Confessions of a NOP


Silk’s Post #63 — I’m looking forward to outlining my next book the way a cat looks forward to a visit with the vet.

Can someone remind me why I thought it would be a wonderful idea to start outlining, and even worse to make outlining the focus of our next 5writers challenge?

That’s right, in the first week of February next year – the 5th to the 8th, to be precise, if all goes according to plan – the 5writers will be hunkered down somewhere ripping apart each other’s outlines for our next books. Hopefully someplace warm. With a well-stocked wine bar. And another one of those giant bowls with half a candy counter dumped into it like the one Paula brought to Whistler. I estimated the bowl contents totalled about 15,000 calories.

See? I’m already wandering off the subject of outlining. That’s because – I admit it! – I’m a confirmed NOP. No Outline Person. Uncouth people call us “pantsers” – as in “flying by the seat of your pants.” And the closer our new deadline gets, the twitchier I’m becoming. By January, I’ll be hiding under the bed with the cat.

Oh, I know what you’re thinking. Suck it up, Silk. If anybody needs the discipline of an outline, it’s you – the 5writer who still hasn’t finished her book from last year.

I know you have a point. And I’ve listened to all the arguments about why outlining is the way to go.

Paula became a convert last year, whipping out her first action-packed YA novel in, like, two weeks thanks to her well-planned outline. Okay, maybe not two weeks, but fast. And no one has more story concepts than Paula, so the faster she can write, the better.

And Joe is keen because he’s tired of rewriting rewriting rewriting all his books. But then, Joe – our resident overachiever – has actually written many books (note the plural), so no wonder he’s tired of rewriting. I’m still stuck at one-and-a-half books, myself.

Karalee is enthusiastic too. But Karalee is congenitally enthusiastic – don’t I wish I had her energy! And she has the determination of Superwoman. She runs, she rows, she climbs mountains, for Pete’s sake! She’ll take to outlining like a duck to water.

And Helga … well, no one loves a cunning plot more. She aims high, emulating her idol, John le Carré, whose plots are famously complex, dense and intellectually challenging. Outlining is the perfect methodology to combine Helga’s favourite story ingredients in a meticulous recipe for intrigue. 

Yes, I get the logic, I really do. The case for outlining as a writer’s discipline that will help us get the plot job done – hopefully the first time. My angst about it isn’t coming from my cortex. It’s radiating up from my limbic brain. Feral fear of captivity. And, if I’m honest, a streak of cat laziness.

We all started as NOPs. Following the scent of our stories with our noses from the opening lines to sharply – or hazily –  imagined endings. But at some point in all our books, we’ve occasionally lost the trail and become mired in the Swamp of Saggy Middles. That’s why we’re trying to become OPs instead of NOPs. At least this once.

In his indispensable book Plot & Structure, writing guru James Scott Bell looks at the “longstanding feud between the NOPs and the OPs.” Here’s what he says about NOPs:

“The NOPs are the … happy folk [who] love to frolic in the daisies of their imaginations as they write. With nary a care, they let the characters and images that sprout in their minds do all the leading. They follow along, happily recording the adventures.

Ray Bradbury was a NOP. In Zen in the Art of Writing he says:

footprints‘Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations. Plot is observed after the fact rather than before. It cannot precede action. That is all Plot should ever be. It is human desire let run, running and reaching a goal. It cannot be mechanical. It can only be dynamic.’

The joy of being a NOP is that you get to fall in love every day. But as in love and life, there is heartache along the way.

The heartache comes when you look back and see nothing resembling a plot.”

Okay, so the OPs must be doing it right then … right James Scott Bell? He says:

“The OPS … seek security above all. They lay out a plot with as much specificity as possible. They may use 3″ x 5” cards, spread out on the floor or pinned to cork board, and rework the pattern many times before writing.

Or they’ll write a plot treatment, 40 or 50 pages written in the present tense. Then they’ll edit that like they would a full manuscript. And only then will they begin the actual novel. 

