The Only Question You Need / Carter Wilson

Outlining is an essential step for some writers! An outline can be a helpful tool to keep us on track and meet our goals. They aren’t for everyone though! This week’s guest blogger, Carter Wilson, discusses his experience with outlines and why he made the choice not to use them.

Happy reading!

Clay Stafford
Clay Stafford
Founder Killer Nashville
Publisher / Editorial Director Killer Nashville Magazine

Screw outlining.

That’s easy for me to say, because I suck at it. Sure, I had tried, but never in earnest. So after I’d written a few books, I decided to give outlining a series go — notecards and everything. I spent nearly six months outlining an idea I had for a book, and you know what happened? I got so bored with everything I threw the entire story out the window, never to return (I barely remember the original idea now).

I am what is called a classic Pantser (as in writing from the seat of). This, as opposed to my Plotser colleagues, who can see the entirety of a story, start to finish, before they actually write it out. So, after four published novels and a fifth under contract, I have learned one unalterable truth. In writing, I remain a dedicated Panstser and all I ever need to do is continually ask myself one question:

What if?

What if? is the question that drives the story for me. And this question has a sister: what does that mean? Let me elaborate.

All my books start out with an idea of an opening scene. That’s it. No sense of any character, no arc for the story, and certainly not an ending. Just a (hopefully) gripping opening scene, one I’d like to read myself, or see in a movie. In my award-winning novel, The Comfort of Black, I initially opened with a sex scene between a husband and wife. My nugget of an idea was theirs was a stale and fracturing marriage, and the scene would be meaningful because, despite their struggles, they’ve decided to try to conceive a child, and this night was their first concerted effort. They finish, the husband falls asleep, and the wife sits in bed, mulling the possibility of becoming a mother. Then, I thought:

What if the husband starts talking in his sleep? And what if his sleep-talking is about raping and killing someone?

What does that mean? How would the wife react? What is he hiding? What does she do next?

Oh, the possibilities.

Or this opener, from my latest release, Revelation:

A college student regains consciousness in a dimly lit, dirt-floor cell. There are two things in the cell with him: the eviscerated body of his friend, and an ancient typewriter. There’s a stack of blank paper next to the typewriter, and on the top sheet is a single, typed sentence. You’re the writer, tell me a story.

Holy hell, what does that mean?

Those two opening scenes were the only ideas I had for the books, because all I tend to think about is what if? And answering that question is where I derive nearly all of my enjoyment in writing. I love not knowing what the hell I’m doing. I love subjecting a character to a highly intense experience for about 100 pages, and then spending the next 300 pages trying to figure out what it all means. I learn as my character learns. Things evolve, storylines develop organically, and suddenly, at some point in the novel, it pops. All the answers unfold. And, because the answers often surprise me, they end up (usually) surprising my readers as well. And it’s so satisfying.

But pure Pantsing is not for the faint of heart. Some downfalls:

  • You will absolutely sit for hours and not have a clue what the next chapter should be about.
  • You could be 300 pages in and realize 1) you don’t have answers to your questions, 2) your answers are completely implausible, 3) your story is stupid and you’re doomed.
  • You have to do A LOT of revising, mostly because of the three points above.
  • You have to heavily rely on your subconscious to figure everything out.
  • You could think of a what if at the end of the story that’s so good you can’t ignore it, but you’d have to change everything before it.

All of these above have happened to me. And that’s okay, because the enjoyment for me is the high-risk/high-return proposition of just starting with an engaging scene and building around it, one grain of sand at a time.

At the moment, I’m working on the biggest What if? opening scene I’ve ever written (no spoilers here). And the reason I love not knowing what comes next is because of the equal parts of fear and excitement it stirs in me.

Here’s hoping I don’t screw it all up.

USA Today best-selling author Carter Wilson explores the depths of psychological tension and paranoia in his dark, domestic thrillers. His novels have received critical acclaim, including multiple starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and Library Journal. Carter is also the winner of the Colorado Book Award, the International Book Award, and the National Indie Excellence Award. His fourth novel, Revelation, was released in December 2017 by Oceanview Publishing. He resides outside of Boulder, Colorado in a spooky Victorian house.

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Thanks to Tom Wood, Arthur Jackson, and publisher/editorial director Clay Stafford for their assistance in putting together this week’s blog.

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