One of my recent responsibilities for a class assignment was to respond to student essays about certain aspects of writing: influences, how to start a project, etc. One common comment about starting a writing project always makes me think, “hmm. Yes, you haven’t written very many things, have you?” That response always goes something like this:
When I start a new project, I just write. I don’t worry about the characters or the plot or the story, I just write and see where it all goes. I just let the character (or story) take me where he wants to take me. (This is not an exact quote, for those of you thinking such things!)
This line of thinking gets us to the debate of whether it is advisable for a writer to write as the muse strikes and just let it flow out of the brain and fingertips, or to compose an outline and then work from that.
When I sat down to write a novel the very first time (not Buying Time, a different, unfinished one), I wanted to just start writing and “let the character tell his story” and/or “let it flow as it hits me.” I’d heard a few writers talk about composing like that and I wanted to try it. I wrote forty-thousand words. I was well on my way. But when I hit that 40k mark, while I thought I had some nice scenes, I had no STORY. And you know, story is king!
When I sat down to write my next novel (finished, but unsold), I outlined extensively. I revised the outline quite a few times in order to work on pacing and conflict…y’know, story stuff. The writing went fast…and the characters STILL told their story, I just knew where it was going.
When I sat down to write my next novel (now we get to Buying Time), I did a combination of the two. I had a “concept” but not a story. So I thought I’d write 10-15,000 words and see how it felt, but I didn’t want to write 40k words that went nowhere again. Once I got to that stage (10k words), I stopped and examined the piece for what was there and pulled the story out of it…and then did a rough outline. Once again, I knew the story and the words came more quickly.
When I reached that 40k mark in my first book, I had no idea where the story was going. And if I—the writer—didn’t know where the story was going or what it was, how could I expect to sell it. Notice, I didn’t. Oh, sure, I may revisit it one day and see if I can find the story there…but for now, it’s simply 40k words of everyday scenes.
It’s a little easier to let it flow when writing a novel, though. There are no real “markers” you have to meet—it’s whatever floats your boat. With other kinds of writing (film, television, comics, etc), outlining is vital because you have limited “time” frame in which the story must fit. You can’t (normally) just write until the story plays out, you have to fit it into the chosen format. This requires good outlining or you’ll find yourself with a bunch of words that may sound good but mean nothing.
There are pros and cons to each, I guess, but ultimately, for most writers, outlining has to enter the process at some point. I guess that’s why I always suggest writers do it earlier rather than later. It’s a lot easier to revise in an outline stage than when you have seventy-five thousand words.