Paint by Numbers




I attended the DFW Conference in Dallas last week, which was truly a wonderful experience which I will detail for you in another post, but the topic today is something I heard at the conference. What that was got under my skin so much that I have to exorcise it before it festers.

I’m sure everyone is familiar with the eternal debate/discussion of plotter vs pantser. It’s one of those questions that if you talk to a writer for any length of time will eventually come up. Does your writing process involve making some version of an outline before the actual writing begins (plotting), or do you make up the story as you go along (pantsing)?

I’m a plotter…always have been, but I know plenty of writers from both sides of the aisle. Personally, I can’t fathom writing any other way, but I realize there is no ONE RIGHT WAY to write a book. The conversation about which method works the best has always been neutral, both sides realizing that whatever works…works for them. But at the conference this past weekend I heard not one, but TWO, rather famous writers refer to using an outline as “painting by the numbers”. I was in shock the first time it came out, but I chalked it up to the presenter fumbling for a clarifying thought and maybe they ended up expressing themselves poorly. But then I heard it again, from a different presenter! It flew all over me this time. This wasn’t some isolated brain-fart where someone groped for an explanation and chose badly…like a slipping climber latching onto an electrical wire instead of a rope. No, it was as if both authors were saying that those of us who choose to utilize an outline were less creative and not as spontaneous – that marking a canvas ahead of the time for brush strokes limited the creator and compelled them to stay within the lines. Even though one of the writers backtracked later and admitted that using an outline would probably make her a more efficient writer, the damage was already done.

Here’s what bothers me. Though both of the authors may not have meant it in such a way, the connotation their analogy provokes does not shine a favorable light on out-liners. Do any of you wonder if outlining squelches the creative process and forces writers to become regimented and deliberate? Let me enlighten you. Not at all…not for this writer! How common is this belief though? It’s also possible that one of the authors may have actually heard it from the other, which could even be worse. These analogies spread like wildfire, and how many other conferences will these two be speaking at in the near future?

The morale of the story…do not try and explain how different writing styles are viewed through your eyes. The better approach for both of these authors would have been to simply comment with something like – “Outlining doesn’t work for me.” Instead they both chose to explain something in an off-handed manner they clearly don’t understand, and in the process they lost a future reader.

Rant over.

15 comments

  1. Hi DL - well done for ranting ... I know - no reason to have an opinion over something one hasn't tried ... Hope you can forget it .. looking forward to reading the good news from the conference - cheers Hilary

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  2. I have to outline. If I don't my MS is a hot mess and not very creative since I just go with the first thing in my head. Rant away!

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    1. I'm good now. Just had to get that out of my system. :)

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  3. I can't outline. If I know where the story is going, I get bored with it. So I write and see where the characters take me. I think I have to revise more than plotters, but I've tried plotting and I lose the will to write the book once I know everything ahead of time.

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    1. Like they say...to each their own. Just don't disparage the others...purposely or not. :)

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  4. I'm a plotter too. When I first started though, when I was a kid, I just wrote whatever came to mind. But ever since I rewrote my first series, I've outlines like a villain. :P

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  5. I'm in between. I generally start with a general idea, then write scenes as they become clearer (not necessarily in chronological order), and then I connect all the scenes and fill in the blank spaces and smooth the transitions between scenes. So there's a very loose outline, with plenty of room for spur of the moment discoveries.

    The problem with the "paint by numbers" analogy is that the author who outlines isn't simply filling in someone else's pre-ordained canvas with the specified colors. The plotter has created the outline and chooses everything that goes into the story. He or she has as much creativity and authority over the story as the pantser. I don't see why the plotter should be viewed as "less" simply for having a clearer idea of where the story is going from the outset and for putting it all down in an outline.

    Ugh. Sorry you had to struggle with this. Let it go and outline on! ;)

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    1. This was clearly a case of not thinking through the analogy before using it...and it backfired. At least I hope that was the case. :)

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  6. I WISH I could be a better outliner! I tend to have a blend of both styles, but the thought that one is Right is ridiculous. In any creative endeavour, there always be an infinite number of ways to create. None of them are wrong, and implying that one is superior is silly.

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  7. Paint by numbers, huh? I have a better one - those who outline are putting a puzzle together with the picture in front of them.
    My work would look like some crappy new age art if I didn't outline. I need to know where I'm going and generally how I will arrive at that point. But there is still plenty of room for creativity between the first line and the last.

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  8. Ranty Don - I like it :)

    I am a weird hybrid. I do a very light outline - one page - a bullet point for each scene or chapter. Sometimes I pants a little more and start a new idea before I outline, but at some point I have to stop and do that little basic outline so I know where I'm going. Otherwise I get stuck at some point. But it is SO not paint by numbers - I LOVE when my muse stomps all over my outline and throws in a twist! I think certain people could run the risk of being too rigid with their outlines - I hear of people doing 50 page outlines, which seems fairly over the top. But as long as you still let inspiration move you, then I say outlining is awesome! I reverse outline too, to go back and make sure all my plots and subplots tie out, check for character arc, pacing, etc. It is definitely a bit insulting for those writers to be saying that at a conference. Really, the only true permanent unyielding writing advice is to WRITE. No excuses.

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