Generating Story 14: Freewriting from Inquiry to Outline to Scene to Draft with Author Maya Lassiter

Maya Lassiter is an unschooling mom, a yogini, a goat keeper, a yurt dweller, and a pantsy fantasy writer. Or should I say very likely soon to be less pantsy and more of a juggernaut? We shall see.  The initial results of her attempt to go from writing by the seat-of-your-pants to doing more pre-draft development seems to be paying off big time in less stress and higher word counts in each writing session.  I asked Maya to share her method with us. Here’s what she had to say.


At one hundred pages in on my eighth novel, I ran aground and could not seem to move forward an inch.  This was totally normal.  As a pantser, I pretty much always ran aground at some point, usually many times per novel, and then had to go back and rewrite, revise, redraft, finding the point I had gone off the rails and fixing things until finally I could get the train drafting moving once again.  Of course, even after all that, I would still go back to the beginning again, once I had hit then end, for revisions were where I found the book out of the mass of stuff I had gotten down by the seat of my writerly pants.  It was usually for four or five more drafts.  Grueling, exhausting work. 

This time, however, staring at the choked up, broken manuscript before me, I had had enough.  I decided I wanted to be one of those people who planned their book: to heck with this pantsing crap. I wanted to write a draft that hung together the first time through.  I wanted this whole novel writing thing to be easier.

In deciding this, however, I realized I had no idea how to proceed.  It’s one thing to say, “I want an entirely new way to do this,” and quite another to actually know what that new way is.  So, I did what any avid reader does when trying to figure anything out: I went to the library.  I checked out a giant stack of books–anything about writing fiction, or writers talking about their work, or editors talking about their writers.  I read it all. 

In the process, I might have figured out how those outliners do it.

Pantsing, for me anyway, involves figuring everything out in the draft.  Following your nose, your characters, your muse, your whim, and learning about your story as you go, often right along with your protagonist.  I had previously given up on outlining (multiple times) because, how can you outline what you don’t know, and how can you know if you haven’t written it yet?

I found one solution to this in Alan Watts’s The 90 Day Novel.  In a word, free-writing.  In fact, 30 days of his 90 are spent just making stuff up, fooling around, free-writing without intending to keep a word of it, all using Watt’s copious question prompts about your story, your protagonist, or your antagonist, whenever you need to, to prime the pump.

So I tried it.  And after 30 days, I knew a ton about my story I hadn’t already figured out—even though I had already written 100 pages of a draft.  (A draft that was riddled with problems, and now I could see what the pieces were.)  Basically, inquiring into the story and characters, and fooling around in longhand to find answers, brought many insights, including flashes of scenes, scraps of dialogue, the voices of the characters coming to life, new ideas….

At some point I started listing these flashes out.  That is, any time I actually saw a scene-let from my novel spring to life in my head, I wrote it down.  I got an out-of-order laundry list this way of bits and pieces of the book-to-be, and I kept adding to it as the 30 days progressed.  Until one day I realized that two or three of those scene-lets could come together and become a true scene.  And that this bit ought to go in front of that bit–the beginnings of a plot!  Basically, the list started organizing itself as I figured out more about the story through those free-writes.  Magic.

Watts also makes use of a three-act structure and slotting my proto-scenes and full scenes (as I found them) into his structure helped me see where there were holes…which brought more questions and more inquiry, which brought more free-writing, free-wheeling, answers.  I think any structure could work for this step: a romance structure, a puzzle structure, a plot-coupon epic, a coming of age story, whatever you know and love and want to use. 

So, the laundry list, the scene list sequence, and then playing with that scene list within a structure template, these were the three steps that took me from a mass of free-written, stream of consciousness stuff, to a pretty clear idea of the arc of the story, beginning, middle, and end.  With lots of information along the way.

