Ha! See what I did there?
So I’m now seven weeks into my new book. It’s another one in the series I started back in 2007. The characters are popular with those who read it (I think; hope that’s not overstating things), and so from an experiment in giving different voice to characters through dialog only without reliance on speaker tags it grew into a novel-length online serial.
Anyway, this book is probably, technically, the third in the series. But I’ll have it finished and up on Kindle before I revise the first one. So the book won’t make much sense until I get them all up, and writing it so it’s a stand-alone would have been smarter, but whatever.
The method I used to get through this one is very different than I’ve used over the last few years. I have to say, it’s a bit embarrassing to say I’m pants-seat writing, but that’s the truth. I have no outline, no idea where the story’s going, no idea of the ending. I just have a vague sense of what comes next, whether that’s the next thing the reader is supposed to read, or whether it’s just the next thing I want to write.
Dean Wesley Smith calls this “Writing into the Dark.” He’s published a book on it, which you can get here if you’re interested. I got it from his blog series (now removed in favor of his book) by the same name.
Basically, it details a method for writing which is almost identical to the method I’ve used every time I wrote before 2011.
I sit down with only an idea and a word processor, and start writing. When (not “if”, please note) I get stuck, though, this method details ways to get through the log jam. It also helped me understand why I got log jammed in the first place. Knowing those two things will help me break loose and keep going when I get caught in a quagmire.
But I also learned something else along the way. I learned one of the major tricks to writing this way is to help you develop storytelling abilities. When I finished my first “real” book, I had a lot of well-meaning and wonderful people try to tell me to go back and “rewrite.” They meant to literally rework the piece from “Once upon a time” to “and they lived happily ever after,” and cut, paste, move, edit, change…you get it. I don’t even know what all was involved, because I saw that advice and got really, really discouraged.
“But this is the best I can do,” my broken heart said. “If it’s not good enough like this, doing it over won’t make it better.”
Well, enter Writing into the Dark.
See, one of the major rules with this method is, you get one draft, and only one draft. Rewording and reworking is fine, and if you need to move a scene here or there to get things right, fine, but the way the method works requires the writer not to just write (as they are so often encouraged to do), but to write at their best level from the very first word.
When you’re finished you will have not a first draft, but a completed book representing your best effort, which has been gone over at every writing session.
So, one of the major blocks I had in writing – rewriting – is removed from the equation. I’m not drafting and re-drafting. I’m getting it as right as I’m able, with the current skill set I possess, the first time I write it.
The next thing I had to overcome was, what happens when I get stuck?
With an outline in hand, I can see where I’m going and force myself to progress that direction. Without one, what am I supposed to do? Especially when this has to be done right the first time?
(BTW, this is just a throwback to how writers worked until the advent of word processors and computers. If you didn’t get it right the first time, you would have to retype [or rewrite longhand] some portion of the manuscript, and that wasn’t fun or cool.)
Well, the answer is surprisingly simple and very effective. You back up a few hundred words, start reading forward, and you will find the place where you veered from where you wanted to go in the first place.
Being stuck, therefore, indicates you took the story a direction your creative voice didn’t want to go, or you experimented with something and it didn’t work. You wrote extra which will then be discarded and the story put back on track.
I almost laughed aloud when I read that the first time. Are you kidding me? I thought, That won’t work! But I’m here to tell you it DOES work, ladies and gentlemen. Trusting your process, trusting your creative voice, is more effective than you think. Well, more effective than I thought, anyway.
I’ve broken through more than one wall this way. I didn’t waste a lot of words, either. (Note: they’re not wasted. Being okay with writing stuff that won’t make it into the story is part of this method, part of this process, and must be okay if you’re going to use it.) And in the end, I busted through the one-third wall without much effort, and broke through other sticking points when I couldn’t find anything to write. Just sitting down, reading from a few hundred words back, and hitting the groove again, worked miracles.
It doesn’t mean there’s no writer’s block anymore, of course, but there are ways to break that too.
The next important part of the method is to “reverse outline” the work. That is, after each writing session, you go back, read it, and then give a two- or three-line summation of whatever chunk you just wrote (scene, chapter, whatever). I write in scenes these days, so I outline that way too. But I only outline after writing, not before. Not this time.
So I have about a five page outline so far, and have used it to go back and find things in the story. This helps me add plants, or change errors, or correct them, and keep the story in line.
The final, critical part of this method hasn’t come into play for me yet. Well, sort of it did, but not too much. And that is, the freedom to move back and forth in the manuscript, in the story. Move ahead so you write the next thing; move back to insert something necessary; move to the current spot so you keep going.
The mantra of the method is, “Write the next sentence.”
But the method requires a non-linear view of the story, and “the next sentence” is not defined as the one which follows the one prior. It just means whatever comes next. You must be able to free yourself from the lineal confines of the story as the reader experiences it, and instead move through it as the omniscient writer. I can jump all the way to the end, or go back and add to the beginning as necessary. I am not confined to writing whatever the next unit is the reader will experience when they sit down to read the story.
A reader sees the story from beginning to end. Writers don’t have to. That was – and still is, truth be told – very difficult for me. I’m very linear in my thinking. I like processes. I like computer programming, because the code goes from top to bottom in its execution. But I’ve noticed I often need to go backward and forward in the code to insert, add, delete, change. Yet, I have a hard time doing that with a story, and I didn’t know why.
Until, perhaps, this very morning, when I discovered (or better, realized) the story is just like the code. Start at the beginning if you’re able, but start somewhere, and just go forward until you can’t. Then back up and go wherever you need to. Jump ahead to what inspires you, then write to that point when you clear the log jams or hurdles. Move around the story, and remember, you get one and only one draft. So make it count.
I’m now at 34,697 words, and today marks the seventh week of writing. It’s not going to break any speed records, and it’s not as fast as I wrote back when I pumped out my first book in this series in 2007, but it’s a whole lot farther than I’ve gone on any book since 2011.
So I guess I was a pants-seat writer all along.
Here’s to flying the way you’re built and breaking through walls along the way.
PS – Image from here.