Tag Archives: writing tips

Outline? Or let it flow?

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.

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Controlling Your Writer’s Cave

During my recent trip to Chicago to lead writing workshops at Karitos, I had the opportunity to talk to the mom of a young writer. Seems young writer had enjoyed one of my workshops (yea, me!) and had said as much to mom…and mom was simply offering a very kind thank you. She bumped in to me in the parking lot of the hotel where I’d just returned from having dinner with my long-lost (well, sorta. I’m pretty sure he always knew where he was) pal John Metych, whose last name I now pronounce correctly! For those one or two of you who don’t know, John is the writer of the very cool comic series Sniper and Rook. You should check it out!

But anyway, it was fun to talk to the mom with her writer-daughter there because I was able to tell them both things that I think (hope?) will aid their relationship as the young writer grows.

One of the things we talked about was writing environment and getting into the groove while writing…and breaking that groove. A writer’s cave…or back porch or wherever you write…should be set up in such a way as to get UNINTERUPTED creative time. I strongly stress uninterrupted because sometimes when a writer gets in a groove, when the fingers are flying on the keyboard almost faster than the writer can think (not a difficult task for me!), it’s very hard to get that groove back.

I told her the story of me working on my first novel and trying to get BJ to understand that. You see, that’s one of the things I tried to explain to writer-daughter’s mom and writer-daughter herself: people who aren’t writers will NEVER “get” writers. Try though they may and good-hearted though they may be, it just won’t happen.

So when we lived in Loretto, TN, I was teaching at UNA and BJ had quit her job to stay home with the kids. Her being home was a new adjustment for us and she worked hard at it. After a few polite interruptions, I had to tell her no interruptions, period. Wouldn’t you know it, not long after (not in the same day, silly!), I’m on a writing tear and she pops her head in and says “I’m not interrupting; I just wanted to know if you needed anything.”

Now, only a thick-skulled Yankee would not see she was, in her mind, being just as sweet as she could be—even whispering the words. To her, it was a thoughtful thing to do (to me, too, but bear with me). But it was an interruption, sweet though it may have been, and jolted me out of the world that exists only in my head and that I was trying desperately to get onto paper (well, computer file).

It’s a bit like those stop signs (or lights) they put on the highways. You’re rockin’ along at 65 miles per hour (because that is the speed limit!) and out of nowhere a stop sign pops up. You have to stop. Yes, you get going again, but you start from a dead stop and it takes time to pick up speed again, time that you might not have during that sitting.

So I think writer-daughter’s mom walked away with a bit more understanding of her weird writer-daughter.

I told writer-daughter she still has to listen to mom; she’s 14, after all!

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You Can’t Teach Motivation

It’s nearly impossible to be a writer today and not have attended a writer’s conference of some sort, even if it is simply as a speaker/presenter. I would definitely say it’s impossible to be a writer and at least not be aware of them. Writer’s conferences serve a lot of purposes and are particularly good, I think, for writers just starting out. For experienced writers it’s a great time to hang around like-minded creatives and yes, be reminded of all the writing-type strategies. And as a teacher of creative writing, I’m a fan of them and will encourage all writers (of all skill levels) to make an effort to attend at least one per year…even if you are going just to hang out.

But that got me thinking about all the things covered at conferences and in creative writing programs. We can teach (and learn) things like plot, pacing, characterization, dialogue, etc. etc. And if we know about them, we can be reminded of good strategies to use those tools effectively.

But there is one thing teachers/speakers can’t teach, and that’s motivation. I don’t mean fictional character motivation—we can teach that (even if hardheaded students aren’t willing to learn!), but what I mean is writer motivation. Yes, I believe teachers can inspire and encourage and think we should work to do that (but I also think if you love what you do, that’ll come through in the teaching)…but there’s nothing I can really do (not just me, all teachers) that will make a writer give us time on Facebook, or television and write…and then write some more…and then do more writing after that. And then when they’re done writing, finish up with a little more writing.

I don’t know who said it, or I’d give the credit, but I recently read it takes 10,000 hours for someone to reach the stage of successful whatever it is they do. SO, a musician must spend 10,000 practicing in order to reach the level of professional…and so on. So many writers think they’ll slap it down on the page and then they’re done. Oh, maybe an “editing” revision to look for typos and misspelled words—but some don’t even do that!

And with the Olympics just finished (it IS finished now, right?), we’re reminded of all the hard work and HOURS that these athletes (even the ones who lost) put in just to make it there. It takes motivation to force yourself to spend that kind of time practicing. It’s the “WANT TO” of achieving success.

That’s not something that can be taught…it has to come from within.

So whatever it is you do…how bad do you want it? Do you want it bad enough to spend 10,000 hours to get there?

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