Back in my early days of novel writing, I was addicted to reading how-to books. I raced through one after another with barely a breath between them, let alone time to apply what I’d just read. Eventually, I became disgusted with my lack of progress after eight years of working on the same novel and decided to read a book and actually do the exercises in it. That book was The Weekend Novelist by Robert J. Ray:
“A dynamic 52-week program to help you produce a finished novel…one weekend at a time.”
I can already hear the groans of the writers in the audience who sit down to a blank sheet of paper and start writing a novel with not one bit of a plan in mind. Bear with me. 🙂
On Weekend 1, I started with character sketches and completed one for each of my characters. I progressed to the characters’ back stories, their dreams, the contents of their closets, and then it was time for storyboarding, sketching out scenes, and setting the stage. I’ll admit I was having fun in those early weeks, exploring and discovering.
Soon I had a 3-column table listing every scene that would eventually be in my novel in excruciating detail. I was ready to sit down and write. And that I did, right up to the last quarter of the book where I stopped dead and lost all interest in finishing.
The following year, I showed up for a writing workshop at my local library. We were told to bring our in-progress novels and any other materials that we had created to facilitate the writing process. As we went around the table, each person held up a chapter or two and told a similar tale about how they had sat down to a blank page, begun writing, and hadn’t gotten very far. Then, it was my turn. I pushed my hand truck up to the table and started unloading my specimens. [click on graphic to enlarge]
My turn to share at the writing workshop
The shock and horror on the faces of the other participants will never leave my memory. It was like I was the star of a circus freak show.
When I finished my spiel, the instructor stood up and said something so simple and obvious, it’s hard to believe I hadn’t thought of it before. But it was truly a light-bulb moment for me [click on graphic to enlarge]:
You must unlearn what you have learned.
Then she turned to the others and said, “She needs to do less plotting and outlining, but you need to do a bit more.”
I barely heard the rest of it because my brain had jumped into high gear. I realized she was right. I had already written the novel in summary form and dreaded writing it again. A few years later, I would study personality typing tools like Myers-Briggs and realize that I am an unstructured person by nature who had been forcing myself to operate in a super-structured way for an extended period of time. That mistake had sucked the creativity and fun out of the writing process.
“If I had a plot that was all set in advance, why would I want go through the agony of writing the novel? A novel is a kind of exploration and discovery, for me at any rate.” —Chaim Potok
From that point on, I did away with the tomes of reconnaissance on my characters. When I had an idea for a new novel, I’d jot down some notes and play with the idea like it was a piece of clay, mushing it this way and that until I saw something I liked. Over the course of the writing process, I’d record a bare-bones list of scenes, maybe 1-2 sentences for each scene. Sometimes the scene had already been written. Sometimes it hadn’t and I didn’t want a good idea to slip through the sieve that is my brain.
The skeletal structure of my outline made it extremely flexible. I could delete or add ideas whenever the mood hit. It was also helpful as a Cliff Notes-type tool to remind me what I had already written, so I didn’t have to waste time rereading chapters before getting down to the task of writing. Perhaps the best part of such an outline is that it makes the dreaded synopsis, a submissions requirement of many publishers, much easier to write because it is already in “tell/don’t show mode,” which is how a synopsis should be written unlike the novel itself.
I’ve seen debates online where writers claim their approach to writing is the better method. Writing organically, or not, is a good thing only if that is how you write best. If it’s not, forcing yourself to work that way is a major chore. And let’s face it, writing is hard enough when you’re doing it in a manner that is true to your personality type.
With that said, I do think it sometimes helps to sprinkle a pinch of “opposite function” into the stew. For example, when you’re flying by the seat of your pants and you feel yourself floating off into space, maybe a bit of a plan would help. And if you’re recording every last detail in an outline before you even begin writing and find that you’re stuck, maybe it’s time to put away the outline, take a notebook outside and just start writing whatever comes into mind. These kinds of tricks often help to awaken the part of your brain that’s having a long siesta.
In 2009, I participated in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), an exercise in which you write a 50,000-word novel in one month. I started on November 1st with the barest hint of an idea and had to come up with 1,667 words of pure, unthought-out originality every day. I managed to churn the words out for about half the month until my novel The Benefactor was published and book promotion took precedence. However, I did end up with about 28,000 words of a novel that I was looking forward to continuing. I planned to proceed in the same manner—without a plan—but because of the complexity of the story, I repeatedly found myself in a labyrinth of dead ends. I wasted a lot of time before I gave in and wrote out a brief outline to make sense of the various twists and turns and to gear up for an equally complex second half.
As a technical writer in a my day job, I’m happy to plan out the details in advance to be sure my documentation covers all the bases. At night, I prefer to be a bit more creative and meander the various paths that could lead to the end of a novel. But I’m most comfortable doing that with a crude map in hand, just in case I get lost along the way. That’s who I am.
I’d love to hear about your light-bulb moments in writing or self-discovery.