My Way or…. the Other Way

My husband and I like to commiserate about online communities – especially the educational ones – that encourage participants to follow the idea of “my way or the highway”. All video all the time! Video is evil! All cooperative learning, all the time! Cooperative learning is only glorified “group” work! You know, the extremes. For the record, I’d just like to indicate that effective pedagogy embraces all aspects of learning theory, taking what is best for the right circumstances to most successfully help our students learn. There is no one way.

Similarly, some writers fall into this trap, too. I can’t say that I see extreme views with major disagreements or anything like that, but I do see writers that enjoy touting their single method over other methods. “I don’t know how anyone can write without an outline, how can you not know where your story is going?” “Outline? Not me, I’m a total pantser. I like to be surprised by what’s coming.”

In other words, we look for boasting rights wherever we can. Right?

The real trap, however, is believing that your way is the only way you can or should write. Some believe they “can’t” write an outline or a full character sheet or whatever because it simply doesn’t work for them. But what if what does work for them doesn’t actually… work at all? Maybe you like to shoot from the hip when you write, but that doesn’t mean it is always the best way to do it.

Instead of getting deeper into this debate in general, I thought I’d share my own style and how shifting it for my current WIP came into play.

I am not a formal outliner. I don’t write out the full plan of my story or section it out by chapter. This isn’t to say that I don’t outline at all, though. It’s just normally all in my head. I jot things down from time to time if I’m worried I’ll forget them, but I like to keep the outline in my head because I tend to make better changes and connections if I let it drift around there. It’s probably more superstition than anything else that I don’t write it all down because really, why not write it down? Just because I put it to paper doesn’t mean it can’t change.

Not putting it to paper encourages my hop-around writing style, though. I don’t write in order. I jump from scene to scene as the ideas or mood comes to me. It helps free up my creative juices to be able to move to a different part of the story if another is bogging me down. Ultimately, it also feeds my joy of organic writing in which a character takes control and leads me the way she wants to go. I’ve often had a character say or do something that made me say, “oh, of course!”, and then I realize how perfectly it follows up on an earlier event or sets up a later one.

I’ve joked with some about how my current WIP is a hot mess. I love the story and the characters and have some great scenes, but the way I’m trying to tell the story – the structure of it – is where the chaos comes in. It’s a challenge for me, one that simultaneously terrifies me and totally excites me. Most of the time I think I won’t be able to pull it off. In other rare moments I think that if I can, I’ll have accomplished something great.

Amid my mostly panicked moments of this story, I finally realized something. This story is messing with time and you know what? I just can’t keep it all in my head – at least not in an organized or useful fashion. I kept losing my way and so I determined that I needed to formalize the plans and put them to paper. I needed something concrete to make sure that my ultimate goal for my character didn’t get lost or muddled.

I spent a good chunk of my writing time a few days ago with this task. Now, before my outlining friends get all excited and “I told you so” on me, I have to say I didn’t truly outline. I simply mapped out all the scenes I had in my head right now and labeled them with the kind of timeframe they represent and they are ready for me to juggle them around as I please. Just dumping it all out into those lovely Scrivener corkboard notecards made a huge difference. And now, they are ready for a more formal outline for when I might need or want that (which I will, but the foundational work has done its job for now).

My whole point in telling this story, if you haven’t come upon your own meaning yet and need me to just please please get to the closure at last of course, is that if I were a “my way or the highway” kind of thinker, I’d have rejected this method to help me at all. I might have forced my way through, insisting, “but I don’t write that way – it doesn’t work” as though our craft isn’t by nature, flexible and fluid. As though our craft doesn’t produce creative thinking. I challenge you to change things up in your writing sometime, just to see what kind of results it can produce. I challenge you to consider that a usual way doesn’t always mean the best way.

