Real authors don’t plan…or do they? An open letter to Tyler

Dear Tyler,

So I heard a rumor today.  Is it true that you told your teacher that real authors don’t use story webs or outlines or plan their writing?  That real authors just write whatever comes into their heads and if they need to outline or do any prep work, they’re not real writers?


Your teacher dropped me a note to ask if I might be able to make you reconsider.  She’s a friend of mine and knows that I’ve written eight books for kids — three that are out now and five that will be published in 2010 and 2011.  And she has a pretty good idea what “real writing” looks like.

I told her I’d share some photos tonight, because I thought you might like to see this.

This is some of the pre-writing I’ve done for the book I’m writing right now. It’s a middle grade mystery called CAPTURE THE FLAG, and I’m finished with my draft, but I’ll be revising for a while now, trying to make it better. What you’re looking at in the photo includes:

  • A timeline showing where all the characters are throughout the story & what happens when (top left)
  • Page two of the timeline (top middle)
  • A list of things I needed to research (top right)
  • A character brainstorming chart with notes on the three kids’ personalities, interests, families, etc. (middle left)
  • A story web showing how the central mystery relates to the clues, villains, setting, etc. (middle right)
  • A plot diagram that I did to make sure the story gets more exciting as it goes along, right up to the climax (bottom left)
  • A chapter by chapter outline of characters, action, settings, plot threads, and theme connections (bottom center)
  • A chart listing secondary characters hanging around the airport where the story is set & their stories

And then there’s this…

It’s my revision to-do list, with jobs for each chapter.  I’m on Chapter 13 right now.

So do I do all this stuff for EVERY novel I write?  Nope. But I use a lot of it with each book. 

And do I ALWAYS outline and plan before I write?  Well, your teacher might not like this, but no.  Sometimes I just plunge in and write for a little while.  That kind of free-writing can help you get good ideas, but it’s also scattered and unorganized and hard for readers to follow, so even if I start a book by free-writing, I usually don’t make it all the way through.  Once I have an idea where the story is going, I stop and…. you guessed it… make an outline, a road map that can get me to the end.

Having practice with a lot of different kinds of brainstorming, story mapping, and outlining helps me make sure I have the skills I need to write whatever I want to write. It’s like having a big toolbox.  You might not need the hammer for every single project, but you’d sure be lost without it, and if you have one, you can pull it out whenever you need it.

So give the outline a try, okay?  Real writers do use the tools your teacher is talking about, and we use them all the time.

I hope your fantasy story turns out beautifully.

All the best,

~Kate Messner

P.S. I am sorry about this post.  I used to hate it when my teachers were right about things like this…

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.


  1. Posted May 3, 2012 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

    Very interesting post. I’m finding with the novel I’m writing now that I can’t write by the seat of my pants because there are too many unknowns. I have written a little bit – but like you said that was my way of getting ideas to go on with the story. I took the pictures that inspired my story and printed them out and pasted them on a small sheet of paper with some notes about each picture so I can work on my outline. The biggest thing for me is that this is totally different from anything I’ve ever written. Thanks for sharing your process – E 🙂

    Elysabeth Eldering
    Author of Finally Home, a YA paranormal mystery

    • Posted May 4, 2012 at 2:32 am | Permalink

      Somehow, I feel like everything I write is “totally different” from everything else – so I need new tools and strategies every time.

  2. Posted June 10, 2012 at 12:16 am | Permalink

    Fascinating! Thank You.

One Trackback

  • By Teachers Write! 6/11 Mini-Lesson Monday on June 11, 2012 at 9:23 am

    […] here’s a blog post I did on outlining/planning a while back called, “Real Authors Don’t Plan…Or do they? An open letter to Tyler.”  It shows all the different kinds of planning & outlining I did for my upcoming mystery, […]

  • Find Kate Online