I’m freaking out a little bit. I took the end of last week off work to finish my character work and get my ducks in a row to outline, and realised that after six solid months of planning and world-building, I pretty much have everything I need already. YOU GUYS, I COULD WRITE. LIKE. TOMORROW.
WORDS ON PAPER, IN SENTENCES. ACTUAL STORY.
Okay, so by ‘freaking out a bit’, I sort of mean FLIPPING MY SHIT. I’m flipping my shit.
For Sparks, I did a full outline before I wrote a word, and then I did a scene breakdown in a spreadsheet, to keep track of clues dropped and facts collected. Then I wrote the first chapter.
Then I re-wrote it.
For six months.
Then I got back to New Zealand and decided to get serious, and I finished it at a thousand words a day, seven days a week. I banned myself from editing. I banned myself from reading back over anything I’d previously written. If I made a change to a character or plotline, I left myself a note to change all the earlier references to it in editing, and kept going. I kept the document open and minimised at my current page, to prevent the temptation of scrolling past old words.
For After I’m going to try something different. I’m still going to write at a thousand words a day, because that seems to be my creative limit — at least while still working a 40-hour week. I’m still banning myself from reading back or editing as I go, because that way lies chaos and self-doubt and stalling. But I’m not going to do a full outline.
This feels a little like announcing I’m going to jump out of a plane without a parachute, which I genuinely think would be easier. I’m a planner, not a pantser. I can’t pants to save myself. I get overwhelmed and my words dry up and my characters don’t know who they’re supposed to be, and everyone is gripped by a paroxysm of inactivity on page 7 and — gasping — slowly chokes.
It’s always page 7, by the way. My mental leash is about 3,500 words long.
But that said, I had to have a rigid outline for Sparks. It was a mystery. Events had to spin themselves out in a certain way. But at the same time, the depth of my outline kinda bound the story up in itself — or, more, it bound the characters up in the story, and both of them suffered for it.
“Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
— E.L. Doctorow
(From this excellent post on the subject by Timothy Hallinan.)
What I am doing is a partial outline. I know roughly where the whole story ends, and where I want to take my characters in getting there. I’ve spent a lot of time and words getting to know who they are, and the world they live in. After has a three-act structure, and I have a rough outline for act one. From that, I’ve done a scene breakdown of the first sequence of act one. When I’ve written that, I’ll break down the next sequence — I need to see how everyone copes with the first sequence to understand how the next one will play out, but I need some framework to keep me moving from A to B. I’m hoping this is going to be a compromise that works.
(All of this, non-writers, is extended code for ‘a lot of talking to myself’. Which is also what I’m doing with this blog post. Fun!)
So now I have to use my words. Scary. It’s been almost a year since I finished the first draft of Sparks. WHAT IF I DON’T REMEMBER HOW TO MAKE FICTION WORDS? And more importantly, WHAT IF THEY SUCK?
This idea, as long as it’s still an idea, is still perfect. I haven’t stuffed it into sentences that can constrain it or ruin it. It’s all beautiful, delightful potential. I can still believe I’m good enough to write EXACTLY WHAT I INTEND TO WRITE (belly laughs echo from all other writers ever to live). Wrestling a story out of your head is scary and slippery (and exciting, and daunting, and impossible). Part of not reading back over my work is giving myself permission for my first draft to suck as much as it wants — and part of it is avoiding knowing how much that is. But now, this bit, before the first words go down and the story becomes an entity in its own right; it’s hard not to feel daunted by that bit. I want it to be good. I want it to be PERFECT. Knowing it can’t be doesn’t stop that.
So even though I COULD write tomorrow, I can pretty much guarantee you’ll need to give me at least another week of dicking around before I get up the guts.
In case it’s not completely obvious, all this process stuff is just what works for me — and that’s a work in progress itself. If I’ve learned one thing from the wider interwebs, it’s that everyone’s process is different. You have to be true to whatever works for you. Cherry-pick from any advice that sounds good, but you won’t know if it will work for you until you try it.