You’ve got an idea for a writing project: a novel, short story, screenplay, blogsite or what-have-you. Now what? Where are you going with your inspiration and just when does the writing begin?
Well, if you’re E.L. Doctrow, the writing doesn’t begin until you actually start writing. “Planning to write is not writing,” he notes. “Outlining, researching, talking to people about what your doing, none of that is writing. Writing is writing.”
But if you’re like me, you see writing as an organic, dynamic process, and your project began as soon as the spark went off in your head and set the wheels turning. However, if we’re talking about that moment when you take pen in hand or put fingertips to keyboard and start writing, I find it first helps to get organized.
This can be done either on paper or a white board or simply in your head, but laying out some sort of road map to the story can be very useful. It may be as simple as determining the beginning, middle, and end. Or you might know nothing more about your characters than their names. The objective is to create a launching pad for further development.
When I first started writing, I definitely over-outlined, attempting to nail down every minute detail of what would happen and formulate every aspect of who the characters were: their likes and dislikes, their motivations, etc., etc. What a dry and dull process! It left no room for that organic experience that makes writing enjoyable for both author and reader. We’ve all read those stories that felt just a little too contrived, right? It’s probably due to too much planning – or not enough.
So how do you know what’s too much or not enough?
Trial and error. Try different things. Listen to your gut. (And your editor!) So far, for me, the initial steps to getting a project started has changed with each book. Where, as I mentioned, I used to waste a good deal of time and creative energy “pre-writing” I now just make a few notes that map out only the key plot points; I scribble just a few sentences about each of the characters.
You know how you can replay a movie in your head, one you’ve watched multiple times? You can picture how it opens and recall with great detail your favorite scenes and, of course, how it ends. You probably don’t remember all the filler – the transitions from scene to scene, the fades and dissolves – but just the stuff critical to the telling of the story.
That’s how I outline. When I can visualize the whole of my novel in that way, I’m ready to start writing it into something, hopefully, someone will enjoy reading.
According to some, like Stephen King, “Outlines are the last resource of bad fiction writers who wish to God they were writing masters’ theses.” I argue that the moment Mr. King comes up with an idea, he’s in some way outlining how the story will unfold.
My approach falls more in accordance with that of prolific fantasy writer Piers Anthony: “I never do a full outline, and if I did, I would not feel bound to it, because the view from inside a scene can be different from the view outside it. But neither do I start writing and see what happens; I am far more disciplined that that.”