Bob the builder can build anything (I’m assuming that by “anything”, the show meant “most logical, useful things”, like chairs and houses. I don’t think he could build a space ship or a washing machine or a a totem pole). As writers, we are all Bob, because our imaginations are fertile fields of flowers and fluorescent lights that flicker like in horror movies. Wow, my alliteration went way off track there. Writers build entire worlds from nothing (if your brain is as empty as mine tends to be, literally nothing), and construct characters with backstories and personalities and biases from inklings of magic. Writers are fucking magical, okay. You will not convince me otherwise. Writers are the Aslan’s of the modern world, minus the mane and the whole quadruped thing. Unless the writer is a two-month-old.
However, even magical beings need rules. The first rule of magic is kind of boring to discuss (“show, don’t tell”, yeah I got it. What else do you want me to say about that….um, don’t fucking narrate your entire plot to me, maybe some description or fighting or conflict would be a good thing? Use all five senses and shit- or maybe you’ve got a cool species that has more than five senses! In that case, use all seven of his/her senses), so let’s skip ahead to the second rule: thou shalt write stuff.
It’s all well and good to command writing to be done, but how do you start writing this huge-ass project? If you’re a YA or adult fiction writer, you know it’s going to be around 70K words by the end. How do you even conceive of writing so much when the bright white screen of your document is staring at you like a judgemental ghost?
Guuuurl, you don’t actually think you gonna fuck up my clean page; go ahead and leave now.
Basically, there are two ways you can do this (multiple shades of grey in between the two extremes too, but let’s not go all kinky in this blog. I hardly know you!):
- Outline your shit- that means plot, character arcs, and whatever subplots you’ve got in mind. We’re talking lists, different coloured pens, binders…go all preppy schoolgirl on that idea.
- Don’t outline your shit- write whatever comes to mind, whenever it comes to mind. Zero structure, let the creativity flow like your piss into the toilet.
I’ve tried doing this whole writing thing both ways, so allow me to elucidate the possibilities.
The first time I decided to write a proper book (this doesn’t count that time in grade 4 when I wrote a four chapter little thing on mermaids and then annoyed the teacher so much she let me read it in front of the class, okay! Stop bringing it up!) was in grade 12, when I thought the teacher’s joke about writing a book for the final was a legitimate instruction. Even though my friends told me it was a joke, I didn’t believe them, to the point that at the end of the semester, I actually emailed my finished novel to her personal email, because I couldn’t find the dropbox for it online.
I made all the rookie writer mistakes: I didn’t research how to write, because I thought I understood grammar etc.; I didn’t read books from my genre because I didn’t want to plagiarise anyone; I didn’t set a deadline for myself because I didn’t want to stifle my creativity; I didn’t schedule a writing time or place for myself because who needs that sort of structure? 17-year-old me was an arrogant little prick, at least when it came to writing.
The worst part was, I also decided that outlining was for losers, so I started writing without any clear idea about who my characters were or where my plot was going. The project oscillated between horror, romance, fantasy and adventure throughout the three months that it took for me to finish writing it. By the end, I didn’t have any scenes in order, because I didn’t know what was happening when, and the voice of my character changed constantly. Sometimes, she was a happy little bugger, sometimes she was straight-up stereotypical goth. I’m cringing just thinking about it. Anyways, while most people who write this way say that by the end of their rough draft, they’ve got a clear idea about what their plot is, and who their characters are, and what’s going on in the subplots; yeah, that didn’t happen for me. When I finished my rough draft, I had so many disjointed ideas zooming around in my document that I was more confused than ever. I ended up sitting down one afternoon, closing my eyes and just thinking about what this novel was actually about.
I thought that did the trick, so I took the two months left to me before my perceived deadline to edit, and then I submitted it. So much regret…
I recently re-read it…um, no. It still sucks. The voice does a complete 180 degree turn halfway through, and the plot is so confusing, it might as well be Inception!
So, while writing from the seat of your pants does allow for more freedom, and might allow you to explore your options more with regards to your character and plot development; if you use this method, you have to take the risk of an editing shitstorm. You also have to take the risk of not actually resolving any of your conflicts, not understanding any of your characters and the rough draft being a complete fail, until you have to do what the outliners do at the beginning: sit down to figure your shit out.
Not being a hypocrite, in my current project, Thingy with the Jiggy (don’t make fun of the title, it’s just the name of my rough draft), I did outline (mostly). I did a rough outline, more lazy schoolgirl than preppy. I broke my plot into eight big parts, and split each eighth into three smaller parts, with a specific action or purpose for each 1/24th. I wrote several pages of stuff before I figured out my voice, but when my voice came, so did a complete picture of my main character, a lovable asshole named Jay. Hell, I even thought up secondary characters at the beginning! What I didn’t do: figure out where those secondary characters go after their introduction scene. I also didn’t think about all the minor scenes needed to flesh out the subplot and all the characters…kind of an oversight. Whoopsie daisy.
However, I basically outlined my shit.And let me tell you something very important: it was the BOMB! It was so much better than my other thing!
- Less writer’s blocks because I knew what was coming next
- More organised, even though I still don’t write in chronological order
- THE VOICE WAS MOSTLY CONSTANT
- THE VOICE WAS MOSTLY FUCKING CONSTANT
- The plot wasn’t shit
- I can pinpoint the problems with my first draft more easily because I actually know what my story is about
- I feel like a proper author because I’ve got pages and pages of notes and rough work and pictures that sort of look right (I couldn’t draw if Vincent van Gogh was my tutor)
- Got to justify buying a pretty notebook
- I can’t actually think of any more reasons, but I want to get to 10
- Fuck it, just believe me when I say that outlining is the way to go
If you’re worried about maintaining your creativity, stop being such a wuss. Cross out a plot point on your outline if you changed your mind, and write from there. If you changed your mind about the whole idea of your story, throw out your notes and go from there- at least you didn’t waste months of writing to figure out that you actually hate it.
Don’t start going on about how much time it’ll waste. It takes a day, tops, to write the stuff in your head down, and we both know that you won’t remember half the ideas for scenes that you’ve got in there anyways, so what’s the harm?
Now, don’t get me wrong. I still hate my rough draft, because it still sucks. It’s got plot holes, it’s got subplots that disappear like your good mood when your hair encounters humidity, it’s got characters that don’t have any purpose other than comedy, it’s even got some main character issues (that I didn’t mean to put there). However, when you read it, hell yeah you can tell what’s happening, and hell yeah you know who my main character is. So although it’s shit, at least it’s not the messy diarrhoea that is the result whenever I try to write from the seat of my pants.
Still don’t believe me? I dare you to try writing by outlining once. Customise your outline to your style of writing.If you have problems with the minor things, try making a list of minor scenes that need to be there. If you have problems with voice or tone, get a paragraph in the perfect voice and tape it to your wall above your desk so you can constantly compare. And so on, and so forth.
Let me know how it goes in the comments!