I’m a messy writer. I jump in, with little more than a character or an idea, a few sentences or a scrap of voice, and I just start writing.
I don’t know where the story is going. I don’t know where it will end. Or maybe I think I know these things now, but I’ll find out later that I’m wrong. Either way I dive in, doing the story equivalent of throwing word-clay on the wheel and letting that clay splatter all over my hands and clothes, creating a rough draft that will ultimately bear only a ghost of a resemblance to my final one. I keep writing and rewriting over the course of five or more drafts, shaping the story, layering things in.
I love my writing process. There’s energy and joy in it, and in the end, I wind up with stories I’m proud of. If there’s angst along the way, a fear that this time, unlike all the other times, the story won’t happen, well, some part of me knows that’s part of my process, too.
For some reason we seat-of-the-pants, outline-eschewing writers are an insecure bunch. I hear new — and not-so-new — writers stressing about how they “need” to learn to outline, because not outlining is too slow or too inefficient or too … something.
Meanwhile, the Internet is filled with posts about how to map out our stories ahead of time. In one-on-one conversations with planning writers, I hear things like, “I don’t have the time not to outline” and “It’d be lovely to jump in, but I don’t have that luxury.”
As if it’s a luxury to write in the way that gives you the absolute best story possible.
I’m all for experimenting, for testing new processes, for trying new things. None of us should be hobbled by assuming that the way we do things now is the only way we can do things, ever. But there also comes a point when, no matter what our best process and best writing practices, we really do know what works for us.
When that point comes, I believe in accepting it — not with anxiety or fear, but with joy.
How much word clay you get on your skin and clothes doesn’t matter. Only the story you come away with in the end matters.
As for time, that thing none of us has enough us — well, nothing wastes time like fighting the way your story wants to be written, and along the way, the writing itself is usually much less fun.
One. A writer friend called me one day, wanting to know how I “organized” the work for my research-intensive novel Thief Eyes, because she was working on a research-intensive project of her own. After some hollow laughter at that word, organized, I allowed as how I didn’t write Thief Eyes with an up-front organized plan. Instead, I jumped in, and wrote, and let the story tell me what I needed to know. Only once I had words on the wheel did I begin researching and revising in earnest.
There was a moment’s silence, and then my friend asked, “So what did you do, then? Use notecards?”
Fortunately this was a voice call. When I banged my head against the wall, there was no one there to see.
When I say I don’t plan or outline, I mean I don’t plan or outline, not that I plan and outline differently. I think this process is sometimes alien to those who do follow a more outwardly organized process that they can’t imagine it working at all.
But it does.
Two. A while back, I had a book I wanted to write whose shape was already clear in my head, much more so than most of my books are. I could have honored that gift and made use of it by taking it with me into a messy first draft, but instead I thought, “Oh! Maybe this book is one that I actually can outline. Maybe I can finally speed everything up after all!”
That should have been my warning right there, that voice in my head looking, not for a new technique that would make my story better, but for a shortcut instead.
I now have that book outlined in a file, and no desire to work on it, because the story feels dead to me.
I put all the bright shining first-draft energy of discovery into an outline that in the end was nothing like a first draft for me, and now instead of joyous momentum and something I can revise into a second draft, I have lifeless words on the page.
Fortunately, this was a spec project, so I set my outline aside in the hopes that, with enough time and forgetfulness, that outline will fade from memory and the first draft energy will return. Which is fine, but also pretty much the opposite of saving time.
For another writer it might have been different, which is actually the point. We all have our own glorious processes, messy or otherwise. We need to honor them, not fight them.
Some years ago, writer Leah Bobet was talking about honoring her processes, and also about, just once, trying to fight them for a difficult project. “Everything just worked again when I just did Me Things,” Bobet said.
That strikes me as excellent of summarizing the most important thing I’ve learned in a decades-long career.
Learn your processes, challenge them even, and push yourself as hard as you can to write better. But in the end?
Just do the you things. It’s the best writing advice I know.
A version of this post originally appeared on my blog here, because some things really don’t change. Except that now, of course, I’d have to make sure I didn’t have video turned on when I banged my head against that wall.