolf and Lord of Stormweather, among others. His stories have appeared in anthologies ranging from Realms of Dragons to Tales of the Far West, and more recently in Shotguns v. Cthulhu and The Lion and the Aardvark. He has edited magazines including Dragon, Star Wars Insider, and Amazing Stories. While he continues to write novels and short fiction, he is also the lead writer at Overhaul games, developers of Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition.Check out “Killing Time,” a free Pathfinder Tale, as well as a sample chapter from Dave’s latest novel, Queen of Thorns.