Golden Retriever Writing Process

This week, I started Dean Wesley Smith’s writing workshop on “Editing Yourself.” One of the things I had to do was think about how to describe my writing process.

The first thing I thought of was this video:



Why outlining doesn’t work for everyone

It took me a long time to figure out that most writing craft advice that I find in books and online assumes that you’re outlining.  It’s so common that even people who don’t outline don’t realize they’re being told to use outlining techniques.

So much so that one of them periodically creeps into my writing and becomes like a big boulder that falls on the mountain pathway.  No way to get around it to the other side other than to zap it with a laser beam into bits and pieces.

My book is in three parts, with each part being a particular planet.  I started writing the part that takes place on the second planet and a big boulder dropped in.

It was a simple piece of outlining advice, which is to know what’s going to happen next. 

So I plopped in what I thought happen next and the story stalled out.  It took me a while to figure out what was going on as I tried to get around the boulder, but far less time in the past.  In fact, Scrivener helped because I could visually see scenes and chapters.  Part 1 had 13 chapters.  Part 2, where I had 3 chapters. 

This is a major section of the story, and I was zooming through it like it wasn’t important.

That’s because when I use one of these recommended outlining techniques, it kicks the natural development of the story to the curb and aims at the event, I suppose, like an infantry man charging a hill.  It’s more of “accomplish the mission and get that event in there,” not follow the natural course of the story. 

The result in the past was a very busy story that made no sense because I kept trying to use all these outline techniques that are recommended for pantsers. 

So it’s pretty important to understand what works and recognize what doesn’t.  Everyone tends to treat outlining as a once size fits all, when the writing process is completely different from person to person.

Writing Process is not the Same Thing as Writing Craft

When I was trying to figure out what was wrong with my writing, I took a lot of writing workshops. There are several places you can go and find a ton of courses on every imaginable writing subject.

I tried screening them where I could. You know, checking to see if the writer had more than one book out, and later, if the writer was an outliner or a pantser, a person who doesn’t outline.

There was one workshop that had three levels:

  1. The cheapest: you got the printed material.
  2. Participate online with other writers taking it.
  3. Critique from the author offering the course.  This was pretty expensive.

The writer only had two books out, so she wasn’t that experienced, though her course was getting raves from other writers. Even opinions from other writers is not always a good recommendation, because sometimes they think “Published” makes the person an automatic expert.  A person with only a few books out is still new at craft.

I was curious enough to pay for the first option, and it was “Meh.” Very superficial. It also did what all of these other courses did:

Taught writing process as craft.

They’re not the same thing.

Craft is like learning what a story is (which is not easy to do), or characterization, or pacing.

Process is how you get there, or your approach to building the story. It’s how much you know about the story, or don’t know about the story. It’s the order you build it, and how you build it, like writing thin and filling it in or writing too much and cutting it.

But a lot of writers mistake process for craft.

That’s where pantsing a book or outlining one comes in. How often have you seen a blog post or a craft book say that pantsers don’t have plot because they don’t outline?

One of the things that struck me was a writing coach who was selling a outlining process.  He pounded his fist and said quite loudly over and over that pantsers books were always a mess and they never worked.  Evidently, it never occurred to him that it might be a problem with the writer not getting what a story is.

This is one the reasons it’s really important to find other pantsers because the outliner writers will always blame the process.

Writer of Contention: “We Are Outliners. You Will Be Assimilated.”

Virginia’s still in frigid-land today, though — it’s hard to believe I’m saying this — it’s warmer at 23 degrees.  That’s because we don’t have the extreme wind chills of the last few days.  Of course, tomorrow, it’s supposed to an icy mix, right when morning rush hour starts … Argh!

Off to the subject which starts as a prompt from The Daily Post: Pick a contentious issue about which you care deeply — it could be the same-sex marriage debate, or just a disagreement you’re having with a friend. Write a post defending the opposite position, and then reflect on what it was like to do that.

