On Writing Dangerously

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.

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image from Pixabay

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.

  • “Entertain Yourself”

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.

Are You Lost in Writing Fog?

 

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Pixabay

Panic at 3500 Feet

One bright morning, my husband and I flew in his little Maule MX-7 from our crooked, grass strip to his parent’s house sixty miles away. As we cruised toward the sun, a few cotton-ball clouds dotted the patchwork of fields below us, but the skies above were clear.

Ten minutes later, a solid white blanket cloaked the ground.

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Photo by Life Of Pix on Pexels.com

Fog is intimidating when you’re on the road, but it’s downright hair-raising from the air, especially for this white-knuckle flyer.

After vowing silently never to fly again, I pointed out the obvious to my husband. “We can’t land in this!”

“It’ll lift before we get there,” he said, his hands firmly on the control wheel.

We followed the straight line on the GPS screen until we reached the destination point — his father’s farm. We circled the area and searched for an opening in the clouds but found none.

Anxiety taunted me: What if the fog doesn’t lift for hours! The plane will run out of fuel!

We circled again. I prayed, HARD. After one more go-around, the summer sun burned a hole in the fleecy cover, and we were able to land.

Despite my doubts, my husband knew what he was doing. He had studied the forecast and knew the weather conditions – dew point, temperature, and wind – were improving.

How Are Your Writing Conditions?

Sometimes, even the most conscientious scribblers inadvertently create their own WRITING FOG — a hazy state of confusion and bewilderment. Momentum slows, and finishing — or starting – a project becomes a tricky prospect.

If this occurs while you’re working on a story, you can’t see where the plot is heading. Or maybe your theme becomes fuzzy.

You may encounter Writing Fog between projects: one work is complete, but your vision for the next is blurry. You become disoriented, panicky, uncertain of your goals. You’re afraid you’ve lost creative energy. You’re afraid of crashing.

What Causes Fogginess?

Lack of planning. When I was a homeschooling mom, I was a dedicated (compulsive) planner. I scheduled every thirty minutes of my day. If I didn’t, I couldn’t get the laundry done. Or the meals. Or anything.

But I reached a point where my ever-increasing To Do list was making me nervous. So, I swung to the opposite extreme and NEVER made a schedule. No plans, no calendars, no lists. This also had its problems, such as missed appointments, late bills, and a serious lack of focus.

Winging it with your writing will give you similar results. That’s not to say you must write a fifty-page outline before you draft your story. And it’s okay if you can’t envision exactly what your next project will be. But a little planning can prevent you from getting lost. Think of it as GPS for authors.

Over-thinking.

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Pixabay

This condition is a symptom of the never-ending, futile quest for Perfection. It’s a trap. A labyrinth of circular thoughts which leads right back to Start, or worse, to No-man’s-land. When you over-think, you edit beyond the point of practicality. Is revising your work for the thirty-ninth time really going to make a significant difference? Or are you simply stalling? Finish the thing already. Excessive analyzing stems from not trusting yourself, which leads to another pitfall…

Too much advice. I love my writing podcasts, blogs, vlogs, courses, books, and #writingtips. But they can be too much of a good thing. All the brilliant but conflicting voices become a jumble of blah, blah, blah, until I don’t know what to believe. One expert says to create extensive character profiles; another says to allow characters to grow organically. Who’s right? In the end, you should go with your gut.

Over-dependence on others’ advice makes you passive. Passivity leads straight into the pea-soup of self-doubt and indecision.

If you’re in a muddle, and you can’t see the next story, the next scene, or the next sentence, consider whether one of these three conditions is to blame. Here’s hoping the mist will clear and bring your thoughts back into focus.

 

Tips for Fast Writing

In my last post, I talked about my dream of writing a novel and the greatest challenge I faced: finding the time to do it. To calculate how long it would take me, I used the equation

Story = Speed x Time.

I figured that if I wrote 500 words in an hour each day, it would take 160 days. But Time is only one variable in the equation—Speed is the other.dripping faucet

Five hundred words per hour is a lot for this tortoise writer. I deliberate over every word, then second-guess, strike out, and rewrite. (While I’ve been working on this post, I’ve deleted my beginning at least four times!) On some days, words drip one at a time, like a slow leak.

Speed is not about “fast and furious” writing that lacks cohesion, logic, and emotional impact. It’s about flow. A steady stream of words that spring up from a well of abundant ideas.

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Finding the Flow

1. Prepare by brainstorming.

This fills the well. I think about plot, characters, and setting details in advance. Since my time is short, I usually hatch ideas while doing other things. (Most of my thoughts for this blog post came while I was driving, fixing sandwiches, and doing laundry.) I like to collect my ideas in a Word document separated by category using the “Headings” feature. The categories I use are Plot, Characters, Setting, Themes, Dialogue, and Humor.

2. Work from an outline.

Ugh! The pantser in me doesn’t want to plan. I want my fingers to dance unshackled across the keyboard as they serve the whims of inspiration.

A Pantser’s definition of outline

[out-lahyn]    1. an unnecessary restraint designed to crush your imagination and suck all life from your story.

Example of outline used in a sentence: “The editor’s eyes gleamed with evil pleasure as he said, “Your story lacks consistency because you did not use an outline.”

Outlining is akin to eating your vegetables before you get dessert. It helps if you have cheese sauce to pour over your broccoli, and the sauce that makes outlining palatable is to think of it as drawing—like an artist would sketch a figure before painting. (That’s not quite a mixed metaphor, is it?) It’s a part of the creative process. And an outline need not be detailed. A broad brush will do. One or two sentences per scene.

I’ll be honest. I usually write out a rough outline for my story, but then I change it as I go. I don’t believe I’ve ever stuck with an outline. Still, the outline helps me write faster because I’m not stalled by indecision, and I avoid tangential rabbit holes that make no sense for the story.

3. Free write.

This is the opposite of outlining–not so helpful for plotting, but very useful for overcoming blocks, laziness, and bumps in your story. Set a timer for fifteen minutes. Write as fast as you can without stopping to edit. Write anything. Write nonsense. Be repetitive. Free writing obeys no rules. It breaks the inner editor’s suffocating grip and liberates you to write whatever comes to mind without worrying about grammar, spelling, or diction. You can do this in a document or try 750words.com. The site provides a free, private, blank page for daily writing. When you reach your word count for the day, it congratulates you. It even tracks your progress for the month.

4. Walk.

Something about the blood pulsing through my body jumpstarts my brain. If I’m perplexed about how to continue with plot or dialogue, fifteen minutes of walking usually gives me a solution. And moving to music, especially soundtracks such as this one from Home Fires, revs up my imagination.

5. Take a nap.

This might seem counterproductive, but it saves time in the long run. My output slows to a trickle when I’m tired or drowsy. After a short snooze, I’m twice as productive.

A Word about Dictation

Though I have not successfully used dictation, other writers claim it has accelerated their writing process. Author Joanna Penn talks about it here. My own attempts have been frustrating. I tried to dictate into a Word document using my smartphone, but I have to press the little microphone tab every thirty seconds or so. Mostly I produced gobbledygook.

I may purchase a recording device and some transcription software. If anyone has experience with this, I’d love to hear from you before I make that investment. Also, do you have any tricks for writing faster? Have you done the math? How many words per hour (wph) can you write?