A Pantser’s Kind of Outline, by Amber Foxx

I sometimes say I don’t outline, but in a way I do—backwards. After I write a chapter, I take notes on the plot progression, including the events that might be clues or might be loose ends. This becomes a clean-up guide as well as a quick review of the story structure when I finish improvising and following my characters where they choose to go. I also note emerging themes and subplots. Later, I use the notes as revision tools. They help me in deciding what to keep, expand, or cut.

Having reached the near-end of my work in progress, the crisis and the partial solution to the mystery, I now have the denouement chapter to write, the one where I tie up the last loose ends. In looking back over my notes, I find about half are tied up. As for the remaining ones, many are so minor I can cut the lines that set them up, while others are significant questions that have to be answered. I’m glad I kept that list. Now I have something bordering an outline in advance for the final chapter, as well as a plan for future cuts and reorganization.


The sale on books one and two in the Mae Martin Psychic Mystery Series will end June 13. Until then, you can still download The Calling free and buy Shaman’s Blues for 99 cents. No murder, just mystery.

Less Time to Write=New Perspectives

I’ve been busier than usual with community activities, recertifying as a fitness professional, and researching and planning the switch to an electric car. Time well spent, but meanwhile, book eight in the Mae Martin Psychic Mystery Series has been getting about an hour a day of attention. I don’t feel like a full-time writer.

On the plus side, when I’m less wrapped up in the book, I question everything about it. Does the plot really work? It has to be meaningful, not just a puzzle being solved. How does it further the lead characters’ series arcs? How does the very nature of the mystery challenge their development? How does it interact with their personal lives?

Then there’s this question that comes up with every book: Is the antagonist character too much like prior antagonists?  And how does this new enemy make the perfect opponent to fit my main characters’ strengths and—even more important—their flaws?

How many components of the plot need to change? Are there aspects of it that might turn off my long-term fans? If I feel it doesn’t sustain visionary fiction element of the series, my readers might think so, too. I have to create stakes that are  serious as death without the threat of murder.

This blog post was my “thinking aloud session.” I’ve got some revisions to make, but I’m more confident of them now. Thanks for listening!

Pantsing the Revision

That wasn’t the plan. I was cutting subplots, cutting back to one point of view, and changing some aspects of the crime, and I thought it would all work out in a predicted direction. Then I introduced a certain secret earlier in the plot, and out of the blue, my protagonist, Mae Martin, made a decision that changed everything.

It was a well-timed decision on her part, plot-wise. I’m at the Act Two/Act Three transition point, where the protagonist has to pass through her second doorway of no return. This choice she made, seemingly without my input, will raise the stakes for her exponentially, increasing the risks to her relationships and her reputation. It’s something only she can do, and if she doesn’t do it, there are risks to other people’s well-being. It’s a choice between two “bads.” (Meanwhile, in her romantic life she’s struggling with the choice between “goods.”)

The amazing thing to me about this unexpected turn she took is that it’s going to tie up all the loose ends, when it’s resolved.

At least, I think so.

I keep chapter notes as I go, something like a hindsight outline, noting Mae’s goal for each chapter and scene (I’m writing third person but only in her POV), the disaster or hook at the end, the loose ends each chapter has created that will need to be tied up, and the progress in the main plot and subplots. I suppose I can consider some of those notes a plan, since a few are quick sketches of what I can see coming next, but I can’t see very far ahead. Some parts of the original version have found their way almost whole into this revision, and others still might. I wonder if the end will. I liked it the first time around, but it may no longer fit. One of the biggest mysteries in writing a mystery is how my creative mind works.

A character in the work in progress used a phrase I didn’t expect him to say, referring to certain people as his and Mae’s “shadow families.” In the middle of the night, I realized that could be the title. It fits the plot and also the pattern of my titles: two words with a mysterious ring to them, suited to psychic mysteries without murder. The Calling, Shaman’s Blues, Snake Face, Soul Loss, Ghost Sickness, Death Omen … Shadow Family?


Undermind at Work

That’s not a typo. I have not been undermined at work. I’m rereading Guy Claxton’s Hare Brain Tortoise Mind, and he refers to the slow processes of creativity and insight as the undermind—the part of the brain that’s working beneath the level of verbal expression and logic, the part that can detect patterns the conscious surface of the mind misses. The part that creates what the surface mind cannot. I read the book eighteen years ago when it first came out, but I wasn’t writing fiction back then, just academic research papers. I perceive its ideas differently now.

On this reading, I see in it an explanation of how pantsing a plot works. Those of us who write that way often marvel at how we laid clues we didn’t know were there and how we brought in characters whose purpose was unclear at the time, but who later revealed why they showed up and asked to be included. The undermind is best at solving complex, ambiguous problems and recognizing hidden patterns. The other mode of thinking, what Claxton calls d-mode, for deliberative mode, is better at problems with clear rules and defined parameters. I see d-mode as the revision mind and the undermind as the first draft mind. I’m at a point of indecision near the end of a first draft. D-mode wants me to evaluate my options. The undermind wants me to keep writing and see what happens.