I actually don’t like taking sides, because the answer is often more in the middle.  If someone is pounding their fists and saying “This is so!” my first reaction is “What’s the other side say?”  I read a conservative newspaper and a liberal newspaper so I can get both ends of the news.

But in writing, I keep running into sides when it comes to the process of writing.  Now for readers, it doesn’t matter about the process that created the book, as long as it’s a good story (we won’t get into what makes a good story.  That’s a sticky area of opinion that’s hard to define).

Yet, it irks me to see blog posts called Plotters vs. Pantsers, Pros and Cons of Plotting and Pantsing, and “The Great Debate.”  Nearly all of these are framed in such a way that Pantsers (people who don’t use outlines when they write) just need to get with the program and haven’t figured it out yet.  Worse are the posts that are “I’m a reformed/recovering pantser” or “confessions of a pantser turned plotter.”  They just sound like pantsers are unsavory types lurking in the doorways of abandoned buildings at night.  What is there to confess?  What is there to recover from?

All of it ends up going to the suggestion — sometimes subtle and sometimes not — that people who don’t outline are doing it wrong.

I took a writing lecture from Dean Wesley Smith on “Writing into the Dark” (he doesn’t think much of the term pantser).  The thing that amazed me was that I had naturally gravitated to all but one of the things he suggests.  Then I moved away from them because the Writing Collective (like the Borg Collective) kept saying that they weren’t a good idea, for a variety of reasons.  I find it now another way to pressure pantsers into conforming by outlining.

Ys, I’m now doing all of those things I moved away from again, because they were essential to how I write.  When I didn’t do them, it made things worse.  No assimilation here.  I am me.  I do it the way that works for me.

And since I talked Star Trek, a quick video of Borg Squared:

Exorcising Writing How-to Advice

Last week, I wrote about leaving the writing message boards because my writing was getting polluted by a lot of the nonsense advice being passed around.  But I’d also started pulling back from general writing advice from how-to books even before that (some writers were absolutely horrified at this.  Writing advice is a huge safety net).  I was finding that the advice assumed all writers outline and didn’t provide anything really for someone who might not be doing that.

One of the core problems for me is that a lot of the how-to advice is common sense and seems perfectly reasonable.

Until I apply it to when I’m writing, and it turns the story into a freaking mess.  I could not tell this until I tossed out all the outlining-flavored advice, and once I did, the story simply worked.  Writing the story also went back to being a lot of fun.  Using outlining flavored techniques really sucked a lot of the fun out.

But it’s a constant battle, because I’ve been hearing that advice for decades.  It’s like it’s imprinted on me as a default.

I’m currently at the one-third point in my current book.  It’s a place where I always have trouble in every single book.  The story was going great, and then suddenly it’s ‘what do I do?’

LEFT BRAIN: Ack!  Ack! Story is broken!  Story is broken! Go find the problem and fix it!

I wound up stuck at that point, mainly because I’ve been at war with the Left Brain.  It figures all that writing advice out there is useful and maybe a turning point would help resolve the sticking point.

No, no, and no.

Because that wrests takes all the creativity away from my Right Brain that’s actually trying to do the writing.  What’s happened in the past is that when I let the Left Brain dictate what happens next — story beats were one of those things that seemed really reasonable but were horrifyingly bad —  I ended up trying to make the story fit what I’d come up with.  The story, in turn, became very convoluted and twisted because the creative process of discovery as I wrote was not allowed in.  It distorted the story so badly, in fact, that this is a complete redraft from scratch, and I have not used anything from the original version.

I end up feeling like I have to keep giving Left Brain an NCIS head slap to stay out of the story’s business.

The hardest thing right now is that I am literally doing a scene that I do not have any idea what is going to happen in it.  How-to advice and writing rules all say that’s a bad idea, and it’s what I have to do.

It’s trust the process.

