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09:15 am: Wright's Writing Corner: The Great Debate


"There are nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays,
"And every single one of them is right!"

From In the Neolithic Age by Rudyard Kipling

 

People love to debate things. Writers, being people who use words for a living, love to debate things even more than the average Joe. One thing writers really love to debate is: how to write.

 

How to write is always a lively topic because everyone does it differently. But it is generally agreed that it falls neatly into two categories: Those who make outlines, and those who do not. Until recently, the outliners were often considered the “right” way, and the others guys were the “wrong” way. Non-outliners were thought to be undisciplined.

 

I was, thus, delighted a few years ago to hear Super-Agent Donald Maass say that both kind of writers, outliners (can’t recall what he called them, Structured Writers, perhaps) and Organic Writers could both produce excellent books. The only real difference, according to Maass, is that the first group structured their books ahead of time and the second group did more rewriting, adding to the structure afterward.

 

This I liked. This sounded right. Organic seemed to fit what I was doing very well, and I sure did a lot of rewriting afterward.

 

 

Recently, however, I have been dismayed to see the Organic, non-outliners described as Pantsers.  First of all, everything else aside, it is an ugly word. It sounds like a word a 1950 detective who calls people Big Boy and Wall-Eye would think up. Second all, these writers are “Pantsers”—according to writing teacher Larry Brooks who coined the term—because, since they do not use an outline, they write by the seat of their pants.

 

My guess is that Mr. Brooks is NOT a pantser…either that or he is not a very good writer. One or the other…because it sure does not feel like writing by the seat of my pants to me.

 

It feels like taking dictation from the Muse.

*

 

A word about me and outlining before I continue—I cannot outline. When I say this, I mean it literally but not in the way you might think. I mean it the way a person  might say, “I cannot fly” or “I cannot eat the sun”.  I do not mean it in sense of “I do not know how” or “I am not disciplined enough to do it.

 

I can make outlines. I even LOVE making outlines. It is just that when I do, two things happen:

 

1) The story is much worse than if I do not, because the ideas that come to me when I am actually writing are much better than the ones that come to me when I am outlining.

 

2) The writing stops. Zip. Gone. Once I have an outline, it is as if my imagination thinks the project is done and will not continue. Either that or the Muses (or the angels. I do a lot of praying before I write) do not like it when I get in their way, so they bug out and leave me haning.

Either way, I  have never been able to finish a work I outlined without first tearing up the outline first and letting my imagination start over.

 

I have heard structured writers suggest that an outline is necessary to achieve a plot. This just is not true. Plot is just as easy to achieve backwards…going back and setting up the end…as it is forward. The same kind of thought goes into it. It just goes in at a different time.

 

And that is just me. I have several friends who have written beautiful beginnings to things that they never finished. Instead, as soon as the outline was done, they put the project aside. One friend wrote over a hundred and fifty pages before saying sadly, “There’s nothing left for me to make up about this story. I am finding it hard to think about it.”

 

Outlining actually harmed these writers. They might have finished works now had they trusted their muse more and let their imagination play.

 

On the second hand, my husband, who normally both just writes and does not need to revise, outlined one of his novels and loved the process. He said that it made the writing easy and fun and was just enjoyable.

 

On the gripping hand, that did not work for his next novel, no matter what he tried. He even had to rewrite it—a first for him. So, I suppose the Muses had their revenge.

 

*

Okay, back to the subject at hand: Structured Writers think Organic Writers write by the seat of their pants, and Organic Writers think Structured Writers are unimaginative sticks—which is what leads to the aforementioned debate.

 

But recently, when discussing the subject, I had an epiphany. It came from a comment made by fellow writer marycatelli. I have not been able to find the original quote, but we were discussing a quote from Terry Pratchett about writing being like going through misty valley and discovering the wonders therein, and she said, in gist, that she could discover all sorts of wonders in the mist while outlining.

 

I thought about this and realized: Of course! Some people’s muses speak to them in the writing phase and some in the outlining phase!

 

Which leads to my epiphany. There are not two types of writers. There are four.

 

1) Structured, Creative Writers – people whose muses speak to them in the initial organizational stage. They have the same powerful imagination as those who do not outline, but it kicks in here.

 

2) Unstructured Creative Writers – people whose muses only dictate when they do not get in the way. These people must write as the Muse instructs and add structure later. However, just because they did not plot it out ahead of time does not mean that they are not disciplined writers. They are not writing “by the seat of their pants” They are writing on faith.

