• NaPoWriMo Interview: Pen Stroke on Heavy Outlining v.s Natural Flow


    We've got a special one for you today! Pen Stroke, author of fandom classics Past Sins, Wise Beyond Her Years, and more, is here to give us some advice on heavy outlining v.s natural flow.

    While us NaPoWriMo authors might be digging deep into our stories by now, I thought it'd be good to take a look into the planning side of things in case you realize you need to do a little more of it (or, maybe less).

    So, join me below the break for a discussion with Pen Stroke.



    MARVEL: When you're dreaming up the next Wise Beyond Her Years or Past Sins, how do you approach it? Has it changed over time at all?

    PEN STROKE: For me, at least, it hasn't changed much. Stories, for me, come when I have an idea that strikes me as interesting. Unless I have a base idea, a sort of mental short description of the story, then I usually find myself struggling early on in the creative process. This happened last year about this time when I wanted to write a sequel for Sunset Slayer. I got some initial groundwork done, reestablishing the world. I, however, quickly found myself totally blocked. I didn't have a core idea of what was going to happen in the story, so I didn't know what to do next. I didn't know the story's core idea beyond "a sequel to X."

    It's kind of that old conundrum that sometimes people can be more creative when they are trying to answer a particular question or solve a particular problem. Having even a basic idea of what you want to see happen in a story, or what your trying to accomplish in a story, can help you nurture the story during in first stages, whether you go into outlining or straight into writing.


    MARVEL: How detailed does that "basic idea" have to be for you? And what do you do after you have it?

    PEN STROKE: I think the amount of detail the basic idea needs depends on how far you want to take it. I feel how deeply do you want to explore an idea matters a great deal. To give some examples, a lot of my writing tends to start when I'm thinking about an answer to a question.

    Past Sins: What would it take for Nightmare Moon to redeem herself without getting blasted by a rainbow? 
    Little Sugar Shop of Horrors: What would happen if I crossed Little Shop of Horrors with MLP, and had it star Pinkie?
    Morsel of Truth: How did the Nightmare Night legend of bribing Nightmare Moon with candy originate?

    Though each question is only a single sentence, the resulting stories were vastly different in size, depth, tone, and complexity. Part of the reason for that variance is because of how much I, the author, wanted to explore a given idea. When it comes to fan-fiction, I feel your own level of interest in a subject is a heavy factor. It plays a big role in determining how much time and effort you can motivate yourself to devote to a story. Morsel of Truth ended up being a single chapter long because that's the amount of energy I wanted to devote to the story. But, if I had an interest in delving into the subject further, I could have possibly taken the story on a different path. Even now, as I'm doing this interview, I can think of a way I could have changed the ending of the existing story to extend it into at least one more chapter.

    So, if you're looking to write a big, epic story, you better have an idea you really want to delve into and explore, because it's a story you're going to be working on for months or even years.

    On the other hand, if you just want to write a quick little short story, one that maybe asks more questions than it answers, you don't need to be as familiar with your basic idea before you start writing.

    Still, once I feel like I have developed an idea enough, I usually start writing the first chapter. That, however, I know is something other authors wouldn't dream of doing. It's usually at this point in the writing process you really start to see the divergence between authors who free flow write and those who carefully outline and plan their stories before ever beginning their first chapter.


    MARVEL: That's so interesting. It's usually been quite the opposite for me personally, outlining scene by scene so I know the narrative purpose of each (or most scenes) going in. There's definitely merit to both approaches. I don't think anyone can argue otherwise.

    But that makes me wonder: Since you don't tend to plan the structure of a story out ahead of time, how do go about building things like character arcs, plot structures, etc.?

    PEN STROKE: In a way, I'd say it's something like being along for the ride along with my characters. It's part of the reason why methods that rely on heavier outlining don't tend to work for me. I've found that once I've laid out clearly what happens in a story, once I know the story myself and all its nuances, I lose some of my motivation to write the story. That's part of the joy I get from writing Fanfiction, or even creative writing in general. I get to tell the story to myself, in some capacity.

    It is, in a way, like I'm setting up an improv session between the characters. I place the actors on the stage, try to keep their motivations in mind, and then let things move forward based on how the characters would naturally act. Of course, for this method to work, you do have to know your characters fairly well. And it can at times lack the preplanned depth that can exist in a more outlined story. Yet, at the same time, I feel that my method of writing leads to paths in a story that might not have otherwise been explored. Morsel of Truth is a pretty good example of this. Each of the Mane 6 is presented with a very similar scenario at the start of their scene, but it is their reactions to that scenario that change how each scene plays out.

    Though, I will also add that I do generally have a plan in my head. I usually at least know the next major plot point I want to get too, so the story doesn't start wandering aimlessly. But writing it down, I feel, sometimes locks the story in too much to a single path where, during the process of writing a story, I may trip over a new direction for the plot I couldn't have possibly conceived during an initial planning phase.

    I guess that is another big piece of advice I can give. No matter how much you plan when your working on a story, you should be flexible. Very few, if any, outlines are going to go unchanged between the first word of a story and the last. A story shouldn't be treated like a house to be built, but a garden to be grown. You may have a plan, but you have to also be ready to adapt as your story grows and changes.


    Excellent advice, indeed. If you haven't given yourself these treats, you can find Pen Stroke's wonderful stories here.

    As I mentioned in the interview, I'm much more of a planner than a pantser and even I can attest flexibility is key. The process of outlining and writing are two different beasts. In outlining, I tell myself the barebones of a story. Twilight does x, this moves the story forward y ways.


    What really brings it to life, and I think the reason I don't lose interest is the process of writing itself. The details that make characters 3-dimensional and nuanced. The dialogue and interplay between characters. And regardless of how true I stay to the outline, there's always some elements that change. A lot of the time, for the better!

    This is why a good outline makes me more excited than anything else. I can look forward to writing those scenes! I can look forward to seeing how my characters, the little rascals, will totally disobey me! 

    I wanted to add this bit at the end for contrast because there is no wrong way to approach a story, only a wrong way for you. Maybe right now you're a planner, but you quickly get bored of the stories you outline like Pen described. Maybe you try to dive in without a map and find your way via the characters, but end up only finding you need more structure to guide your journey. 

    There's something to be said for both methods, and in experimenting with each, you can find the method that works best for you.

    So, how are you doing things this month? Do you have a master plan or a basic idea and let your characters do the rest? It's early days still, but is it working well for you so far?

    And just a reminder because we've just about doubled the amount of submissions since the month began: this year you can still enter NaPoWriMo until November 8th at 11:59 pm blog time. Send in your submission to [email protected] (i.e. Author Name: _____, Word Count Goal: _____ Story Title(s): ________) to join in! 

    For archival purposes, you can find the IntenseDebate comments for this post (if any) archived over here