You have to actually write

Color By NumberAfter my last post about my writing methods, and hoping it would be helpful for some writer out there, I read Patricia Wrede’s post about advance planning. You can read it here. Go on. I’ll wait.

She has a very good point. All outlining and preparatory systems have a weakness: they don’t help with the actual writing. After doing all the right steps, I might know that the next scene has to involve a visit to an insane asylum, but the outline won’t tell me the angle of attack.

Unless I use the phase drafting method. At the end of her post, Wrede gives an example of what kind of outline would have been useful if she had known ahead of time what was going to end up in the book. And it looks very similar to the description of a phase. It all depends on how micro-managed you want your outline to be. When I got to the point of writing about the insane asylum in one of my older novels, the phase “A young William walks through the door of an insane asylum. Memories of the past. Loathing of the place. Memories of visiting his grandfather and being bored.” helped with my plan of attack. I had already decided the best way to write this scene was from William’s point of view and to focus on his feelings.

But I still like what Wrede said about most outlining methods. They don’t write the book for you. You still have to get your butt in the chair, hands on the keyboard, and type.You still have to make decisions about whether to describe the asylum as creepy, or to go for disgusting instead. These are the types of decisions an outline will not help you make no matter how fine-tuned it is (because at some point, it stops being an outline and is the actual story itself).

A few thoughts inspired Wrede’s post that I think are important:

  • Sometimes beautiful books are written with no advance planning at all. I’d say experiment before starting a big outlining project and just write. It probably won’t grow into a stellar full-length novel, in which case, all you’ve done is create more material to put into your phase draft. But it definitely won’t hurt and you may find that something beautiful is flowing out of you without even trying.
  • The initial decisions the rest of the book is built on are often arbitrary. You can change them at will, which is nice. But better to do that before writing the whole thing so you have less to change. This is the whole point of the snowflake: if the story is broken and needs to be fixed, at least you’ve only put a few weeks into it and not months. Outlining, for me, is all about spotting problems early.
  • Don’t assume that an outline’s job is to make the writing process easier. It’s supposed to make it better (though sometimes it does make it easier). I work just as hard at writing when I have an outline as I do without one. It just means the difference between pouring my heart and soul into choosing better words or using energy to keep a meandering plot from getting out of hand.
  • The main purpose of an outline is to tell me what absolutely has to happen in a scene. Like a checklist to make sure I hit all the important things that move the plot along. If used that way, it doesn’t get in the way of my freedom to experiment with different angles of attack.

Hope that all made sense. Now go on. Get out of here and write. The world needs your story!

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