Albert Zuckerman, an OP, says in Writing the Blockbuster Novel

house-plan‘No sane person would think of setting out to construct a skyscraper or even a one-family home without a detailed set of plans. A big novel must have the literary equivalent of beams and joists strong enough to sustain it excitingly from beginning to end, and it also must contain myriad interlocking parts fully as complex as those in any building type.’

The value of the OP approach is that, with experience, one can virtually guarantee a solidly structured plot …

The danger, however, is the lack of that freshness and spontaneity the NOPs are known for. An OP may get to a place where one of the characters is screaming to do something other than what’s written down on a scene card. The OP fights the character, whipping him back into submission. But in doing so, he may have missed the exact angle that would make his plot original.”

All to say that there are multiple ways to fail with your plot – all of them easy to see in retrospect and easy to describe. But how to build a successful plot is much more elusive and difficult to prescribe.

What I know is that I’ve signed up for the outlining tour-of-duty and I’m going to march forward with determination towards that goal. Just the idea of 3″ x 5″ cards literally gives me hives, though, so it looks like I’ll be writing the 50-page plot treatment.

Hopefully I won’t have to have someone put me into an overlarge cat carrier, stick me on the back seat, and drive me – yowling – to the Great 5writers Outline Retreat in February.

That candy bowl better be there, though.

9 thoughts on “Confessions of a NOP

  1. Oh my, you’ve outdone yourself Silk!

    “…My angst about it isn’t coming from my cortex. It’s radiating up from my limbic brain. Feral fear of captivity. And, if I’m honest, a streak of cat laziness.”

    Marvellous! How can we not love this – if you devote even a tiny scintilla of the creative energy with which you’ve crafted this post – you’ll be laughing come February!

    • It scares me that I find it so much easier to spit out non-fiction essayish stuff than real stories. Practice practice practice.

  2. I completely understand your reluctance, Silk – I’m not an outliner by choice – but what I’ve found over the years of writing, is that even if I don’t write an outline before I start the story, one will develop in my mind as the chapters emerge on screen. The actions of the characters in the story will point to where the story has to go, and the more you get written, the narrower the future choices become. The only times I do outline are between drafts, to make sure I keep track of what has happened in the rough draft, and where things have to be, and what needs still to happen to raise the tension and make sure the story arc works properly.

    • Thanks for the good advice Bev! I suspect I’ll meet this 5writers outline challenge with some hybrid form of story plan. Reading about the preferred practices of many bestselling writers, it becomes very obvious that there’s no “one size fits all” formula!

  3. Great post, Silk. Glad you took the bull by the horns (after crawling out from your cat cage). I too am in the NOP camp, for better or worse. I’ve paid a price mind you, like having to shift into reverse when I got to a dead end and rewrite large parts of my manuscripts. But by doing so, I hope that I have gained some freshness rather than my story sounding stale. I reject nothing more than being controlled, so I find it difficult to change stripes when it comes to my approach to writing. To me, an outline (the more detailed the more so) feels like a tether around my throat, cutting off the oxygen my characters need to come alive. I realize that for other writers, an outline is exactly what they need to produce a great manuscript. The issue of what is the preferred method will never be solved. We are just simply different personalities so we have to go with what works best for us. All to say, this upcoming 5 writers project will be a big challenge. I will keep an open mind, and do my best. Maybe I will be pleasantly surprised.

    • I think it’s all part of the “try, try again” process. When we each get published – and it WILL happen – we’ll know what approach actually worked best for us!

  4. I feel your pain, having NOP’d my two manuscripts. But the cold reality revealed through my betas included that saggy middle and wayward story lines. And the revisions after revisions after revisions do get tiring. So on my rebuilds I’m trying a hybrid approach, figuring out the main plot points and making sure they’ll provide the increasing “tension” as I head toward “The End” but also allowing my characters a say in how they get from point to point. Of course, I’m hoping this will work!

    • Sounds like a plan JM! I do think there are many routes to the intended destination, though some are more circuitous than others. When we travel, I always prefer the scenic byways to the super highways, and I tend to write the same way. On the other hand, I’d like to GET THERE in this lifetime!

  5. Pingback: What the heck is a pantser?! | Linda Maye Adams

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