Wednesday, September 07, 2011

So, What Is the Work of Writing?

Some of you may have already read this article in the Wall Street Journal by Harlan Coben about writing. In it, Coben lists the three steps to become a great writer: inspiration, perspiration, and desperation. (Since Somerset Maugham said, "There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are," we've made some progress since his time.) The second step is the one I want to discuss, especially this part of the article:

The second is perspiration. You have to sit your butt in the chair and write. You have to do that every day. That doesn’t mean you lie on your couch and play with your navel. That doesn’t mean you go shopping when the words don’t flow the way you think they should. That never works. It means you sit your butt in the chair and get to work. No excuses. And just so we’re clear: Outlining is not writing. Coming up with ideas is not writing. Researching is not writing. Creating characters is not writing. Only writing is writing (yes, that’s deep). (emphasis mine)

While I agree with Coben that only writing puts words on the page, compared to outlining or creating characters, I think the planning stage deserves more credit than he gives it. I started out writing as a pantser. I still pants to some extent--I recently wrote a 15,000 word fantasy novella based on nothing more than a few ideas that came to me one morning--but I'm now outlining longer works and finding it helpful. For example, as part of preparing for National Novel Writing Month last year, I outlined the story ahead of time. With this map, I was able to crank out 50,000 words in a month because I knew where I was going. However, once I veered away from the outline, progress slowed dramatically. I'm now back to outlining what I have so far so I can figure out how to get to the end of the story without stalling on various boring bits. (I think the lack of planning led to the story morass I'm currently stuck in.) All of the pre-writing tasks Coben disparges support the words of the story like the framework of a building. I do feel that I've made progress on my story if I outline it or make mental notes about what I want to change in the next draft. I can also be a faster writer if it doesn't take me six drafts to figure out the plot.

It's interesting that Coben leaves revising out of this step. Sometimes there's more perspiration in this step than in the first draft. You may wind up with fewer words on the page, but hopefully they'll be sharper words.

Well, I have to get back to outlining and revising for now. So tell me: do you agree with Coben that only writing is writing, or do you think pre-writing counts too?


Matthew MacNish said...

Personally I'm a pretty big outliner. I don't always stick to it exactly, but I can't fly blindly into a story.

Katrina L. Lantz said...

I'm learning (now that I'm on my sixth unpublished novel) that outlining canNOT be ignored. You either have to do it before you write or after you write. But I think I get what Coben is saying (just from what you quoted above). It's possible to languish in the planning stages and procrastinate writing for too long. After the initial planning, it's important to just WRITE it, and not worry that it's not coming out perfectly.

That's why I appreciated the Blog Chain prompt this week. It had been a while since I actually just WROTE, and A Dark and Stormy Night forced me to do just that. Way to go on your wordage! You're on fire!

Sandra Ulbrich Almazan said...

Matthew: When I first started writing, I might just know the beginning of a story, the ending, and a few points along the way. I'd get to the end, but it was the long way around, and frequently I'd just start a new draft when I came up with ideas for different scenes. I'm getting to the point now where I see the value of outlines.

Katrina: I think you're right about what Coben is saying; eventually the outline has to turn into text. I guess it's more attention-getting to take an extreme view on pre-writing, as he did in his piece. I'm more moderate by nature, which is why I'm trying to find a spot in the middle.

Site Meter