“Unfortunately, in these days of rush and hurry, a novelist works at a disadvantage. He must leap into the middle of his tale with as little delay as he would employ in boarding a moving tramcar. He must get off the mark with the smooth swiftness of a jack-rabbit surprised while lunching. Otherwise, people will throw him aside and go out to picture palaces.”
A Damsel in Distress by P.G. Wodehouse, 1919
Note: “picture palaces” = elaborate movie theatres
Over the weekend, I read Dean Wesley Smith’s Writing into the Dark: How to Write a Novel without an Outline. No doubt, he’s received criticism for his ideas. But I’m not here to add to that.
Smith’s advice runs counter to most books I’ve read. Not only does he recommend writing without an outline, his Rule #3 states that after you’ve finished the first draft, you should not rewrite. Period.
He also says he never rereads his stories after he finishes them.
Yikes! What a terrifying thought! Like choosing a pair of pants and a shirt from your closet with your eyes closed, then leaving the house for a job interview without checking the mirror.
In truth, Smith does reread small segments. His method involves “cycles” of revision. He writes a few hundred words, revises, then writes a few hundred more. He “outlines” as he goes, jotting down a summary of each finished chapter. But he doesn’t know where his story is going. Like Abraham in the Old Testament who left his home “not knowing whither he went.”
Mapping Out the Story
Each day, we live our lives into the unknown. We set goals and make plans to reduce uncertainty, but if we are too dogged with our agenda, we become rigid. Predictable. Boring. And bored.
And this can happen with our writing as well.
I’ve been reading books about story structure, trying oh-so-hard to outline, and using software designed to micromanage my story’s plot, themes, setting, and characters. There’s nothing wrong with approaching the craft this way. It works for a lot of authors.
And yet, I can’t find a compelling reason to keep writing. There’s nothing to explore. I’m bored with the story before I’ve started the rough draft.
Tossing Out the Map
Though I can’t embrace all of Dean Wesley Smith’s recommendations, here are three take-aways from his book:
“Enjoy the Uncertainty”
Replace fear of the unknown with excitement, and enjoy the random ideas that take you — and your readers — to unexpected places.
Don’t forget to have fun! This means playing with a sense of wonder or absurdity:
Your shy, introverted heroine stepped into the bakery for a gluten-free, low-carb, lemon curd Danish, but she robbed the place instead! And the ATM on the corner shot out classified documents instead of cash….
“Think for Yourself”
In D.W.S.’s words:
“All writers write differently. And that includes you. My way of producing words won’t be correct for anyone but me. So instead of listening to others looking for the secret, just go home, sit down at your writing computer, and experiment with every different form and method until you find the way that produces selling fiction that readers like and buy. Find your own way to produce words that sell.”
Writing into the Dark is a counterweight for those who advocate extreme outlining. If you’ve lost your creative spark or your enjoyment of writing, this book is for you.
“If you only write one book in your whole life, and only sell 600 copies or less, nonetheless, I assure you, I solemnly assure you, that this book will be someone’s absolutely favorite book of all time, and it will come to him on some dark day and give him sunlight, and open his eyes and fill his heart and make him see things in life even you never suspected, and will be his most precious tale, and it will live in his heart like the Book of Gold. …
I write for that one reader I will never see, the one who needs just such a tale as I can pen, in just such a time and place, some rainy afternoon or dark hour, when providence will bring my book into his hands.
And he will open it, and it will not be a book, but a casement, from…
This is Alex, our Barn Owl. We got him when he was only four weeks old, and now he’s just shy of three months. My husband, the Falconer, is teaching Alex to do owlish things, such as flying at night and hunting for mice in grass. Already, Alex has learned to fly away and return to the glove, which is a real milestone in training birds of prey. So far, so good.
by Meg Dowell You don’t know which projects are going to succeed, and which ones are going to fail. Many people assume that because I’ve been writing for a long time, I now do so professionally, and I give advice on my blog, I’m the expert who knows it all. And with that […]
I got an email rejection letter today. It’s not the first.
I printed it out for posterity. Stephen King tacked all his rejection slips to the wall. He thought it was important to keep them, so I will, too. (Not that I’m in the same class as Stephen King.)
“By the time I was fourteen, the nail in my wall would no longer support the weight of the rejection slips impaled upon it. I replaced the nail with a spike and went on writing.” from On Writing
By the time I was fourteen…
Wow! I need more rejection slips!
They are proof that I’m actually writing and submitting. Rejection letters are not signs of failure, but records of my effort.
Not dead ends, but detours to different paths.
Stories abound of famous writers who were rejected but persevered, winning literary prizes and becoming best-selling authors. Hemingway. John Grisham. Madeline L’Engle. Rudyard Kipling.
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was rejected twelve times before publication. (Not that I’m in the same class as J.K. Rowling either.)
Rejection letters can be excellent motivators, unless you consider them the last word on your manuscript’s value, which you should not do. And they should never be used as an excuse to quit altogether.
Creating is hard. So is trudging through the Sahara without a canteen. If you’re in need of a cool drink, pick up a copy of Cartoonist Stephen McCranie’s book, Brick by Brick: Principles for Achieving Artistic Mastery.
Beautiful and wise, Brick by Brick has taught me about the creative mindset in a way few other books have. It’s packed full of insight and whimsical artwork drawn in soft shades of peach, brown, and aqua.
The title comes from the idea that a tower is built one brick at a time. “That means your measure for success is not how tall your tower is, but whether or not you’ve laid your bricks for the day” (p. 16).
In the introduction, McCranie says the comic essays stemmed from what he’d learned in his first two years as a professional cartoonist. He realized his experience might help other artists, but rather than tell artists how to create, this would be a “book about how to be a creator.” More than a “how to” manual, it’s a “how to be” book.
The comic format, a harmony of illustration and prose, grabs me in a way other books on the creative process have not. It’s written with honesty about his own failures, his struggles with self-doubt, and the principles that got him on the right track.
With a hearty dash of humor (I love his “deadlinosaurus rex”), he warns us to set realistic goals, break them down into small steps, and plan “backwards so you can live forwards” (p. 29). He offers tips to improve your craft and stay motivated while avoiding potholes along the journey.
The most helpful chapter for me (though it’s difficult to choose just one) is “You Are Not Your Art” – a pep talk for anyone who has invested too much of their identity in their creative pursuit.
“Hug the Elephant” is an insightful peek into the nature of beauty. “Practice Doesn’t Make Perfect” explores how to improve your skill by studying the experts in your field, and he gives tips to learn through imitation.
Other section titles include:
“Turn Your Pain into Plans”
“Planning for the Possible”
“Two Fallacies to Watch Out For”
“Taste is your Teacher”
“Be Friends with Failure”
“Know Your Artistic Lineage”
“Diversify Your Study”
“Get Stuff Done”
“Fun Gets Done”
“Divide and Conquer”
When I flip the last page of the “Conclusion,” my vision is sharper, and I’m motivated to follow McCranie’s advice: “Go outside and look for dragons.” Creatives of all types will find Brick by Brick amusing and inspiring.
Writers, artists, dreamers, read this book. It’s nothing short of powerful. You can buy it on Amazon or on McCranie’s website doodlealley.com where you’ll find more resources and see a sample of his drawing style.
Update: Yesterday, I received a copy of McCranie’s newest book, Space Boy. If it’s half as honest and uplifting as Brick by Brick, it will be well worth the read.