Up until a few months ago, I always thought I was an outline writer. You know, plan the beginning, middle, end — double check themes, conflict, and character story arch. Sub-headings. Sub-headings of sub-headings. Bullet points. Looked something like this:
1. instigating conflict
A. main character wants…
B. main enemy is?
C. main character meets…/faces…/fails…/etc…
D. main character reacts, which leads to… to which the main character responds…, which ultimately ends up at [consequential conflict/climax].
2. consequential conflict/climax
A. External Conflict, scene
B. Internal Conflict, scene (decision = theme)
The outline ends up much more fleshed out than above with lots of side notes about the main character, metaphorical bits in the story, twists and turns, etc…, but that’s the very basic breakdown. Lots of editing follows, at least one beta group reading and critique, an out-loud reading, let it sit, final edit, and submit.
It’d be great if it all really worked out that way. It seems so straight-forward and logical.
The reality is that I am more discovery writer than outline writer. When I try to use this outline and follow point A to point B, I find that my writing struggles to follow the plan, and if I force it to, then I write the soul out of it and end up with writer’s block.
In the end, the best scenario for me is to take a scene I’ve already imagined or a place I’ve already imagined, throw a character into it, and see what happens. Often, in the course of writing an ending occurs to me, and I enjoy the adventure of how my characters reach it.
Admittedly though, I admire tight stories, which is why outlining appeals to me. By “tight,” I mean stories that use foreshadowing, intricate and consistent world-building, and subplots. Often, these elements don’t occur to me until down the line of my discovery writing. That means I spend a lot of time rewriting previous chapters to incorporate the new elements. It’s a long process, but at least the creativity flows this way.
The final steps are the same as the outline process though: lots of follow-up editing, a first reader critique, more editing, at least one reading aloud, a beta group reading and critique, let it sit, final edit, and submit.
I have some specific final edits that strengthen my prose a great deal: finding all being verbs and changing as many as possible, marking all “ly” words and making sure they’re worthy, checking for redundancy in information, scenes, or characters and merging if necessary (or, in novel writing, expanding those scenes to be more evolved than their predecessors if possible), marking all explanations and deciding if they can be shown somehow or if they’re okay, making sure scenes accomplish multiple goals in world-building, character development, relaying essential information, etc… (though this is more flexible with novel writing, which demands more philosophical reflections/conversations, asides, and references to a larger world or other adventures). Lots of checkboxes to mark.
I’m also a compulsive editor, which I’m trying to hold back on. It works fine with short story writing because short stories are so succinct that I need to get any changes in before I reach my climax and/or resolution. Not so with novels. In novels, if I keep going back to make changes, I’ll never reach the end. I have to continually remind myself it’s only a first draft, and I’ll have ample opportunity to go back and change things. I just keep a stack of sticky notes on hand to keep a record of changes I need to go back and make after reaching the end. That’s the only way I can convince myself to move forward.
I’m sure my writing process will continue to develop and mature as I gain more experience and improve my writing craft. Hopefully this post provides ideas to other writers on writing strategies to try, but if not, then it at least stands as a record of what I used to do, and I can look back, shake my head ruefully, and smile knowingly.