I’d love to hear from you about your process and when it has undergone changes whether temporary or permanent. To use an idea from my husband, who adopted it from someone else, I have suggested comment starters, if you need/want them:

  1. This is terrible advice. I tried changing my writing style once and it failed miserably because…
  2. I am nervous to try a new technique because…
  3. A story can’t possibly be successful without a detailed outline because…
  4. What is an outline?
  5. The new technique I recently tried was ___ and way more experimental than yours.

Or maybe you think any other way than your normal way will take you on the Highway to Hell? If so, then at least you get some AC/DC out of it, eh?

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8 Responses to My Way or…. the Other Way

  1. Andy "SuperFly" Rundquist says:

    Yesterday I was riding my bike and thinking about a calculation I’ve been trying to do. It involves a few different variables and some square roots. I was trying to figure out if I could get it down to just one square root so that I could square both sides and get rid of some of the ugly math. The ride took about 20 minutes and I just couldn’t quite see it all. As soon as I got home, I wrote the equation down and saw the result immediately. Sometimes my brain just needs a little paper.

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    • ProfeJMarie (Janet Rundquist) says:

      Paper! Actually, I considered printing out my notecard list and physically rearranging the parts that way. I might still go that route later.

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  2. Christine says:

    Having never written a novel before, I wasn’t sure what method would work for me. So it was trial and error the first time around. I can’t seem to keep details in my sieve of a brain, so I wrote everything down–details, character traits, dates, etc. Then I did research and planned out the linear story line. It worked well, and I’m hoping my next book will teach me how to best organize all that information so I can make the most of it! I think the best way to learn is to try and try and try all the different methods. “Throw it all against the wall and see what sticks,” so to speak. 🙂

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    • ProfeJMarie (Janet Rundquist) says:

      I’ll for the pasta-to-the-wall approach. Also, I have often thought that it would probably do me good to do more work with character notes, but I’m kind of lazy about it. That should be one of my next stretch activities.

      And dates! Oh yes, I always have to write those down. What year is it? How old is this character in that year? Not only that, but what was around during that year? As Jen (below) pointed out to me today, talking about a character blogging 16 years ago just ain’t gonna cut it. 😀 And thus, I don’t know how writers who are true “pantsers” and don’t outline at all, work that magic.

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  3. Jen (@JSQ79) says:

    I do think it is possible to know yourself and your work style well enough to know what typically works for you. I am pretty confident that I will always need a written outline of some sort…but I would never say someone else must do it my way. Obviously other ways work for other people all the time. I do think that to be successful at pretty much anything, you need to be flexible. Of course you start with your go-to methods, the ones that have worked for you in the past- that’s just efficient- but when they’re just not working you try something new. I’d be sad for anyone sticking doggedly to a method that isn’t working just because they believe it’s the only way.

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    • ProfeJMarie (Janet Rundquist) says:

      Agree. For me it’s also like the teaching methods – I may try something different, but it still has to work for me.

      As for those sticking with only one way, I kind of get the feeling that those who loudly emphasize that about themselves might also be the ones who can’t understand why their work doesn’t get noticed. That’s a huge generalization on my part, I know. It’s just a sense I sometimes get when reading various articles on craft and the related comments.

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  4. Great post, Janet. Haha. I’m a pantser, too, and I’m often on the receiving line of the Oh-you-really-must-outline-it’s-the-only-way comments. I always assumed I’d only outline if I wrote thrillers or mysteries, assuming you’d have to have it all carefully scripted. Then I read an interview with Irish author Tana French, who writes psychological thrillers/police dramas (not usually my genre), and she claims to be a pantser, too, and says if she knows how it ends when she starts writing, she’s convinced her readers will, too. In general, I’m wary whenever I’m told something is ‘the only way’. .. thanks for debunking the myth. : )

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    • ProfeJMarie (Janet Rundquist) says:

      That is super interesting about Tana French – and I think that takes a LOT of faith to be a pantser when writing mystery/thriller. I’ve only read one of her books and this new information makes me re-think it a little bit.
      At any rate, if it works for you, then obviously it’s not a wrong way, regardless. Take THAT naysayers. 🙂

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