 

3) Structured Uncreative Writers – people who use structure to replace creativity. They do not listen to their Muse. They try to intellectually produce a story by structuring it without any  particular spark of insight.

 

4) Pantsers—people who really do write by the seat of their pants, without discipline or, often, plot.

 

Both 1 and 2 produce good books. The existence of 3, however, makes 1 look bad, and 4 makes 2 look bad. The authors who write according to an outline pride themselves on not being plotless and undisciplined.  The authors who write by listening to the Muse look down on outliners because they believe they are all using structure to replace creativity.

 

Hence the debate.

 

But…according to high-power agents like Maass, both one and two produce good books. This means that it really does not matter how other people write. All that matters is which way helps you produce a finished work.

 

Now, you would think this would end the debate, but it does not. Because new writers still need   way to discover which category they fit in. Where should they start?

 

Here is my humble rule of thumb for the newbie:

 

If you can outline, do. It is always nice to know where the story is going, and outlining leads easily to strong plotting.

 

If you find your imagination is drying up, that your promising beginning is not coming to fruition, abandon your outline! Pick a point in your manuscript. Make up something different to happen next than you had originally planned. Write a new story from there.


Whichever you do, make sure you bring a creative joy to it and that you do it with discipline. Then, it will not matter with what fervor everyone else debates the issue, you will have found your right way.

 

 

Suggestions for more cogent names for options 1, 2, and 3 welcome!

 

 




Comments

[User Picture]
From:juliet_winters
Date:July 7th, 2010 02:23 pm (UTC)
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I am outlining because my publisher requires it with the query and I am too lazy/busy to write the whole thing if there is no commitment.
[User Picture]
From:kokorognosis
Date:July 7th, 2010 02:30 pm (UTC)
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I recently got into an argument with a friend that's just started writing in the past few years. His inference was that I was a lazy, undisciplined writer, and if I didn't start outlining things, I'd never make it. I was trying to explain how my creative process works-- akin to watching a TV show and thinking, "Gee, X should have happened here instead of Y," but he'd have none of it.

The vast majority of my work starts off as nothing more than an image or a theme, and I sit down and start writing. The space opera that I find myself returning to as often as possible was sparked by a handful of images with no coherent thread between them. The big project I'm working on now started off with the question of whether sentience was possible for a machine, and now that's just a plot point in the background of the story.

If I were to outline, I wouldn't know where the devil I was supposed to begin. My approach to writing has always been to find what makes the world different from ours, build a character with a goal in conflict with that world, and then watch how that character goes about achieving that goal.
[User Picture]
From:marycatelli
Date:July 9th, 2010 02:24 am (UTC)
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I start off with bright, sparkly ideas too: a scene, a bit of world-building, a character. Sometimes I misjudge how many bright sparkly ideas I need to make a full story -- I just realized that two ideas that stuck together weren't a real story, they needed a third -- and that's why I outline.
[User Picture]
From:mount_oregano
Date:July 7th, 2010 04:43 pm (UTC)
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I outline, but my outlines are usually scrawled lists of words that I can ignore if I get a better idea and I probably won't do in the same order as I thought I would, anyway.

Semi-structured?

From:(Anonymous)
Date:July 7th, 2010 04:47 pm (UTC)

To outline or not to outline

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I am a panster with an outlining muse. Very new to organized writing, I'm learning how to write professionally. I write from an emotion and color in the atmosphere. I'm trying to outline and it's about as enjoyable as a ceserean with a dirty spoon in an open air market in Calcutta. Even with that said, I am finding my villians sooner and my motivation, conflict and external goals show up clearer. So no matter what I'm called my story is stronger if I let my imagination type and my organization shake its head and red line behind me.
From:(Anonymous)
Date:July 7th, 2010 04:47 pm (UTC)

Writing a book

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I don't necessarily think that there two kinds of writers, or four or 400, obviously there are billions. Personally I am not bothered by names and plotter and pantser both start with a P and that appeals to me. I also like your structured and unstructured creative. I think the writing process is a continuum.
I am an organizer, not because I am good at it, but because I love to put things in order, so I lean toward the structured. Recently I did the NaNoWriMo (50,000 words in 30 days) on myself to see how the other side lived and it was fun, and I realized that I had been too Structured in the past.
So I decided to break the process down to writing steps. Outline/synopsis, rough draft, 1st draft and final draft. (drafts between 1st and final are subjective and personal per project) I think the biggest difference is between what you do first, the rough draft or the outline/synopsis with the goal being a tight and exciting first draft. Then we all slog through edits.