I can apply the concepts of the undermind and d-mode to how my characters solve problems as well.  Claxton describes experiments in which trying too hard, having time pressure, or having too much at stake can all inhibit subjects’ problem-solving and pattern-detecting abilities. The slow, unhurried tortoise mind is better at breakthroughs, and yet the nature of a mystery plot is anything but slow and unhurried. Still, a character may encounter a puzzle early on, be unable to solve it, attend to other problems while the initial puzzle simmers in the back of her mind, and then have a flash of insight. The flash isn’t a flash, though. All along, her undermind was at work. I’ve seen mystery writers use this pattern well, showing the protagonist’s frustrating sense that the solution is near while not quite grasping it yet, knowing that something in the mind-shadows wants to be understood.

D-mode works well while talking because it’s verbal and structured. When characters are doing the logical kind of problem-solving, dialogue is natural. Claxton cites studies in which subjects were asked to solve puzzles and either talk or be silent while they did it. With clear though challenging puzzles in which all the information was present and needed to be analyzed, talking improved the outcomes. However, with insight problems, bewildering visual puzzles that required creative shifts of perspective, talking got in the way or turned into babble such as, “I don’t know what I’m thinking. Nothing. I’m not actually thinking.” Silence gave better results. In fiction, this second process might take place in an internal scene, a sequel or reflection. The different modes of problem-solving could lead to conflict, as an analytical type needs to talk things out while an intuitive type needs to stop talking—and stop listening to words—in order to think.

My preference for creating my first draft from the undermind may be why I like a plot mandala better than an outline. I draw a circle and begin writing character names and story themes in what feel like the right places, then let my undermind connect the patterns among them.

Images: 19th century Chinese puzzle ball with the twelve concentric balls inside; puzzle cube; math equation dice.

The Storms of Fortune

The laws of fiction aren’t the laws of life. Luck is a deciding factor in many aspects of our lives. Some people are born with better cards, born into the one percent. Some people are dealt such a stunningly bad hand I can only reel vicariously at the things that strike them and think, no, this much can’t happen to one person. One of my students has had so many illnesses, physical and emotional, and so many concussions, it doesn’t seem possible that she could have one more stroke of bad luck—and then one hits her.

Many years ago, I did quite a dance with bad luck and good luck, though none of my misfortunes were anywhere near as bad as hers. I was living in the Jamestown area outside of Williamsburg, Virginia, a low-lying area of wetlands near the James River. It was wonderful place for walking and running, and the townhouse I rented had a beautiful wildflower garden my landlady had put in. And then I got new neighbors. Bad luck. Their younger children were undisciplined and inconsiderate, so noisy I felt they were in my apartment all the time. My neighbor on the other side who had kids the same age agreed—those little boys were terrors. She didn’t want her children to play with them. When the wild boys finally settled down at night, their teenaged sister entertained other teens in the neighborhood on the front lawn. Every night. I had to leave if I wanted to reclaim my peace of mind, so I found a quiet place out in the country, further inland on the other side of Williamsburg. Moving was inconvenient and expensive, but it was just my chance misfortune that I had to do it.

Within a month, two hurricanes struck almost back to back. The place I had been driven out of near Jamestown was flooded up to the second story. In retrospect, I had good luck to get bad neighbors. But the people who didn’t move, who might have tried to work with the homeowners’ association about the noise—they had bad luck. And none of them had earned it. Even the loud family couldn’t summon two hurricanes. This story would not work as fiction.

Overcoming adversity is the essence of a strong story in fiction, but bad luck isn’t the primary obstacle and good luck isn’t the source of success. The protagonist is in pursuit of a goal and her obstacles are organic to that pursuit. Her actions, not her luck, determine her success or failure, while the actions of antagonist, also a willful actor, create setbacks and conflicts. Readers don’t like to see chance events determine the plot. It feels as though the author cheated if she turns the plot around an unearned blessing or random disaster.

If I want to work luck into fiction, I need to give it context, such as a shamanic culture’s prediction that if you refuse your calling as a seer or healer, bad luck will follow you until you accept the call. (As the title suggests, this is a theme in the first Mae Martin mystery, The Calling.) Another way to work with good or bad fortune is to set it as prior history. A character in Shaman’s Blues describes himself as a “trauma magnet.” Some of his bad luck, he invited by recklessness; some it was a bad roll of the dice. But this enters the story as a pre-existing condition—quite literally, since it’s set in 2010 and he’s uninsured and uninsurable. That’s his background. What happens in the plot depends on his choices, given his circumstances at the point at which the story begins.

I recently read a powerful novel, Peter Heller’s The Painter, in which nature is almost a character. The protagonist, through a series of emotionally driven decisions, ends up being pursued on back country roads by someone who seems determined to kill him. The author develops everything that builds up to this chase, so there are no events that feel like luck. We know the lead character has a good truck for rough-track driving; he camps and fishes throughout the book and the truck is ever-present in the story. He’s in an unfamiliar stretch of mountains and woods but in a region he knows well. And the weather has been threatening. The flash flood he encounters is random luck, but he put himself in the situation, and it’s the decision he makes in reaction to it that determines which kind of luck it is, and what kind of man he is, too.

That’s the satisfaction of fiction. The catharsis, the resolution. It can make us feel that even luck itself is within the grasp of our limited human strength.