The other day while driving, I saw a sign at the local library for creative writing course, and it got me thinking about how every author teaches his or her own techniques
Take outlining, for instance; it’s not like putting on your pants (pardon the overused abstraction). When putting on your pants, there are really only a couple of ways to do it in order to reach the end goal, and not be arrested in public (“…but officer, I’m a bunny-rabbit!”). If writing a book had a recipe, everybody would be using it and we’d all be reading meatloaf and mashed potatoes for the rest of our lives.
Allow me to lead you now down my paths of digression:
My “outlining” method has its own madness. Once, or twice (okay, about 800 times according to my story folder), I have yearned for the right road map that would give me direction and maximize the short time I have to get more stories done. The way outlining has always been presented to me, you do all the work up front, then you just follow the map, allowing the occasional side trip and potty break. I get this, because my day job involves hardware and software. You build something without requirements and you end up with six hoses and a wagon that bends time when the customer only wanted a blue rubber ball. Desperate for this map, I followed a guide a fellow author had recommended and ended up with a beginning, middle, and an end that was all very satisfying.
However… when I sat down to write it all out, my brain became a rock. I was bored already, and I hadn’t even gotten to chapter two.
I mentioned it to a friend who had been listening to my excitement build as I put the thing together. I know now she was behaving like a good parent–listening kindly to a child’s delusions of grandeur without throwing logic at me. These were lessons I had to learn for myself. So when I asked why I felt the way I did, she said, “you’re bored with your story because you’ve already written it.”
I have always had a weird relationship with planning vs. pantsing. Even as an artist, I never understood preliminary sketches. I draw what’s in my head until it’s not there anymore, and that’s all there is. Pretty it up with ink, erase the sketchy pencil marks, shade it with some watercolor and I’m done. With writing, I often only have a rough idea of where the story will end (often it comes out quite differently) and once I have a first draft, I go back and clean it up. I like to think of it as constructing a body, starting with the skeleton, and ending with its fashion-sense. Of course, the skeleton may begin with a thighbone protruding from its eye-socket, but it all works itself out before jewelry.
My initial way of getting to that point, where others will use an outline, I use what I call the Crazy Quilt method (or just plain crazy). If you’ve never seen a crazy quilt before, it’s basically a whole bunch of scraps of material, from velvet to burlap, stitched together to make a final product. There is no clear pattern, yet by the end you have a solid piece fitting within a geometrically pleasing shape.
My “technique” starts with a cup of strong coffee, exploited by an overuse of non-dairy creamer (not because I’m lactose intolerant or a vegan, I just think it’s amazing that they can make chemicals resemble a dairy product).
>>Please allow me a stumble off-track: would somebody please invent a coffee-filter that has measuring lines drawn in? I can’t believe I am the only person who has trouble with math in the morning (okay, always–plus I am so easily distracted that the sound of the furnace coming on can make me lose count…it’s 8 stinking scoops fergodssakes!<<
Anyway, coffee, and–probably–pants.
Then I fire up my laptop, put on the fan (white noise–I live on a busy street and have crappy windows that I haven’t gotten around to replacing yet), and start putting down words. Sometimes I start with what I think will be chapter one, though by the time I reach the end, it’s become chapter two or three. I keep going until the words run out. It could be 30 words or 3,000 in one sitting. Words is words.
And then I have an idea, which may or may not actually fit into the story, that gets jotted down and set somewhere. Maybe it’s an entire chapter, but it could just be a sentence hanging out on its own page (Scrivener is perfect for my style of writing, by the way, and it’s affordable. No, I’m not being paid to endorse it but hey, if they want to throw some money my way, I wouldn’t complain).
After I have a bunch of these pieces, I begin rearranging and stitching them together. One of the other cool things about a crazy quilt is the final decorative stitching. For anybody who understands sewing machine lingo, it can be done without a pressure-foot, so you can make random meandering stitches that circle and cross however, you like. When that is all done, it gets trimmed into a four-cornered shape and hemmed.
One of the most important lessons I learned from my outlining experiment was that there is no right way to write a story. It’s about self- acceptance, forgiving yourself for “flaws”, and silencing the “shoulds”. If it works for you, it works, and while it’s always a good idea to experiment, don’t assume that if it doesn’t work, there is something wrong with you.