Maybe This Time

Marie here! A while back, I had the immense pleasure of reading fellow Penguin author and friend Alex London’s YA debut, PROXY, ahead of its publication schedule. If you’re a fan of fantastically dark, futuristic worlds, then let this be your next read. PROXY is awesome, and as you can see, it is our PubCrawl book of the month. Today, Alex is here to tell us about the mind of a pantser, why character and voice are king, and Labyrinth (of course).


by Alex London

proxyI always tell myself it will be different this time, and there are moments when I truly believe it. For the next book, I will make an outline.

I swear.

I mean it.

I do.

Just like when I used to organize my trapper keeper on the first day of school, all good intentions, believing that this would be the year, unlike all the years that came before, where I kept the notes in order, never lost a homework assignment, and didn’t clutter every page with unrelated doodles, my math notes jammed up against the teacher’s thoughts on Johnny Tremain, my stumbling French tangling the margins.

These intentions rarely survived the first week of school, and to this day, they rarely survive the actual process of writing a novel.

I want to be a plotter, but I am not.

When I wrote Proxy, my first YA book, I really thought I knew how it went so I felt no need for an outline. I sold it on a partial manuscript to the good folks at Penguin/Philomel with the assurance that I knew where it was going. A year later the book I turned in was nothing like the one I had imagined, and a draft after that, it was different yet again.

For the sequel, Guardian, which I’ve just finished (and in fact never intended to write), I started an outline in a jumbled Moleskine, which quickly devolved into musings on the nature of freewill, love, and regret, ideas for a middle grade space opera, notes on a TV show I will never get around to creating, and endless To Do lists, which always included the note “Make Guardian Outline!”

The book I turned in was not much like the book I had sold to my editor, and the process of getting it done was agony. Every page was another dark alley to wander down, every moment, a giant rat king emerging from the shadows to chase me into unknown precincts.

It wasn’t all horror of course. Getting lost in a manuscript can be a joy. Like Jennifer Connelly in Labyrinth, I meet unexpected friends in the process of my wanderings, characters I never thought I’d know, and I see places I never knew existed. There is always the danger of a wrong turn, of course, the lurking threat that David Bowie and his codpiece will jump out singing with a bunch of muppets and throw my story deep into the oubliette, that prison of forgetting, where manuscripts go to die.

See what’s happened? I didn’t outline this post and now I’ve mentioned David Bowie’s codpiece. This is what happens when you proceed without a plan.

I suppose I should get to my point.

I have written 2 middle grade series of 4 books each, 2 young adult novels, and am in the process of writing another. I sold them all on partial manuscripts and they each turned in to books that had different plots than they’d started with. Yet, in spite of the harrowing process of writing and the unexpected turns the stories take, I’ve never had an editor cancel a contract or make me do a page one rewrite, even though, every time, I think they will. I’m sure they will. I lose sleep over it.

The lessons I’ve learned from this are twofold.

One: Even though I believe writing a novel would be so much easier if I could just make an outline, I am sure that is not the case because the outline of the plot is not what matters nor is it what makes a novel work. If it were, all my books would have been canceled moments after I turned them in.

Which leads me to Two: A novel comes alive with character and voice. The thing that keeps my rambling journeys coherent, that keeps them contained within the novel is the voice. The things that makes my editor turn the pages and know that no matter where I go with it, she’ll want to follow me, are my characters.

Creating complex meaningful characters and crafting a strong narrative voice that fits them…these are the challenges that plotters and so-called ‘pantsers’ share. Once you find them, you can crash through the chaos of a labyrinthine manuscript and come out on the other side. Or you can march the characters through their well planned paces in an outline and find they never lost a bit of life in the process.

I still believe that this next book will be the one I outline, but I also know that if I don’t outline, it will be okay. The novel will find its way, as long as I hear my characters whispering to each other around the next corner, as long as their voices call out to be heard over the din of all the other anxieties that clatter for a novels attention. Plot or Not, we all run to the center of the labyrinth and get there whatever way we can.

alexlondonAlex London writes books for adults, children and teens. At one time a journalist who traveled the world reporting from conflict zones and refugee camps, he now is a full time novelist living in Brooklyn. You can visit Alex London at

8 Responses to Maybe This Time

  1. renate Jul 17 2013 at 8:20 am #

    YES. haha everything about this post resonated with me – I especially loved that I was not the only one whose grand resolutions never survived the first week of school! I’ve never managed to actually write out an outline, even if I have a vague one in my head; somehow putting it down on paper just never works, which is probably a good things since it would change several times anyway.

  2. JoSVolpe Jul 17 2013 at 8:52 am #

    Great post! Everyone’s process is different, and sometimes outlines can feel too restricting, when they’re not supposed to be!
    In the end, if your process works, stick with it.

  3. jeffo Jul 17 2013 at 12:33 pm #

    As a fellow Wingman, I salute you. Outlining generally doesn’t work for me because I can only see so far ahead of where I am at the moment. The actual end of the story usually isn’t clear to me until I’m 3/4 of the way there.

  4. Natalie Aguirre Jul 17 2013 at 1:48 pm #

    Great post. Glad to know I’m not the only one who can’t outline. And awesome that you were able to sell uncompleted projects. Good luck with your book!09

  5. Patrick Stahl Jul 17 2013 at 8:01 pm #

    While I’m not quite as radical, Stephen King (as you may already know) despises outlining. He believes that it ruins stories. I use minimal outlining for pieces longer than flash fiction, very rarely for flash. Most of my outlining is bare-bones, as in 1-2 sentences per scene or chapter.

    Nice post. I agree on almost all counts. Most stories are indeed character-driven, although they don’t have to be. However, 90% of the time character-driven stories are the ones that get published, at least nowadays.

  6. Cheri Roman Jul 19 2013 at 6:57 pm #

    As one pantser (have you noticed what an odd word that is?) I salute you. And I say, stop worrying about it. Every author has their own process and every book that truly deserves to be written will find its way. Not necessarily into the bookstore, mind you. Marketing is a whole other, uglier beast. But onto the page? Certainly.

  7. Alexa Y. Jul 23 2013 at 11:09 pm #

    I really like this post! It’s cool how you’re able to still keep your story focused by developing a strong voice for your characters. I’ve always felt like my characters are leading me into my stories (both the ones I attempt to write and the ones I read)!

  8. Anide Aug 22 2013 at 3:39 am #

    I write exactly as you describe here, but I’ve long ago given up on attempting to tell my characters what to do or where to go. The story always seems so much more surprising and fun when there’s no predictable outlining element to lure them back to the tale I’d originally planned for them. Honestly, at this point I’m convinced that I’m a terrible writer – it’s the characters who know what they’re doing. I just have to put my fingers on the keys and let them surprise me. ^_^

    This is just a broad observation, but I think very few people know how to use an outline without making it obvious, and forcing it might just ruin something beautiful. Although I’m sure that most readers don’t really notice the stencil lines marking the borders of a story, I’m not one of them. I can see the skybox, and I can see the empty space behind the set pieces. I can see the characters glancing at each other in uncertainty, wondering why exactly they have to go to “this” place at “that” time. The world feels almost incomplete if the outline isn’t used as artfully as possible.

    Anyway, don’t worry about it. Keep writing your sprawling tales, because I’m convinced that nobody stays with a book solely because of plot – they stay because they love the characters and the wacky tales they tell. Perhaps all you need is the spark, and your characters will carry that torch on whatever path they see fit to take. It seems to me that they know what they’re doing.

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