At this point, I was at the end of Watts’s 30 days, the point at which he starts to draft in earnest….but I still wanted more than a laundry list of scenes, even an organized one.  I wanted a tighter sense of the thing.  I wanted less WORK and flailing about as I wrote.  So I took a page from Holly Lisle’s technique–a very similar one, I have learned, to a technique in Victoria Schmidt’s book, Book in a Month, that she supposedly got from Nora Roberts, and on it goes.  What you do is you take an index card for each scene and write a single sentence on it that sums up that scene.  The sentence includes five parts: [A protagonist with a need][in conflict with][an antagonist with a need][in an interesting setting][with a twist].  If you’ve got all five of those parts for each and every scene, you’re going to have tight scenes that move the story along, with no dangling bits or wandering (re: getting lost). 

I took the “twist” part of that formula and read it to be similar to a central idea in Robert McKee’s book, Story, something he calls the Turn.  Basically, your character walks into a scene expecting X and the general energy charge of the scene is either postive + ish, or negative – ish.  Then something happens, or something is revealed, that changes all that, turns those expectations upside down.  That’s the Turn.  Whatever the charge was to begin with, it is now very different, either much further than it was (really + or really -) or the opposite charge altogether.  If a scene doesn’t have a Turn, it isn’t a scene.  If the charge doesn’t change, you get a monotony in your manuscript.

All right.  I took my scene list and converted it into Sentence-per-Scenes on index cards, making sure each sentence had all 5 components, more or less, especially including the Turn.  Surprise, there were 28 scenes in this novel.  How about that?

If I wrote 28 cards-worth of material, I’d have a complete novel draft.  It seems so doable, when it’s put like that.

But I wasn’t done yet.  I remembered a blog post I had read a while back about increase productivity–and remember, this whole experiment was to see if I could make novel writing an easier, more streamlined process.  Maybe I would fail, maybe writing novels for me was always going to be guts and angst, but I wanted to see what was possible.  I mean, why not, right?  So I went and found that post, a post on Rachel Aaron’s blog, called How I Went from Writing 2000 Words a Day to 10000 Words a Day.  (  )  One of her primary tricks was to figure out what you were going to write for five or ten minutes–just fool around long hand on a page or two, before you start drafting until the scene is clear in your mind before you start drafting.  It was sort of like Alan Watts’s 30 days of free-writing, in miniature. 

I also remembered another writer, Laurel Amberdine, talking about her trick of priming the pump for a scene with a sort of cheat sheet she had invented, a list of things she wanted to be sure to hit in each scene–not as a checklist, but as more writing prompts to help her find the details of the scene before drafting.  I went looking for that in our writer’s group threads, merged it with John Brown’s take on that same list, and then added on some questions from McKee’s Story, and I came up with my own prompt-sheet, designed for 10-15 minutes of pre-writing before starting each of my 28 scene cards.  Here it is:

One Sentence Description:

Problem:  What does the main character want in this scene?

What persons or forces stand in the way?  What do they want?

Value:  What is the value at stake?

Describe the charge, positive or negative, for the main character as the scene opens.
Described the value charge as the scene closes.

Turning Point:  When does a gap open between expectation and result?  Describe it.

Beat Pattern:  Comment on any of the action/reaction exchanges that may occur.

– Fun, cool, weird, odd, particular details, surprises for reader
– Time, weather, etc.
– Background or world building details?

– What’s the situation for each character?
– Who is driving this scene?
– What is his/her concrete objective?
– What does each of the others want (motive)?
– Fun & cool stuff?  Surprises for reader?

– Progress or trouble?
– Points of conflict?
– Obstacles?

Current Situation:
Setting, and significant details:
Next big crisis:
Background/worldbuilding details:
Desired effect in reader:
Character’s unique reactions:
Ending hook:

Print one of these out, read my scene card, and start fooling around with the prompts.  By the time the page was filled up, the scene was clear in my mind, often with dialogue written, emotional beats I wanted to hit, and most importantly, the Point of it all, that Turn.  Not to mention foreshadowing, setting goodies, backstory bits I needed to get in, all of it on a single, handy page.

Of course, at this point I had about a half-dozen different writer’s processes rolled together into a giant mash-up that was sure to do me in with sheer weight and complexity.  But so what–this was in the name of Science!  Throw everything against the wall and see what sticks!

