When I was writing my book, WRITING FICTION FOR DUMMIES, my editor believed that there is one best creative paradigm to get that first draft done. She thought it was “obvious” that you should write an outline first, then write your novel sticking tightly to the outline. If that were the only possible creative paradigm, a lot of great books would never have been written. Plenty of authors simply can’t write a novel from an outline. Their brains aren’t wired that way.
In my book, I identified four common creative paradigms for getting to that first draft. Here they are:
* “Seat of the pants.” When you write by the seat of your pants, you don’t know how the story is going to end. You typically don’t even know what’s going to happen on the next page. You just sit down and start typing.
Stephen King writes by the seat of his pants, and he’s done all right with it. So has Jerry Jenkins, author of the LEFT BEHIND series of apocalyptic novels. This is a very common road to the first draft. If you’re a seat-of-the-pants writer (often called an SOTP), then don’t try to change yourself. There’s nothing wrong with you. There’s nothing wrong with your method. However, when your first draft is done, there’ll be a lot wrong with your manuscript. It’ll be a big brick of paper with a wandering story that had no planning, and so it’s going to need major revisions. That’s the biggest problem with writing by the seat of your pants.
Most SOTP writers love the revision process, so they aren’t intimidated by the fact that they’re going to have to do a lot of it. Once the first draft is done, for them the real fun begins.
Sometimes the SOTP creative paradigm is called “organic” writing. In my view, this label really doesn’t make any sense. Seat-of-the-pants writing is no more natural than any other creative paradigm and it doesn’t produce inherently better final products.
* “Edit as you go.” This creative paradigm is similar to writing by the seat of your pants except that you don’t go very far before you stop and edit what you just wrote. Maybe every page. Maybe every scene. But you edit it. And edit it again. And again. Until it’s perfect. Only then do you move on.
This is a fairly slow way to write a first draft, because you may revise a single page 20 times before you move on. It may seem like your progess is frozen-slug slow. But when the draft is done, the book is done. It’s as perfect as you’re going to make it. That’s one of the nice things about the edit-as-you-go creative paradigm. You don’t have a long extended phase of revisions to do after you finish the first draft. You just turn it in and move on to the next project.
Dean Koontz is a well-known edit-as-you-go writer, and his results speak for themselves. This method is fairly rare, but if it’s your style, then it’s your style and you probably can’t imagine doing it any other way.
* “Outlining.” Many writers simply can’t face the idea of writing a first draft unless they know where they’re going. All the way, in detail. So they first write an “outline.” This is NOT the multi-level outline that you learned in fifth grade, using bullet points labeled with Roman numerals, letters and numbers. Instead, a novel “outline” is a synopsis, a narrative summary of the story, told in present tense and focusing on the plot, but possibly including some discussions of character development. Your outline may be a short synopsis of two pages, the typical length that you’d submit to an editor when trying to sell your book. It may be a twenty page synopsis with every scene sketched in. It may be a 150 page tome that functions as a very short first draft.
Robert Ludlum was famous for writing enormously long synopses for his spy novels. Many other writers over the years have found that they can’t write a novel without an outline. If you’re an outliner, then outline and be proud of it. Don’t let anyone tell you that you’re somehow more rigid and less natural than an SOTP. Write your novel the way you want to write it. If outlining works for you, then use it.
* “The Snowflake method.” If I’m famous for anything, it’s for inventing this creative paradigm, which I named after the famous “snowflake fractal” from pure mathematics. The main idea of the Snowflake is that you start small with one single story concept and then flesh it out in a succession of steps, each time adding more detail. You alternately work on the plot and the characters until you’ve got a strategic plan to guide you in writing your first draft.
In early 2003, I posted an article on my web site spelling out the Snowflake method. I had used the method to write my first published novel, and it just felt natural to me. (I used a very early version of the Snowflake to write my Ph.D. thesis in physics when I was at Berkeley back in 1986.) I’ve been pleased that the Snowflake has taken off massively all around the world. The Snowflake article on my web site has been viewed over 2 million times. Clearly, it struck a nerve. But I’m the first to tell you that it’s not the only way to write a novel. If it works for you, then use it. Otherwise, find another road to nirvana.
How do you decide what creative paradigm you should use to write your novel?
I suspect that in reading the descriptions of the four paradigms above, one of them seemed natural to you and the others seemed unnatural. In that case, try the one that sounds natural. It’s a good bet that your brain is wired to use that method. You may find that none of them seem natural. In that case, try each one for a month or so. See what works. When your book is published, nobody is going to know or care which creative paradigm you used to write your first draft. They’ll care about whether your story works. Your story has the best chance of working if you write it using a creative paradigm that suits you. If you want to know more about each of the four paradigms, then feel free to consult chapter 4 of my book, WRITING FICTION FOR DUMMIES, which has much more detail than I’ve had room for here.
A Special Deal From Larry
My friend, Larry Brooks, just e-mailed me a few days ago to let me know that his latest e-book is now available, WARM HUGS FOR WRITERS. It includes over 30 chapters, each containing a short essay on a nugget of wisdom about writing that Larry learned the hard way.
Larry’s got a special deal going right now for his book. Just do these two things:
- Buy WARM HUGS FOR WRITERS on Larry’s web site or from Amazon.
- Send Larry an email containing the electronic receipt, with the words “Randy Sent Me” in the subject line.
If you do those two things, Larry will send you a bonus e-book — your choice of one of several of his other e-books on the craft of fiction or one of his e-book novels.
To find out all about WARM HUGS FOR WRITERS and see the list of bonus e-books Larry’s offering and get his email address, check out this page: http://storyfix.com/warm-hugs-for-writers
Larry always has good things to say about the craft of writing. He’s one of my most respected teachers of fiction writing. And by the way, he’s also a heck of a good novelist.
No, Larry didn’t pay me to say any of that. I just like his stuff. A lot. You might too.
This article is reprinted by permission of the author.
Award-winning novelist Randy Ingermanson, “Snowflake Guy,” publishes the Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine, with more than 29,000 readers, every month. If you want to learn the craft and marketing of fiction, AND make your writing more valuable to editors, AND have FUN doing it, visit http://www.AdvancedFictionWriting.com
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