Back in grade school, when they taught us to write essays, the first step was always “decide on a topic,” and the second one was “make an outline/plan.” Nowadays there’s a lot more focus on creativity, i.e., writing fiction instead of essays. Based on what I’ve seen in school visits and from talking with teachers and kids, though, the process they teach is pretty much the same: Pick an idea, decide on your audience, make a plan.
No writer I know works this way, not even the ones who really do pick audiences and make outlines.
I’ve been thinking about this a bunch lately, because I just finished a book and I’m in the process of booting up the next one. And it occurs to me that the very first thing I do is decide why.
Why covers a lot of things: why write at all, why start another book when I have so much else going on, why pick this book to do next instead of that one. There are a lot of answers, but the one answer that it occurs to me I have never heard from other writers is “to get published.”
Now, possibly this is because publication is a milestone that most of my writer friends have already passed, but I don’t think so. For one thing, selling one story is no guarantee that you’ll sell the next. For another, I don’t hear it from my unpublished writer friends, either. Not if you ask them “Why are you writing that story?” Answers range from “For fun” to “I just have to,” but “To get published” is never what anyone comes up with first. Publication is always tacked on at the end “…and of course, I’d like to get it published one day.”
I mentioned this to Beth-my-walking-buddy and she pointed out that publication is the validation, not the motivation. It’s the thing that says I did a good job, not the reason I’m trying to do the job in the first place.
“Why am I writing this?” is not actually something I think about all that often, but knowing whether I’m writing a story to fulfill the option clause in my contract, to make one of my friends smile, because the idea wouldn’t leave me alone, because I have bills to pay, or because this is a story I am desperately in love with and want to tell, does make a difference. Sometimes more than one thing is true at a time, and it’s easy to forget that wanting to tell the story is really more important to me than paying the bills. And when I forget why I’m writing and what my original vision of the story was (the one that got me excited about it in the first place), I tend to wander off track, and eventually things bog down and get difficult.
The second thing I do when I’m booting up a new book is brainstorming. Sometimes, it’s just tossing ideas around in my head; sometimes, it’s the kind beloved of corporate managers, where I sit down with pen and paper and draw spidery diagrams all over a page; sometimes, it’s focused on one particular aspect of the story. At the moment, I have two of these going: the first is an untidy heap of ideas, everything from scraps of possible dialog to potential characters and backgrounds to plots to “things I would like to see happen” (Max chewing out Jillian, for instance). Some of these will end up in the story, some not.
The other is a focused brainstorm on sevens – that is, lists of seven things (seven deadly sins, seven cardinal virtues, seven chakras, seven colors of the rainbow, seven holy mountains, seven wise men, seven wonders of the world, seven habits of successful people…every kind of seven I can think of or find). This one is because I know that my main character will be facing seven related tasks or tests, and noodling around with all the other sevens people have come up with makes me look at lots more possibilities for how to link my tasks together. I don’t actually plan on using any of the real-life lists as the basis for whatever I come up with; they just sort of get me in the mood, and then I start making my own lists of seven things that might go together the way I want them to.
Eventually, I’ll have enough of this story-stuff heaped up, and I’ll organize it into a plot outline (the third step), and then I’ll buckle down to serious writing. The point is, the outline comes rather far down the process (brainstorming for a whole novel can take a while). Outlining is not even a requirement; it’s just a tool for organizing all that brainstorming that I find useful.
I think that all writers go through this sequence, though few of us break the process down into steps (and some of the steps moosh together, or happen so fast that the writer doesn’t even notice). For those who don’t bother outlining, the organizing and writing happen together; for writers who write to find out what happens next, the brainstorming and the organizing and the writing all happen at the same time; for of the “sit down in front of a blank screen and surprise myself” variety, even the vision of what the story is and could become happens as the words go down on the page one after another. And there’s no particular reason to slow down and try to do the parts of the process one at a time, unless the just-sit-down-and-write thing stops working for a while.
I do think that it’s useful to think about this stuff, because it allows me to notice when I’m trying to do things in the wrong order. If I think of my outline as a necessary first step, instead of as a tool for organizing all the brainstorming, I get extremely frustrated when it doesn’t go well. But really, if I haven’t done the brainstorming, if the story-stuff hasn’t reached critical mass, there’s nothing to organize. And a generic outline (“There are some good guys who have a problem. They start trying to solve it, but they have trouble with some bad guys…”) is pretty useless.