With card #1, built off the bones of my 30 days of free-writing, and my filled up, front and back, worksheet (took about fifteen minutes), I banged out the first scene chapter, 6000 words, in about 3 hours.  That’s double my usual top speed of 1000 words an hour, but who’s counting?  The main thing: it was perfectly painless.

My scene card #2 was written similarly in record time, the words flowing easily, no staring into space or getting lost, just smooth, lovely writing.

Plus, I wasn’t at all having the feared, “why write it if you know what’s going to happen?” thing that so many pantsers cite as their reason for not outlining.  On the contrary, I was very excited about each scene because I knew just what was so cool about it, where the juice was coming and why, and I was psyched to get in there and make it as awesome as I knew it could be. 

In other words, I could focus on the HOW because the WHAT had already been determined.

I won’t know, of course, until I finish card #28 whether the process will really work. And I REALLY won’t know until I do a revision pass on the complete draft to see if what I’ve got is any good.  So think of this post as a progress report from the trenches.  I’m up to scene card 6 so far, 16,000 words in, and its still going well, easy writing sessions at double my usual speed and no flailing. 

Too soon to tell, but tentative conclusion…maybe a pantser really can become a plotter?

John Sez

Isn’t that absolutely fantastic?

By simply taking some time to freewrite, which is just another term for sketching, she has been able (so far) to take out a ton of pain AND increase her word count. And increase it dramatically. So let’s see again how she does it.

Step 1: Sketch the story using questions as prompts

  1. Sketched using inquiry and freewriting a la Alan Watt’s The 90-Day Novel. Among many other things, that pre-draft development generated a number of scenes and scene snippets. (Hum, “inquiry” and “freewriting”; why, they’re just another form of creative Q&A. That dang creative Q&A is popping up everywhere!)
  2. Kept a list of the scenes she saw.
  3. Sequenced the list in a this-before-that order.

Step 2: Create a working outline

  1. Maya compared what she had to a structure pattern that and tried to fill in any gaps using more inquiry and freewrite.
  2. (I’m a big believer in patterns, not formulas.)

Step 3: Sketch the scenes

  1. Next, she sketched out each scene on her list using her own version of the Holly Lisle/Victoria Schmidt/Nora Roberts technique. 
  2. Her sketches had 5 parts: [A protagonist with a need][in conflict with][an antagonist with a need][in an interesting setting][with a twist]

Step 4: Draft

  1. She was now ready to begin drafting, but does one more sketch before she writes each scene.  She uses her own version of the Amberdine “Template,” which I call the “Scene Primer” and Maya calls a “prompt-sheet,” which helps her (a la Rachel Aaron) to envision the scene more clearly.  So does this for about 15 minutes at the beginning of her drafting session.  
  2. She starts to draft, full of excitement, and feeling free to focus on the how instead of so much on the what.

Note all of the sketching. Note the creative Q&A. Note the developing in iterations. Did you also see her comments on the helpfulness of using a plot pattern?

I remember when I first started doing this and feeling the same way–I can focus on the how! It’s so liberating! The writing became more of a pleasure. And I never stopped inventing. Because even though I’ve sketched a lot out, things change when you do the next take. It always does.

I cannot wait to see how this experiment of hers turns out. I think she’ll run into a few snags but find it’s a much more productive method. We shall see.

We shall also see if I can’t improve my productivity and pleasure because while this is generally how I work, I haven’t used the Lisle card prompts. Nor have I read Watt’s book. Which means it looks like I’m going to be performing an expirement of my own. And it couldn’t come at a better time. I’ll be done with BAD PENNY here in just a few weeks. And it will be time to start another novel. I can’t wait to try these new tools.

For more in this series, see How to Get and Develop Story Ideas

P.S. Look at the cover of Maya’s latest novel. I think it’s gorgeous.

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3 Responses to Generating Story 14: Freewriting from Inquiry to Outline to Scene to Draft with Author Maya Lassiter

  1. J Washburn says:

    Wow. This is the best post on structure I’ve seen in a while. Can’t wait to try it. I’ll let you know how it goes.

  2. John Brown says:

    Good luck!