Writing and process. Outlining and not outlining. Doing the “you” things.

As long time readers of this blog know, I’m a messy writer. I jump in, with little more than a character or an idea or a few sentences or a scrap of voice, and I start writing. I don’t know where the story is going, or where it’s going to end, or I do but know I’ll be wrong. I start writing, doing the story equivalent of getting word-clay all over my hands, create a rough draft that will bear only a ghost of a resemblance to the final one, and then I keep writing and writing and refining over five or more drafts, shaping the story, layering things in.

I love my 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 that this time the story won’t happen, well, some part of me knows that that’s part of my process, too.

My process.

For some reason, non-outlining, seat-of-the-pants writers are an insecure bunch. It seems like I regularly come upon posts and discussions where writers are stressing about how they “need” to learn to outline, because they’re convinced not-outlining is too slow or too inefficient or too something. It doesn’t help that the Internet is filled with posts about how to outline, or that outliners regularly say 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, and trying other things. But there’s a point where, outliners and non-outliners, planners and non-planners alike, we really do know what’s working for us, and I also believe in accepting that, not with anxiety, but with joy. How much word-clay you spatter about on the wheel of your process doesn’t matter. The story you get at the end of it does.

Outliners talk about saving time a lot, but nothing wastes time like fighting the way your story wants to be written–and along the way, the writing is usually a lot less fun.

Two stories:

One. A writer friend called me one day, wanting to know how I “organized” my work for my research-intensive book Thief Eyes, because she was working on a research-intensive book of her own. After some hollow laughter at that word, organized, I allowed as how I don’t work that way and didn’t for Thief Eyes: I jumped in and wrote, and figured out what I needed to learn along the way. There was no up-front plan, only shaping and reshaping things once I had words on the wheel.

My friend sort of nodded understandingly, or I imagined she did through our phone connection. Then, after a moment’s silence, she said, “So, what do you do then? Use notecards?”

Cue writer banging her head against the wall, because when I say I don’t outline, I don’t mean that I outline differently, but that I don’t outline. I think the fact that this process is so alien to so many who do outline also adds to the pressure non-outlining writers sometimes feel to change, or to the nagging conviction that there must be a better way in spite of evidence to the contrary.

Two. A while back, I had a book I wanted to write whose shape was already in my head, much more clearly than most of my books are. Instead of honoring that gift and making use of it by taking it with me into a messy first draft, I thought, “Oh, well maybe this book is one I actually can outline, and so speed everything up a little. (That should have been my warning sign right there, that voice in my head looking for a short cut.)

I now have a book (plus half a sequel) outlined in a file, and no desire to work on it, because the story feels dead to me. I put all that bright shining first-draft energy of discovery into an outline that’s nothing like a first draft for me, and now instead of momentum and something I can revise into a second draft, I have lifeless words on the page.

Fortunately, this is a book with no particular timeline on it, so I’ve set the outline aside in hopes that with enough time and enough forgetfulness, it will fade from my memory and the first draft energy will return. Which is fine, and now I know, but this is pretty much the opposite of saving time.

Recently on twitter, Leah Bobet was talking about honoring her processes, and also about, just once, trying to fight them on a difficult project. “Everything just worked again when I just did Me Things,” she said.

That struck with me as an excellent way of summarizing a thing I’ve known for a while.

Learn your processes, challenge them even, push 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.

9 thoughts on “Writing and process. Outlining and not outlining. Doing the “you” things.”

    1. Thanks, Elle! I’ve never really worked clay, but given how often I do use it as an analogy–I also think of my messy first drafts as needing to get some clay onto the wheel, so that I have something touchable that I can sink my hands into and shape, rather than just trying to work thin air.

  1. Fantastic article, and I couldn’t agree more. I find sometimes my process varies from book to book — I have once or twice felt the need to outline the back half of a book if I was feeling particularly insecure about the plot, for instance, and it’s given me the courage to go on. But by and large I’m a slow-writing, self-editing pantser and THAT’S OKAY. Any process that results in seven published novels can’t be bad, no matter how inefficient or counter-intuitive it looks to others.

    1. Thanks. And yes, that’s the other complicating thing–just when you think you know what you’re doing, a book comes along with its own ideas. 🙂

      Speed is a whole other interesting process discussion. We tend to talk as if speed is always better, too, and I’m not sure that’s true, either– and the ways we talk about it too often become just one more way of stressing writers out.

  2. Wonderful! Reminds me of my own writing process but it’s always good to get reinforcement. Somehow, after many years of being down on my writing, I’ve come to accept many drafts. Somehow it all happens organically, which makes me happy. Thanks for this post!

  3. Oh man, Thank You! True confession, I do outline. But I have been trying to force myself to be a “butt-in-chair” writer for years. And I do it. I sit there every darn day and feel miserable when I know I’m thinking about other things. Because for me there is a sort of energy, almost emotional energy, that it takes to really write. And the crap that I write when it isn’t there is ALL going to have to be cut. Every last word of it, and I know it, but everyone tells me there is value in that. I know the truth, though. There really isn’t. Because when the energy is there, I will write or revise 90 pages in a week. Or an entire draft in two months. And that is how I have been for years, and THAT is my process! Maybe it’s because I have ADD. But thanks for the permission!

    1. There’s no need to “confess” to outlining–whatever your process is, the fact that you know what it is is awesome!

      And knowing when to write and not write is awesome too. I still go around with that one a little myself, because there’s a certain ebb and flow to my own process. I can for my process write every day (almost–I make myself take a day a week off), but not always the same amounts or at the same intensity … and the well needs recharging time, too.

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