To a young person who wants to write, letter # 2

To a young person who wants to write

Letter # 2,

Dear X,

In my last letter I talked about just plunging in and writing. You might say That’s crazy. You may have heard or been told that you should always have an outline first, a plan for what you intend to write. Well, yes, that might work just fine for some writers, but in my view, too much planning (or too soon) is one of the main reasons why so many people get discouraged and give up on writing.

That’s what I found when I was starting out, anyhow. The first time I tried to write a novel, I plotted it all out ahead of time, like I thought I was supposed to. I came up with a detailed outline, but when I actually tried to write the novel, I found I was  bored with my own story. I already knew everything that was going to happen (and it was a pretty clichéd plot, too). There was no excitement of discovery, no mystery, no surprise. No fun. And so I soon gave up on it. I thought I just didn’t have what it took to write a novel.

Then a wise teacher showed me that there are other ways to write. You can start with something that has no plot at all. You can start with almost nothing, with an image, even just a word that intrigues you. If you just keep writing, and trust in the creative process, that word or image or plotless fragment will grow, and take shape, and become a story.

When I write something I want to be its first reader. That is, I don’t want to know too much about what’s going to happen or where the story is going to take me. I want to be surprised. I want to find myself wondering how are the characters ever going to get out of this mess? That’s how I keep myself interested and energized for the long haul of the writing journey.

Once I’ve got a lot of the story written, then I usually find it helpful to create an outline. I can use it to keep track of what I’ve got already and to sketch out the possibilities of where I might go from here.

Outlines can get us stuck in one narrow idea of what our story should be. That kind of narrow focus may be just fine if you’re writing a how-to manual, but novels and stories need to breathe. They’re imaginary worlds. An imaginary world is not about should, it’s all about could. Give your story, your world, room to grow. Let it take you to unexpected places.

Outlines and plot synopses are useful tools. For some writers, they’re indispensable. You might be that kind of writer. If so, that’s great. Ignore what I've said and just keep going. But planning and outlining is not the only way to get a story started. There might be some other approach that works better for you. The only way to find out for sure is to try different methods, and to keep writing.

Here’s a site with some more good writing advice. Here's another, with links to other resources and short videos of author Neil Gaiman and others offering writing advice. 

And X, here's a question I ask my writing students: what are some of the aspects of writing you have the most trouble with? Creating believable characters? Dialogue? Coming up with a good plot? Let me know what you'd like some specific advice about and I'll address it in another letter.

Image by T Wharton


Anonymous said...

Can you write a story backwards?

Thomas Wharton said...

Dear Anonymous,
I take it you're wondering if one can start with the ending of a story and work backwards. That was actually a bit of advice I got from one of my own writing teachers, Rudy Wiebe. If you're having trouble with a story but you know where it's going to end up, then write the ending first. Then you've got something to work toward.

One of Rudy's own famous short stories, "The Naming of Albert Johnson," starts with the violent ending of the main character's life and then moves backwards in time to narrate the events that led to that ending.

Karen W said...

Weird. I had the exact same experience in high school, multiple times. I plotted several "novels" from beginning to end (and had a blast figuring out plot twists, details, etc.), but by the time I got down to writing the actual story, it was like I had this "plot cloud" hanging over me, and it was so de-motivating.

The trouble is, how do I resist the urge to "discover" how my stories end? When I'm writing (or should I say, plotting), it's like I become one of those readers who has to skip to the "good parts", but then once I find out what those good parts are, I don't want to read/write the rest of the story. Sigh. And so another plot gets abandoned.

Thomas Wharton said...

Good question! I found that working on a trilogy forced me to do more early plotting than I usually would. If I was going to draw out a story over three books I had to have a pretty good idea of the overall structure and the destination. So how to stay motivated when I already know the story? I think that's a question for another post!