Story a Week: Week 4

This week I’m playing a bit of catch up.  I went to a science fiction convention in North Carolina over the weekend and just got back yesterday.  I knew this was scheduled, so I decided to do flash fiction.  The catch was that I had to get it done before Friday.

Goals for this story:

  1. Ramp up the style.  I was shooting for the literary genre this time, and style is a genre requirement.
  2. Write it in one sitting.

But, as it turned out, I did a bit more than I thought I would.

On the train, I was inspired to write a poem.  I haven’t done one of those in years, so why not?  I did not do much of any writing on the train trip up to North Carolina.  Honestly, it was just nice to be able to sit back and watch the world go by without having to race around and do stuff.  Trains have a way of slowing you down.

Then at the con, I attended the tail end of a workshop on writing organizations.  The panelists actually weren’t discussing the topic; it was more on being productive.  One of the hardest things for writers, especially part time with a day job, is that other things can interfere with it.  You have to make time for it, and usually goals of some kind are associated with it.

The typical goal is 2,000 words a day.  That’s tough for me as a writer who doesn’t outline.  Sometimes things pop into the story, and then I take them out as part of this creative process.  Word count can actually go into the negative numbers.  I also recently something in passing that said most of the writers who claim they’re hitting 2K a day probably aren’t.

Another type of goal is a project goal, like doing a scene.  That was also problematic for me because I don’t get ideas in order, so it is possible a scene may be unfinished because I haven’t gotten far enough into the story to fill things in.

But at this workshop, one of the writers mention Kim Stanley Robinson’s goal of five pages a day.  I thought about that.  Could I do that?  That goal doesn’t require the scene to be complete, not is it as subject to the ups and downs of not outlining.  So I went back that night and wrote 5 pages, and it was fun — something novel writing hasn’t been for a while.

But one thing I did do was I had to say not to worry about description, setting, and world building.  Those three things can turn a writing session into a nightmare of trying to make any goal.  I think some of it just that I haven’t quite processed what I need for the scene, and it takes more time.  But I’ve found that if I “leave it for later,” I end up with massive revision that affects the story itself.

So what I did was type notes in the file where I thought the description should go (and counted as part of the 5 pages).  The notes were all different.  Some were just like “Describe this character.”  Others had notes of things to make sure I did, and things to avoid.  There were some where I got additional ideas and put those in as well.

I ended up doing another 5 pages the following day and 10 on travel day.  Writing 5 pages like this took maybe an hour because I didn’t have to stop and think about describing stuff.  I could just add notes and come back to it.

We’ll see how it goes in the coming weeks.


False Experts and Writing Classes

Down angle of Four Mile Run
In Virginia, a stream is called a run. This is Four Mile Run.

I’m going to be taking a writing class starting today, and it’s got me thinking about who is qualified to give writing classes.  There’s quite a few writing courses out, but a lot of them are given by “false experts.”

What’s a false expert?

It’s a person who says they are an expert in writing without having any or enough of the right experience.  For example, a non-fiction writer who has never written fiction explaining how to write fiction.  Or an indie writer with one book self-published and a trail of books the publishers wouldn’t accept explaining how to write the beginning of a story.

I blame platform for this.  When platform became the trendy word of the day, everyone threw it at fiction writers and said, “You need to come up with a platform.”  Platform starts with being an expert in something, and that’s hard when you’re writing fiction.  If I do fantasy stories, what would I be an expert in?  Unicorns?  Who’d care?

The result though is that we’re deluged with writers who have proclaimed themselves as experts in writing and are teaching classes.

I took a lot of writing classes because I was searching for a solution to some of the weird problems I was having (the classes didn’t help).  Most of the classes were pretty inexpensive, and I think that’s a lure, too.  Which sounds like something I can do faster — the $20 class or the $300 class?

What I found was that a lot of these writers are teaching their writing process, not story writing techniques.  There is a difference.  A lot of them also weren’t terribly professional.  One instructor flounced into the class, all excited about it, then started revising it as she went along.  She then disappeared for a few weeks, and everyone complained.  She came back, apologized, said she had been sick, and would give the class to us again (hasn’t happened).

