Coloring within the (Out)lines

By Virginia Hartman

As I’ve been doing readings and Q & A sessions about my new novel, The Marsh Queen, one set of questions seems to recur: How did you come up with these characters, and how did you arrive at this particular story? When faced with these questions I’m reminded of a well-known dichotomy between two types of writers: those who are outliners (or “plotters”) and those who are “pantsers.” You may already know that the second group has earned their name by “flying by the seat of their pants”—letting the story develop as it will, wending its way to and fro, until they have a completed draft.

So how can a lack of detailed planning lead to a good story? The author behind the rangy amalgamation of narrative elements, characters, and a general excess of words must read and re-read draft after draft, rewriting sections as she learns more about the characters she’s put down on the page, looking for themes and patterns and connections. The outliners do a lot of organizing on the front end. The pantsers do a lot of re-organizing, shaving, and refining on the back end.

Oh, how I long to be an outliner. I resolve that on the next novel I start, I’ll do the preliminary work that will save me the overwhelming management task of arranging, rearranging, disassembling, and reassembling my raw material. I want to spare myself all this damn revising. I am, however, well into writing a second novel—which I did not begin with an outline. I now find myself at one of the many difficult points the non-outliner must contend with as she tries to construct a well-crafted novel. Some might say it’s one of the fun parts, but making everything connect is so much work! I started out with a couple of dissimilar narrative elements and put them together. Then the story grew as I followed my intuition. I drafted scenes and ideas, but the action didn’t flow. So I edited, reconstructed, threw whole sections out, changed my mind about where the center should lie, and found a better shape, all the time asking myself, “What is the essence that must run all the way through?”

Outliners probably know this from the beginning. James Ellroy, author of 19 popular novels to date, has said that each of his books is “mapped right down to the paragraph break. The outline is written by hand.” He has an assistant type his outline and “it’s there at my desk. I come over to it and refer to it all the time, and then I write the book.”(1)

Those of us who do not outline are constantly reading the manuscript and trying to get it all to make sense. I often do so much of this I can hardly look at it anymore. Then I have to put it away, forget about it, and work on some other obsession for a while. When I come back, I can see what I’ve left hanging, fix that, and then show it to other trusted writers and readers who tell me what else I have yet to tie together. It’s time consuming and often vexing.

For The Marsh Queen, when people ask the question about how the story came to be, I’ve given one of two answers. The first comes from a Virginia Woolf quote from A Writer’s Diary, which I copied and stuck on my office wall: “Arrange whatever pieces come your way.” That would sound a bit haphazard if it weren’t for the word “arrange.” The Marsh Queen is filled with snippets of overheard dialogue, a facial expression I saw and never forgot, and the kinds of specific physical impressions that I’ve carried around for years.

The second way I talk about the evolution of this particular story is to say that when I’m not writing, I like to make quilts out of colorful fabric scraps. Though it gives me a break from words and provides visual, tactile, and spatial pleasures, quilting does share qualities with assembling a novel. The fabric scraps have different textures, weight, color value, and tone, but if you throw them all up on a design wall, take some out, reposition others, and put just the right colors and shapes next to each other, the process can result in a large, satisfying pattern that makes sense to the eye and, when finished, can comfort the person snuggled within it. Like a novel, the quilt can be stunning or intriguing or fun, depending on the particular placement of scraps.

But there’s a problem with these two descriptions: both of them congratulate the pantser. And the pantser is a status I wish to renounce! So why am I so drawn to Alice McDermott’s craft advice in her book What About the Baby? when she says,

The novelist at her desk, in the midst of composition…can, indeed, relive the pivotal incident; she can, in fact, remake it, reshaping it to match its consequences; she can tweak the trivial moment until it resounds down the years; she can turn a barely noticed character trait into an unavoidable, already-composed fate; she can not only return to discover what Frank O’Connor calls the moment after which nothing else is ever the same, but can return and insert that moment—if only she will reread what she has already set down.(2)

To be fair, outliners probably do this as well, just not as much, perhaps, as the meanderers.

Writer Art Taylor, who teaches English at George Mason University and has won many awards for his fiction, said in a recent conversation that he rides the line between “plotter” and “pantser.”

“I’d say I’m a ‘plantser,’” he laughed, combining the two terms. “I sketch out the sense of the overall scope of a story and map out the journey, but the detours or wrong turns can often take me to a better place, so I’m open to changes along the way, especially when I find that a plot complication needs to be more tense or layered.”(3)

Alice McDermott also refers to writing as a sort of journey.

“…if you have courage enough to sail your novel into the unknown, then you will, inevitably, encounter the unexpected. And if the unexpected is what we hope to find as readers, shouldn’t we welcome it as writers, as well? And if welcoming the unexpected means our original scheme for the novel gets swamped, if it means that we look back at what we’ve written thus far and see no prospect of life in it, fine.”(4)

Jeffery Deaver, a writer with at least 40 novels under his belt, has said he wants to eliminate as many wrong turns as possible. “[M]y outlines are very extensive…about a hundred pages long.” He explained that the pre-planning saves him time. “Some of my ideas probably won’t work. And if I start out with an outline, I learn within a week or so—ten days—that it’s not going to be a book, and I throw it out. If I start writing, and have 100, 200, 300 pages of decent prose and then realize it’s not going anywhere, look how much time I’ve wasted.”(5)

I can see his logic, but I’m not sure I trust myself to color within strict lines. Still, I refuse to give up on my ambition! Art Taylor’s assertion that you can map out your book and still be surprised as you go along gives me courage to believe there will still be room to clarify patterns and probable causes, raisons d’etre, and the palpable but unnamable quality that fiction must have if it is to seep into readers’ pores, grab them by the throat, and allow them to live the story through their bodies.

Do I outline a quilt? Sure I do. I sketch it out, but within my plan I leave room to improvise and try new things. Can I outline the next story I tell? Please, God, let the answer be yes.

Virginia Hartman’s novel The Marsh Queen just came out this fall from Gallery/ Simon & Schuster. She has an MFA from American University, and teaches at George Washington University and at The Writer’s Center.

1. Berkowitz, Joe. “How to Write a Crime Novel Like James Ellroy,” Fast Company, October 13, 2014., accessed 10/20/22.
2. McDermott, Alice. What About the Baby? New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021, pp 108-109.
3. Taylor, Art, personal interview, 10/20/22.
4. McDermott, p 121.
5. Jeffery Deaver’s comments come from a YouTube interview he did with a representative of HEC Books May 18, 2020., accessed 10/20/22.

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