Nicole
[User Picture]
From:cdenmier
Date:July 7th, 2010 04:58 pm (UTC)
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As a former journalist I was used to making quick mental outlines of my news stories, or written outlines for longer/multi-part pieces. Being a structured type of thinker I always assumed that I would naturally outline a novel. I assumed that I needed that skeletal structure there to wrap my head around the plot and keep me on target.

But I can't do it. The information's just not there. My "outline" for my current project was a small paragraph of information contained only in my head. Nearly the entire story simply didn't exist for me to outline it. I had to discover it in the writing process. And the times that I've tried to outline even a single conversation ("Character #1 must say A,B,C; Character #2 must say D,E,F") it without fail ruins that part of the story and it must be redone. Sometimes even planning to put a single phrase into a chapter becomes like a stone in my shoe; the chapter ceases to be fluid story-telling and becomes driven to get that stupid quote in.

Writing without an outline has been kind of scary but also completely astounding. Where do the ideas come from? Relying on new material to come each day (fairly consistently) is like Indiana Jones hoping the invisible bridge really is in front of him. There is a faith component, most certainly, and at the end the sobering realization that you could not have written this merely on your own. That's not saying that we lowly humans channel the divine like a television signal, but there is cooperation akin to a dance.

And there is always going back and fixing things, adding plot points, SHORTENING the story-telling, etc.

One large project and I'm convinced that I'm not an outliner (by the way, glad to hear people like you give "permission" not to outline!). Now, will I end up being #2 or #4? That's a bit trickier!
[User Picture]
From:arhyalon
Date:July 7th, 2010 06:41 pm (UTC)
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>by the way, glad to hear people like you give "permission" not to outline!

I know exactly how you feel. I felt so good when Donald Maass said plainly that both groups can produce good novels.

I love your description of the scary and the astonishing...exactly!

[User Picture]
From:axiem
Date:July 7th, 2010 11:39 pm (UTC)
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I find that I'm kind of a cross between 1 and 2. I cannot just sit down and plot out an entire story in detailed pieces. It just doesn't work for me.

However, I also can't just sit at a blank page and figure out what to write.

The way I tend to do my plotting is that I have a very good idea of the next 3 or 4 chapters I'm going to write, and the details therein. With the next 1 or 2 chapters, I'm already running through and playing with dialogue in my head, working out some turns of phrase before I put pen to paper (as it were). But beyond that, the brush strokes of my story get more and more broad the farther out you go.

I know at some point in the future this big event will happen. I don't have any real details, and much of the context will change, but I know it will happen (unless the story pulls away). It gives me a (distant) goal to head to. And sometimes (like with my last book) it is nothing more than "eventually we'll learn what the title means".

Also, I fall into the camp of planning too much ahead of time causes my brain to think I've already written it. If I've mulled a particular chapter's words for too long, it gets harder to write.

Incidentally, a writer friend and I once when comparing notes broke it out into two kinds of writers: knitters and quilters. Knitters (like me) start from the beginning of the story and start going forward. If you made a mistake several chapters ago, oh well, you're not going to uproot everything you've written since just to fix a misplaced stich. On the other hand, quilters (like my friend) write a scene here, a scene there, and eventually put them all together at the end.

Sequential writing vs. random writing, as it were.
[User Picture]
From:marycatelli
Date:July 8th, 2010 12:28 am (UTC)
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My muse talks -- well, obviously not all the time -- but with hearty indifference to the stage of writing. Outlining, writing, revising, revising again, revising a third time. . . .
[User Picture]
From:arhyalon
Date:July 8th, 2010 02:04 am (UTC)
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LOL.

I didn't mean to say that your Muse only spoke during the outlining phase!
[User Picture]
From:marycatelli
Date:July 9th, 2010 02:34 am (UTC)
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Well, my burning question is: if you can't stand to write after an outline because the story has lost all interest, however do you manage to revise?
[User Picture]
From:arhyalon
Date:July 10th, 2010 04:40 am (UTC)
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To me, it is not that the story has lost interest...it is that it goes still in my head. I don't know how else to describe it. It just stops being dymanic and freezes.

Revising, on the other hand, is my favorite part. Once the story is done in draft, it is as if I can see it laid out as a thousand colored threads, and which threads need to be tightened, loosened, unraveled, sewn in earlier, etc, becomes more vivid the longer I think about it.

