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…

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

  1. While I do some planning & charting for all of my books, the truth is that this is probably the most intense I’ve done. This mystery has been a challenge me since it’s a departure from what I usually write, and truth be told, it’s pushing me to stretch and try some ideas I haven’t before. All good – but kind of intense when it comes to the paperwork!

  2. Thanks for this – makes my half-filled spiral notebook look like a joke. Worked fine for DLS, but the new book is more actiony and plot driven and I’m at a totally stuck point. Might have to try one of those outline thingys.

  3. We recently had a big discussion in my Kidlit Book Club about why mysteries are so hard to write, especially for MG readers. (We were reading The London Eye Mystery) Anyhow, your post just *proves* it.

    I also love your toolbox analogy. To be able to create what we wish—that’s the goal of acquiring those hard-won skills.

  4. Kate–Thanks for the look inside. I, too, always wonders what the process looks like for other writers!

  5. I had at least three false starts with this book – places where I had to stop and regroup (and in one case fly to DC) before I could continue. But I’m finding now in the revision stage that the high level of outlining has left me with a bit less of a mess than usual to clean up (imagine that!).

  6. Kate, thanks for the peek at your process, it’s totally amazing! I’m a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants writer and have never really outlined before, but with NED I had tons of research notes and a time-line along with the names of characters and places used in the story to keep everyone straight. And with my current WIP (the first of 4 books in my nonfiction series) I’m realizing that I need to stretch it out even more than I did for NED, so I’m may add some charts. Thanks for the ideas!

  7. Thank you for sharing!

    This is fascinating and educational for me…thank you for taking the time to put together this post!

  8. Is it okay to chime in and say that not every real writer uses an outline?

    Which doesn’t let Tyler off the hook. (Sorry Tyler!) Because the tricky thing about writing is that every writer writes differently, and for every writer something else will be the thing that gives you the best story possible, and you don’t know what kind of writer you are until you try everything. So you have to try outlining first (and probably try it more than once) to see whether it makes your stories better or not.

    And even if, acfter trying outlining a few times, you decide you’re not an outlining sort of writer, that doesn’t mean writing gets any easier. For me, not being an outlining writer means I am a revising writer. I don’t consider revision a failure–some new writers do–but I know I need to put in time, once I get my ideas down on the page, to shape them into the best story possible, and that means revising deeply, changing whole scenes and chapters, throwing as many pages away as I keep. (Some writers are so horrified by this they decide they’d rather outline.)

    All of which is a long-winded way of saying, whatever your writing process, there’s no way around the fact that it takes a lot of work to get a story on the page. Real writers work as hard now as we did on that very first school assignment.

    P.S. Also, there will always be editors and agents who, like your teacher, want to see an outline before they look at your story. So outlining is a useful skill to have, even if it turns out it’s not your preferred way to write.

  9. Wow… must be why I don’t write mysteries. Seems like to get a mystery right you have to figure out where to drop clues, etc., so this type of organization would be necessary. But I’m one of those “don’t outline at all” type writers. Sometimes I jot down notes if something important comes to me while I’m writing that I’m not ready to use yet, but that’s about it. I do, however, prewrite, building characters much in the way you’ve described here, only I do it mostly in my head. Which means for a couple of months before I start a new book, I talk to myself (I mean my characters) a lot.

  10. Awesome! Way more advanced than any of my plotting, but I always outline. I tell my students that if you’re someone who doesn’t *need* to do it, great for you, but for me, it’s truly the only sure safeguard against writers’ block.

  11. Oh, multiple pages really throw me for a loop. I have to be able to “see” the whole book, which is one reason that I write drafts using Scrivener now. Love it!

  12. I love that you added this, Janni! I find that with my character-driven novels, it works best for me to dive in and write for a while – then go back and plan. I actually tried doing that with the mystery and made a big, muddled mess. That’s when I turned to all the charts and such, which have helped a lot.

  13. My usual process involves less outlining than this. It’s the mystery aspect, as you mentioned, that really made things sticky for me, and I realized that I wasn’t going to get far without outlining.

    Thanks for sharing your process. Three of the 7th graders in my creative writing class are huge fans of yours and will enjoy reading this, too!

  14. There are definitely all kinds of writers, but I’m a big believer in having the tools. You don’t have to use them all the time, but I absolutely agree with you that outlines can save you when you’re stuck.

  15. Thanks!

    Thanks so much for posting this — great to see! I actually posed a similar question today to fellow writers. It was interesting to see comments and emails about their writing styles and how different everyone is. I’m in the process of writing a YA novel and am myself trying to figure out “my” method for planning.

  16. Thank you!

    Thanks for this post. We are in our fiction unit in Lucy Calkins Unit of Study in fourth grade. We just did a story map yesterday and I assigned some character work last night. Some of my students were wondering why you would work on details of your characters that might not make it into the story, and then your post appeared. They were beyond excited to see their beloved author of Gianna Z’s notes! (One child called out, “That’s the lady we Skyped with!” when your picture popped up. 🙂 Anyway, just wanted you to know that your post made some budding authors happy.

  17. Re: Thanks!

    I definitely think my method changes, too. I’m in the process of writing a realistic YA book and a historical fiction and the planning for them are drastically different!

  18. Jane planning involves books and reading, notes, folders, binders full of articles and information, lists, more lists, spreadsheets, and even the occasional trip and object. I’ll have to put up a process post someday when I have time to gather my visuals for it . . .

  19. I just LOVE that this is done all by hand. I can’t seem to organize this stuff on my computer and I’m glad someone else thinks like I do.

  20. Re: Thanks!

    One thing I’ve learned is that “my” method is different for almost every book. Would love to see more about your process when you post!

  21. I don’t know why but somehow, planning is still a paper-and-pencil activity for me. The shuffling of pages helps to connect things in my brain. I loved your post on this, too, Nancy!

  22. Question!

    Hi, my name is Nick, and i have been writing novels since i was in 7th grade. I am 18 now. My problem is that I have never finished a book. I have started on and planned over 15 books, each with really good plots and ideas. I have tried out different things like, not planning, and planning really well. But i have never planned like this before, so I am realllllllly happy to see this and I am going to try it for my current novel. But my question is, in parts where they may be fighting or sword fighting is it better to keep it short and detailed, or long? I tend to get so big of an idea for a fight scene it looks like it would only work on the big screen, are book fights only able to work when they are short and quick and left up for the readers to use their imagination? I dont know if you have wrote fighting scenes since you said you write children books, but it would be nice to know =D thanks!

  23. Re: Question!

    Hi, Nick! Thanks for stopping by my journal – I’m really glad you found the outlining stuff helpful.

    As far as a fight scene in a book – and I’ve only written a couple that are in my mystery – I guess I’d suggest writing it with a focus on the suspense more than the nitty gritty details of sword fighting or whatever. You don’t want it to go by too quickly because fight scenes are exciting, and they’ll hold readers’ attention and add to the tension, which is great. But…you also don’t want to get too bogged down in the details of the moves or anything; keep the action moving, I’d suggest, and keep things surprising. And when you finish writing it, show it to a writer friend or two to see if they have suggestions for how to make it even more exciting and suspenseful. Good luck!

  24. 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

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