May 21, 2008

Searching for a Method to the Madness

I first put pen to paper with the intent of creating a story purely for the fun of it in the late fall of 1990. Until I discovered online writing forums and began with the college newspaper some nine years later, what I knew of writing was gleaned mostly from trial and error. It still is to a large extent, but I do have some idea of what works for others and the craft of it. The one and only college creative writing course I took back in spring 2004 certainly helped, though it was mostly reading and critiquing the work of everyone in the class like a mega sized writer’s group.

Oh sure, I was taught to string together grammatically correct sentences and how to structure an essay in high school the same as everyone else, but writing fiction is a whole different game. How do you bring order and method to a creative process? Should you even try? I’ve been asking myself these questions for years and searching for a way to bring some method to the madness that is my “process,” and I know there isn’t any one size fits all answer.

I’m still searching for a way to refine the manner in which I write to make the process more efficient. The questions for world building list Bob Younce posted in the comments for yesterday’s post are a likely source of inspiration down the road.

Although I’ve yet to find a method to work for me, I have discovered some pros and cons to a litany of techniques and thought perhaps they could be of some use to other writers out there. So today begins a three part series on different writing methods. Like the world building series, this is another topic I’d love to have a good discussion on since while I have had the rare chat regarding world building, I’ve never gotten the chance to discuss writing styles and methods in any detail.

Also, it should be noted I’ve never seen actual names attached to any of these methods, so I’ve given them my own. If you know of a particular thing they’re called, please let me know.

The Naturalistic Method

Perhaps the most natural way to write is to just jump right in and see where the story takes you. I know it’s how most everything I write starts out, at least in the earliest phases, and it works rather well for short pieces. It’s the way all the essays, short stories, poems, and other various works of 10,000 words or less I’ve done were written.

The Naturalistic Method has one big drawback. It lends itself to meandering off onto tangents, dropped story arcs, and highly fragmented stories. When you don’t have any sort of roadmap, it’s all too easy to become enamored of and distracted by one particular element and either wander into a boxed canyon or become entirely lost.

The Mega Outline Method

When I first started venturing onto online writing forums, I heard a lot of talk about outlining before beginning work on a novel. I decided to give it a try.

Have you ever actually tried to outline an entire novel? Let me tell you, if you’ve only ever created an outline for a research paper, the size of it is shocking. You end up with the grandfather of all outlines.

Now, I like having an outline as a guide. It definitely helps keep the story on track and foreshadowing is much easier when you can see what’s ahead at a glance. Plus, if you’re as forgetful as I am, the reminders built into the outline work wonders for not dropping storylines halfway through or leaving plot holes gaping.

However, for those of us with a more organic sense of imagination, the mega outline is rather rigid and limiting. It helps for sure, but it gets annoying rebuilding the thing every time a previously unseen nuance comes along, you decide the ordering is wrong, or something needs to be deleted altogether.
I wasted so much time outlining and re-outlining, I finally just gave up on this method myself.

Here we have two extremes: one totally organic and flowing and the other the picture of order and rigid.

I could keep going, but to keep this post from becoming a behemoth, I’ve decided to split it into several posts. We’ll take a look at a few techniques falling somewhere along the spectrum between in tomorrow’s post.


  1. I've never been one to outline, at least not in the traditional way.

    I like the sketching method that Ken Follett shared with Albert Zuckerman in Writing the Breakout Novel. It's kinda writing the story lightly and then going back over it again and again.

    Now that you have two series going you'll have to post a guide to your posts! :)

  2. Depending on your publisher/agent/editor, you may be required to submit a chapter-by-chapter outline as part of your proposal, so it's a good idea to get in the practice. Of course, it's easier to outline once the story is done.

    However, an outline is a powerful tool that can help prevent plotholes and identify extraneous elements. My outline for Maiden of Pain was 17 pages, my outline for Shattered Amulet is closer to 10. I got pretty detailed on Maiden, drilling down so far as to include some key dialogue.

    That said, an outline is just a tool, a guide to keep you on track. It's not the ten commandments chiseled on stone tablets. I find myself editing as I go, but I still have that general roadmap that prevents me from getting lost.

  3. Depending on the length of the project, I've used both the natural method and the outline method. For me, longer projects really do require and outline. Even with shorter projects I've got a plan in mind, I just don't always write it down. :)

    I agree with Kameron, though. The outline is a tool, not a mandate.

  4. @ Jamie I believe I'm actually covering that method tomorrow. :)

    @ Kameron I can see how an outline can be a powerful tool for a lot of writers, but between my tendency to completely change my mind about something halfway through and absolutely horrid memory, it just doesn't work well for me personally. Unless I go back and rework the outline to reflect the needed changes from where I am on, it ceases to be of any use because I have a hard time remembering what I've covered and what still needs to be written without going back and reading several chapters.

    @ John It sounds like we're similar. With the long projects, I'm sunk without some form of road map, but I can get along just fine with a short plan in my head for the shorter stuff. I have a hard time getting the mental map to work much past 5,000 words or so without dropping the ball somewhere though.

    Thanks to all of you for stopping by.

  5. Oh, thank you for the reminder about some publishers and agents requiring a chapter-by-chapter outline, Kameron. I'd forgotten about that completely.

    I think I'll wait to go that in depth with it until after the novel is finished or at least close to completion though. I'm pretty good at outlining, just not so much at following them during the writing process.