I'm rolling down the home stretch for On a Crooked Track, just a couple of chapters from the end. Not only is the book almost finished, but it's the fourth and final book of The Chained Adept series, so it's been more of a marathon than a sprint. (Or, at least, it's a bigger dog than the others on the track).
The first book of the series was published in February, 2016, and the fourth and last will be published in early January, 2017. That's four books in one year, and a new “first” for me. (And if I'd been more focused over the summer and early fall, maybe I could have squeezed one more in.)
All four entries were written without outlines. In other words, instead of taking the “plotter” approach (outlining), like my first series The Hounds of Annwn, I went for the “pantser” approach (seat of my pants). Practically speaking, I knew what the major high-points in each book would entail when I started, more or less, but everything along the way was as much of a discovery for me as it is for my readers. I kept track of my structure to keep things moving along, so that the books would be well-formed, and was surprised how easy that was considering I didn't know where the plot was going until I got there.
You see, I find what happens is that your subconscious knows what it wants. This may be only my eighth novel in the Fantasy genre, but I've read thousands of them, and my subconscious knows what makes a good one work.
The difference in day-to-day writing is subtle. Let's say you have a character to kill. If you were outlining, you might decide how to kill him, and then go back and plant the murder weapon in a room that you described in an earlier chapter so that it will be handy in the chapter where he dies. In other words, you come up with a rational plot element and make sure the story supports it.
But when you're “writing into the dark” (another term for “pantsing”), you end up writing a room description with various objects that make sense in the context of that scene, and then later on, when it's time to kill the character and you don't know how you're going to do it, the little reader in your head says… “but, but, I remember this clue… I bet it was that alien artifact with a curious design that was described a few chapters ago,” and your creative mind says, “hey, that's not a bad idea. I should make that the weapon instead of what I was vaguely thinking of.” Or you might even say, “wait, not the alien artifact — that's too obvious. But what about the seemingly innocuous case that was built to hold it? Wouldn't that be even better? That would let me add all sorts of misdirection.”
In other words, rather than plan your crime rationally, you can let it evolve organically, the same way it might tease the reader into wondering if something in that room (in retrospect) had something to do with the murder. That sort of play between your subconscious reader and your creative plot spinning has the potential to send your plot off in more interesting directions than you can rationally devise on a blank piece of paper, as long as you don't shut down the possibilities ahead of time.
Many writers talk about the difficulty of making sure that their characters get to place X in time to meet up with villain Y to steal object Z — lots of difficult (and potentially boring) logistics that have shaky plot mechanics. How much more fun it is to send your characters along to a logical-to-them place, and discover, just like the reader, why the villain would meet them there (or not), or how object Z might come into play (or maybe object ABC would be even better, and closer to hand, and be stolen from a different villain).
I discovered with my first series that my rational outlines were being abandoned ever earlier in the writing. The basic tent-poles of the story survived — those were key emotional highlights — but the details and the drivers were much more entertaining and less predictable if I didn't try to pin them down too far ahead of time. So when I started this second series, I decided to go all the way, with no more outline than the handful of key incidents (details fuzzy).
It's scary to write this way. You begin with essentially a blank sheet of paper and an initial starting sequence, with a few milestones to hit, but there are thousands of ways to hit those milestones, and they can be swapped out for better ones as you go along.
As in all my series books, each novel is a book with a complete story — no cliffhangers. But still the series as a whole has its own arc that must be satisfied.
My heroine, Penrys, began with questions about her origin, discovered others like herself, met a man and married him, took on a role of fighting as necessary to save people from others like herself, discovered many more like herself, and tried to track down the questions of their origin, all in the context of some specific magical technologies and her own personal history and growth. I had no concept, writing the first book, what the answers to any of her questions were. I had no more idea of what was coming than my readers did, or my heroine.
The more I wrote, the more I knew about my characters and how they might logically behave, the relationships they would have with each other, and how they might credibly work through the goals and questions they had. And now, as I near the completion, I know all those answers, and so does Penrys. But in the process, she has answered questions she never knew she had, found out what was important for her life, and grown into a genuine hero without losing her humanity.
I could never have plotted this out over four books ahead of time.
For my next series, The Affinities of Magic, I'm planning more of a continuing series, where each book will be, as it were, another case, though my characters will grow and change and their own goals will evolve over the length of the series.
I think I'll stick with the “pantsing” approach, though — it's such an exhilarating way to write!