This is where I follow all the plotlines, make sure they are laid out correctly, weave back in earlier references to things that are unsupported, etc.

The hard work...getting the story down...is done at this point and the part I really like, polishing it and reworking it, begins.
[User Picture]
From:capnflynn
Date:July 8th, 2010 01:45 am (UTC)
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I am just exactly like you when it comes to outlines! The minute I've worked out the way the story ends is the minute I lose interest in writing it.
[User Picture]
From:juliet_winters
Date:July 8th, 2010 10:01 am (UTC)
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Well-known (well, to the British anyway) children's author Helen Cresswell had this to say on contemplating the whichness and the why's of the Muse, or as she put it, the writing process:

”The moment a writer becomes aware of his own creative processes, the moment he stands outside them and they become conscious, then they lose their dynamism, and he may as well lay down his pen. He who attempts to analyse magic while at the same time practicing it stands in peril of finding symbol turn to cliché, intuition to conscious will, organic growth into mere plotting.”*

She also said, “…I write partly in order to find out, and in a sense I do not know what I mean until I have said it. And in the same way as I am operating on this level as a writer, so the reader too is experiencing things which he recognizes but has no words for. This is partly what any kind of reading does. It makes accessible all kinds of floating feelings and attitudes and ideas which probably have never been crystallized before.”
[User Picture]
From:arhyalon
Date:July 8th, 2010 04:10 pm (UTC)
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Much like Zelazny's comment: "Why would I want to writing the book if I knew what was going to happen."
From:(Anonymous)
Date:July 8th, 2010 05:29 pm (UTC)

knitting versus quilting

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I love this analogy, especially since I have both quilted and knitted. My preference is knitting, and that is the way I write (start at the beginning and go). Unfortunately, I am one of those knitters who has to go all the way back and fix that wrong stitch, so you can understand why I am so frustrated with myself and my writing. I need to keep moving forward!! :o)) Carmel

P.S. Does anyone else think a plotter might be left-brained and an organic writer right-brained? And another thought - doesn't discipline just mean getting your bum into your writing chair? Not how you do it after that?
[User Picture]
From:arhyalon
Date:July 8th, 2010 05:35 pm (UTC)

Re: knitting versus quilting

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I knit, too, and I often think of what happens when I am writing as having to unravel all the way back to a lost stitch.

Right vs. Left brain--yes. Some writing instructors do use those terms.

Discipline does mean sitting butt in chair. It also means doing the work...going back, rewriting, adding things you left out or know you are weak on. It also means listening carefully to your muse, not winging it. There's a big difference between an obedient muse-listener sitting disciplined, waiting for inspiriation and someone who just wings it.
From:(Anonymous)
Date:July 8th, 2010 06:17 pm (UTC)

Re: knitting versus quilting

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Like the difference between writing the first thing that pops into your head and opening your mind to something new and different and maybe even more truthful?
[User Picture]
From:arhyalon
Date:July 8th, 2010 06:47 pm (UTC)

Re: knitting versus quilting

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A lot like that. One requires time spent listening, thinking, musing, contemplating and considering. The other is quick and thoughtless.
[User Picture]
From:marycatelli
Date:July 9th, 2010 04:14 am (UTC)
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[User Picture]
From:arhyalon
Date:July 10th, 2010 04:43 am (UTC)
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LOL

The third volume of my Prospero series takes place almost entirely in Hell (not my original idea. The scenes in Hell were a chapter or two in the first version.) At one point, they catch a glimpse in the distance of...I can't recall the actual name...but something like the endless cloverleaf, where cars just drive around on curving exits forever. I see this place has one of those.

[User Picture]
From:carbonelle
Date:July 13th, 2010 01:56 am (UTC)

Three paintings

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There's a saying that there are always two pieces of artwork: the one in the artist's mind, and the one he actually realizes on the paper or canvas. A lesser known truth is that there's a third one: the first draft; the rough sketch. There's a freshness of expression, a quality to the line, so that no matter how much better (technically speaking) the final product may be, the original is somehow (in a way, I clearly am having a hard time explaining!) better.

The great trick is getting from that first inspired conception to the finished piece whilst losing as little as possible of the inspiration.
[User Picture]
From:arhyalon
Date:July 13th, 2010 11:20 am (UTC)

Re: Three paintings

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Nicely said!
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