Yet, I took an Odyssey class last year, and it was the most professionally handled classes I’d ever been in.  Everything about it said professional.  We didn’t get treated as ignorant writers who needed to be told the basics; we got treated as knowledgeable people who were here to learn.  Looking back at it, I have no doubt if the instructor had gotten a cold, we would have heard about immediately, and workarounds might have been done, or the schedule adjusted a little.

I think that’s where writing one book versus being well-published comes into play.  One book means that maybe the discipline hasn’t been fully developed, so it’s easy to be uncommitted.  Plus, I believe a lot of these classes are for the purpose of making the writer money.  It isn’t about their reputation, or word of mouth to get other people to attend the class.

So I’ve had to apply my false expert filter to classes.  I’d done it with how-to books, but that was to mainly flag non-fiction writers.   I start by checking the writer’s background.  Have they written a lot — and been professionally published.

One of the new questions I’ve had to ask — and I am glad for all the classes I took that got me to ask this question — is “Is this pantser friendly?”  Then I listen very carefully to the answer with my bull dodo meter.  The outliners who don’t have a clue about pantsers will tap dance around the answer and say “Sure!” as if one size fits all.

What kinds of things do you look for?

Rule L: never stop Learning about writing

Linda’s Rules of Writing

An abstract silhouette of a man in profile, with a star shining in his head.
Knowledge is always waiting for us, if we’re willing to see it.

We’re onto the letter L in Linda’s Rules of Writing of the A to Z Challenge, and never stop Learning about writing.

I have a friend who’s an actor, mostly retired now since he’s 86 and got started in the 1950s.  But I was surprised to hear that he still takes acting classes, despite all his experience.  There’s always something new to learn.

It’s the same way with writing.  The more I learn, the more I realize how little I actually know. And I’m finding that I always learn something new. If I look for it.  It’s one of the reasons I’m starting to take free online college courses.

What have you learned about your writing recently?

Caption: A to Z Challenge Logo

Outline? What Outline?

This post is inspired by Liv Rancourt’s A Plotter’s Process.  I’m a pantser, but I have tried outlining.

I ran into horrendous problems on Miasma.  They were so bad that I wasn’t sure if I could fix them.  But I thought trying outlines might help, and I was willing to change my writing process if it did.  So I went from outline to outline, searching for one that clicked with me.  Instead, it was a frustrating and unhelpful experience.  I could not make them work no matter how hard I tried!  The worst was an outline workshop that was “pantser friendly.”  There’s nothing worse than being the only one in class who doesn’t get the material.  I managed to battle my way through the lessons, but when I looked at them later, I had no idea how I did it.  What doing the workshop did teach me was that outlines clash with my creative process.

Please don’t tell me I’ll come over from pantsing eventually.  Or that I don’t get outlines, or aren’t doing them right.   Or my favorite, that I’m outlining and don’t know it.  And I’ve never understand this “Your first draft is your outline” business.  If a writer creates an outline and then writes the story he has a first draft.  If I skip the outline and write the story, all I end up with is an outline?!  That doesn’t make sense!

I’m not broken or deluding myself.  Pantsing is the only way I can write.

I start by taking an idea and writing a summary of it, over and over until I start to get a feel for the story.  It’s really just a launching point so I’m writing with story in mind and not a vague idea.  I’ll also work on a sentence describing the story.

Then I start writing, and I follow the flow of the writing.  If something occurs to me, I put it in, even if I’m not sure what I’m going to do with it.  I’ve often found some of the greatest ideas that shape the story by doing that.  I describe it as throwing paint at the wall to see what sticks.

With characters, I toss one into the story when I need one, and they happen.

What’s your writing process?  How do you work out what the story is?  Have you ever had anyone tell you your writing process was wrong?