Well, the final few pieces of the puzzle are in place. It’s a rough puzzle, only large pieces, and none of the nuances of those with smaller pieces, but I think that’s going to be up to me.
Dean Wesley Smith wrapped up his “Writing Into The Dark” series – which will become a book now that he’s finished it – with the final two chapters in one post today. (They were shorter than the others, and constitute tips and tricks, mostly.) Reading those helped me feel this is going to be a great thing for me to try.
For one thing, DWS outlines the book as he goes.
Wait, what? I thought this was writing without an outline?
Right, it is. But what DWS does is outline what he’s already written, not what he’s going to write. See the subtle difference?
He says he tends to write single-scene chapters, so when he’s finished with a chapter, he takes a legal pad beside his computer (and that’s a key point, not triviality – the notebook for this step should not be virtual or on screen), and he gives a one- to two-sentence summary of what he’s written. He also includes things like what the character was wearing, but I assumed that meant details which might present issues later if you get them wrong.
So at the end of the sixth chapter (for him), he has somewhere between six and twelve lines of summary on a legal pad. And he does that until he can “see the end” of the book. At that point, the outline isn’t necessary anymore because it’s done it’s job, and he can finish without need of it.
His tip is to do this for every scene, if you’re a scene writer. At the end of each complete story unit, basically, whatever that represents for an individual writer.
This helps writers keep track of things at a glance. Haven’t returned to a viewpoint character for a while? That will become evident in the “reverse outline” (DWS’s term). Structural issues will become evident there too. (Huzzah! No more weak or missed markers and events!)
A great example he used was how he’d written a character’s viewpoint in chapter four, but later in the book, when looking back on his outline, he hadn’t ever returned to that character’s arc. So…he cut chapter four and went on. Nothing to it. The character was clearly unnecessary to the story, so…toodles.
That’s the first tip he gave. But there were others too. This “reverse outline” idea rang with me, though, because I almost – not quite, but almost – had this down back in 2007 when I finished my first full-length (not complete crap) novel. Except, I allowed the critical voice into the creative process by outlining ahead, instead of outlining what I’d done. The novel lost it’s way chapter by chapter and got weaker, repetitive, silly. And then, it needed revision. A lot of revision.
But when I trusted the creative voice, when I listened to the characters telling the story, I pounded out a coherent, and by all indications from those who read it, an enjoyable, novel. Only when I started allowing left brain stuff to creep in did it go astray. And then, of course, I decided it wasn’t any good, and needed “fixing.” (More critical voice speaking.)
Looking back on that experience of writing something which was never meant to be a novel and seeing it grow into a novel anyway, especially in light of this idea of deliberately writing with no plan, no outline, no structure, has been revealing for me. I had a lot of fun, even though I had no idea what to do next, where the story would go. There were weaknesses in the writing for sure, because I didn’t have a clue about craft then. And it sort of stuttered at points too. But it was fun, and I can now look back and see all the things I did in line with the points Dean Wesley Smith is making.
I’ve started to wonder if this is how I’m supposed to write. If this is how I was built to write. Is this the style I should have used, stuck with, and run with? Should I have just trusted my God-given talent to create a story, and then looked back under the hood when necessary to ensure things are where they should be?
Well, that’s impossible to answer. I also had fantastic success and experience when I wrote to the four-part, five-point structure framework. I like the idea of modifying The Hero’s Journey template into a workable story, too, but that left me a little flat, even if the speed was there. (I completed the outline for a book using THJ template in something like a day and a half.)
When I wrote from the top of my head – into the dark, as DWS calls it – I finished the whole book in about four months, including long stalls where I simply didn’t know what to write next. I started in August 2007, and finished it up in late November 2007. I did no cycling, though, which meant a copy edit was still in order, and by allowing the critical voice to outline chapters before I wrote them, the events and scope of the book narrowed and the word count ballooned. I might’ve done better with this “reverse outline” technique, and it would’ve helped me understand where the book was going. Instead, the critical voice tried to “guide” the creative voice using dim light (only one chapter outlined at a time), and that caused…well, problems.
Now, in fairness to myself, I didn’t know how to reverse outline then. And I didn’t understand I’d allowed the critical voice into the creative process. Or, for that matter, what the critical voice was.
So this had to come in hindsight. Had to. And I’ve tried planning and plotting which works so well for so many. Like I said, I wrote another novel in less than five months using the four-part structure framework as a guide. And it worked fine. I wrote to each of the milestones required and when I reached the end, I had a well-structured novel (if not one people loved as much as the first one).
So, maybe this method of reverse outlining will provide a marriage of the two styles. My left brain – which is very, very hard to shut up – will have the satisfaction of boiling everything written down into one or two lines (and I’ll have to work hard to make sure that doesn’t grow into six lines, eight, a paragraph…), and the joy of seeing the structure unfold. My right brain gets to write, to tell a story the way it wants the story told. Left brain gets to copy edit as it goes with cycling. The right brain gets to thumb its nose for the first time ever at writer’s block by being free to move around the manuscript without restriction, writing the next sentence, wherever that may come in the story, without the shackles of the story’s start-to-finish timeline.
I’m rather looking forward to this. Like all the other revelations I’ve had about writing, it feels a little like this is another gem handed to me by a loving God and Father, Who seems to smile on me in the most unexpected ways, at the most unexpected times.
I’ll be trying to write this weekend. I’ll let you know how it goes if you care.