This post is written in response to the insecure writers support group’s monthly prompt.
January 4 Question: What writing rule do you wish you’d never heard?
I’ve been thinking hard about this question all day, and I can’t think of an answer. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a writing rule which has influenced me so strongly and negatively that I wish I’d never heard it.
I’m not aware of following rules when I write. I do listen to other author’s advice and opinions, and I’ve read many books on writing, but I’m aware I have to adapt this information to my own way of writing, my story and my characters. I’ve always trusted myself to write on my own gut feeling. I write because I have great fun recreating imaginary worlds, characters and stories. I’m mainly concerned with pleasing myself, although I also worry about not boring or annoying potential readers. What’s the point of that?
The single most useless piece of advice was probably don’t plot, just write and go with the flow. I’m not sure exactly who said it first, but I’ve heard it a lot. It might work for some people, although I doubt it, but if I did that I’d end up with a disjointed mess, not a publishable novel. Writing, plotting, planning, editing, re-writing, re-editing, re-plotting are a constant cycle in my writing process.
Some people attribute this idea of not plotting to Stephen King, but he never actually said he didn’t plot, he said he didn’t use ‘written outlines’. He said he starts writing and lets the ‘patterns’ develop later.
“I start a book knowing just two things: the basic situation and that the story will create its own patterns naturally and organically if I follow it fairly…and by fairly I mean never forcing characters to do things they wouldn’t do in real life…For me, the first draft is all about story. I trust that some other part of me—an undermind—will create certain patterns.”
On the other hand, other authors, such as J. K. Rowling or Ken Follett , don’t start writing their novels until they’ve worked out a detailed plot outline.
It seems that both approaches work, as they’re used by successful authors who write excellent novels.
This is how I’ve done it in my first five novels (three published and two in process).
My first phase approaches King’s advice (pantsing).
1- I start with some characters, usually one or two at first, and an idea or situation, which I explore.
In order to explore, I start writing my story, not knowing where it will go yet.
I don’t start serious planning until the idea itself has developed into a complete story with more characters, scenes, places, etc and I’ve convinced myself I’m interested in pursuing the idea and telling the whole story.
This is a crazily creative period which usually takes about one month to write 20,000-30,000 words.
2- At this point, I start outlining my plot. I divide it into the basic three-part dramatic arc; exposition, climax and denouement, which are subdivided into about 30 chapters and 40-50 scenes.
Perhaps Follett’s approach relies too heavily on outline, but I can see that it helps, especially if your novel is a complex web of characters and events spanning various decades.
Although plotting versus pantsing is an interesting debate, I wouldn’t say it’s very helpful for authors, except that it helps us reflect upon our writing process. We each have to find out what works best for us and our type of novel.
Happy New Year to all fellow Insecure Writers!