Writing Without a Net

Excited LightI have a very special Guest Blogger today — Lynn Voedisch — a Chicago journalist and fiction writer with many years of experience working for newspapers and magazines.

Lynn’s latest release is Excited Light, “a story of magic and second chances.”

Thank you for providing this Tuesday’s Tip, Lynn!

Without a Net

There are writers who like things tidy, all neatly arranged and indexed. They probably have neat and organized houses, too. Then there are those of us who are called seat-of-the-pants writers, who work without a net and let our subconscious be our guide. I’m one of those writers who doesn’t use an outline. (My house is a mess, too.) It’s officially Not Recommended, but please understand that those of us who prefer this sort of free-form writing aren’t just flailing in the dark; we, too, have methods.

One of my Australian e-mail friends says we need to watch out for the Outline Police. It certainly does seem, if you pick up any how-to-write journal, that outlining is considered the golden rule of novel writing. Scofflaws are regarded with derision and even hotheaded scorn. Once on a mailing list, I was chastised by the owner, who said that whatever I was doing to keep the elements of the story together was still outlining. He had to believe this, because to him working without a chapter-by-chapter plan was unthinkable.

Well, he’s wrong. I don’t outline. The reason is pretty simple. In my case, having come from the world of journalism, there just never was time to outline. Everything a newspaper reporter does must be completed quickly and there is simply no time for outlines. So, when I approached novel writing, I figured “why start now?” The second reason I don’t outline is that I simply love it when the creative process suddenly leads me in a different direction—and I find it’s a better one. Several times new characters have arrived on the scene and inserted themselves in the action. In my second novel, still in manuscript form, the best character in the whole story is a guy who tapped on my shoulder and said he wanted to come in.

With an outline, those lovely moments of serendipity just don’t happen. I’ve heard from outline-lovers that they will deviate from the path if they want to. They swear the plan is flexible. I suppose it’s possible. But to me, just the idea of having something written down that I must follow seems antithetical to the creative process.

However, let’s get one thing straight: all writers have to know where they are going with their novel. You can’t start typing one day and let whims decide where you are going to go. Here are the tools I use to keep myself moving in the right direction:

• An ending: You’ve should know how the book is going to end pretty early in the writing process. If you don’t have a clue, you’re still not going to have any idea when it comes to ending time. If you’ve ever read a book that has an unsatisfying ending, chances are that author didn’t think his ending out clearly to begin with. Always know where you want the action to resolve and how the protagonist changes.
• Think it through: I spend a lot of time wandering around or lying on the couch, apparently doing nothing. But what I’m really doing is thinking through a chapter. I push my characters through various scenarios until I hit on the one that seems to work. Then I rush to write it all down. Often, a 2,000-word chapter will come flowing out of me in one day. That’s because it’s all clear in my mind thanks to a protracted period of kicking around ideas. Let yourself take this time. It’s essential to a well-conceived story, and works much better than the prescribed 500-words a day.
• Get to know your characters: Don’t let these people you have created stay two-dimensional. They will start out that way, which is why the first chapters of a first draft are often so thin. But after a while, you’ll know their intimate thoughts. Listen to their voices. Watch what their eyes do when they smile. Notice their quirks. If you think you can get away with it, talk to them out loud. (Not recommended in public.) By the last draft, you’ll have characters who come alive—and you won’t want to say goodbye to them.
• When stuck, draw a dramatic arc: On paper draw an arc, that gathers height slowly and then pitches down to the end, rather like a roller coaster. That’s your arc. Now draw a second one just below it. One is the outer arc (plot) and the other is the inner arc (character development). Mark on the arc key moments that are happening to your characters and notice how the plot gathers steam along with your protagonist’s revelations or pitfalls. Find your climax point and then the denouement to the ending will be easy. Each chapter has its own dramatic arc, too, but I don’t draw that out, I only keep it in mind.
• Always remember what readership you are aiming for: If it’s a romance, don’t get all heavy on historical details. If it’s a mystery, don’t lose your way in a lot of subplots. If you are writing mainstream, picture who would be picking up your book and write to him or her.

It’s easy to work without a net if you organize things well in your mind. And when that funny character with the strange clothing and odd vocal inflections taps you on the shoulder, let him in. You don’t have an outline to keep him out.

4 thoughts on “Writing Without a Net”

  1. Sorta free-form outlining?
    I use index cards…lots of ’em. Those outline police are just everywhere.
    As long as you have a plan, you can write a story. I’ve noticed that without some kind of beginning, middle and end in mind, it’s really, really hard to go anywhere with the story. There has to be at least a direction, no?

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