The debate can get quite heated on this topic. We’ve all read the various posts, articles and books touting one method above the other. Some folks say they must have everything down on cards or a ‘beat sheet’ before starting their novels. Others just seem to write their first draft without doing any of that.
I recently got to thinking about these two, seemingly opposing views, because a writer in my workshop was having trouble with her first novel. This woman is a talented writer, and a quick study. So I wondered what was going on when she missed a few meetings. An email exchange revealed the problem:
A “writing teacher” had told her she couldn’t write anything further until she had a complete outline to work from. That she had to have her plot twists and characters—all figured out ahead of time. And she shouldn’t write another word forward until then.
This proclamation had gotten the writer all jammed up and critical of herself—because she couldn’t ‘think’ of an outline, and had therefore deemed herself a failure. She despaired she could ever write anything to completion, and was now experiencing a mental block to her own creativity.
I have to say here…my first reaction, once my hair laid back down on my scalp, was extreme annoyance with said “writing teacher”. I had an almost irresistible urge to paddle the teacher and send her down to the principle. So the first thing I did was wait for that to pass. (Nothing good ever comes from violence!)
Then I wrote to the writer, and this is what I told her:
What some people call outlines are what other people call first drafts.
It’s as simple as that. You can write your first draft on cards, or in notebooks, or on your computer in files labeled as chapters. Whatever you choose to label it, if it’s words, written in a sequence, using the letters of the alphabet, naming characters and what they are doing, it’s a first draft. And you can’t get to it without sitting down and filling white space with words.
What we choose to call it is just semantics.
The method we choose is just preference.
It really all boils down to how different people create, well…differently. Some are sprawling, like me. I write big, loose, wild first drafts without any outline. I have some scenes, some of the characters, and I kinda know what the story is about—a premise. The entire first draft is where I find out exactly what the novel or short story is about, who all the characters are, what they sound like, and what parts they will all play. I cannot create any other way. I sit and write. Wildly. Fast. 1500 or more words in two or three hours, every morning. During the rest of the day, when I am doing my day job, or washing my hair, or the dishes, or reading…that’s when I am thinking about what I wrote that morning, and what it means, and what I might write next. (I keep notebooks handy and jot down ideas and cryptic words, sentences and images to help guide me the next day.)
A more ‘traditional’ outline simply doesn’t work for me. I’ve done a lot of thinking about this and I think I know why. It’s because writing that type of outline requires the use of my left brain. And all the really good stuff, the creative stuff, comes from my right brain. That’s where my muse lives, and she doesn’t come out to play when I am being too analytical.
The rational side of me likes the idea of file cards and beat sheets. It seems so deliciously orderly. It’s like folding laundry or plotting the fastest route for a road trip. So very organized and rational. Unfortunately it’s also completely stifling, creatively…for me. Everything I’ve ever written from this kind of left brain activity was utterly boring. If I resisted the urge to deviate from the outline as I wrote, (to pop out of my left brain and into my right) what I ended up with had none of the power, inventiveness or surprise of the work written ‘by the seat of my pants’.
Do you remember ever doing a paint by number painting when you were little? They’re fun. You get to fill in numbered spaces with numbered colors, until gradually a picture emerges. Unfortunately it’s not a picture you want to look at for very long. You definitely don’t want to frame it and hang it on your wall. They usually end up in the trash…which is where they belong. That’s what ‘writing from an outline’ does for me. I end up with a finished story, that I don’t want to read.
If you listen to folks who study the brain and how it works, you quickly pick up that all the most creative stuff we do: inventions and works of art—even Einstein’s flights of mathematical insight—comes from the right brain. So it stands to reason that however we choose to create anything must be the way which stimulates this side of the brain for the individual. If postlets or file cards do it for you, so be it. Call yourself an outliner and go for it, my friend.
But please don’t insist this is the only legitimate way to do it. That it is superior in any way (it’s not). This is just one way. It’s the thing that stimulates you creatively. And we are all wired different.
An outline is a first draft is an outline.
Oh, and the writer from the workshop? She’s back to doing some writing. She’s still dealing with her inner critic…which grew bloated and strong on what she’d been ‘taught’. She is working on getting over the idea that the published novels she reads were somehow shat out by people, complete and polished. But knowing she doesn’t have to show her work to anybody else has helped, and I know if she sticks with it…if she just fills white space with uncensored thought, she will get there.
“It’s like driving a car at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.
“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor. Perfectionism will ruin your writing, blocking inventiveness and playfulness and life force.”
Anne Lamott, Bird By Bird
Patricia Highsmith is one of my favorite authors. She wrote her tightly plotted suspense novels using notebooks and a typewriter, and writing many drafts. I suspect she fell somewhere between a plotter and an organic writer.
Writers, how do you create best? Are you an ‘organic’ type of writer? Or are you a ‘plotter’? Do you fall somewhere in between?