ETA: So many typos T_T
I want to take a small detour to talk about outlines – the thing I don’t write.
I want to close the gap between outlines and pantsing a bit. And I want to make clear that nothing about either is cut and dried.
When I finished the Books of the Sundered, I realized the thing that had really, really slowed me down was lack of concrete details in my worldbuilding.
I had a story I wanted to tell — and this story became the two book Sacred Hunt, the Hunter duology. (For the record, I thought it was one book when I started it.) The scene that came to me was the end of Stephen’s arc, and to me it was really strong.
But I had to, once again, build a world in which that scene would have enough context that it would have impact on people who read it. And this time, I wanted to do one other thing as well: I wanted to create a nobility that by its nature and its responsibilities was valued. Not for power, but for what they brought to the people they ruled.
So Breodanir society came from that. What would be valued? How would it be noted? What about the position itself would keep those who served and were ruled from resenting those who did rule?
This is not an outline of the actual story or its events. But it’s what I spent a lot of time thinking about before I started page one. I created the Huntbrothers and the Hunters; I created what they knew of their history, which was somewhat separate from what I knew of their history.
I created the Hunt and the women who effectively became the law of their individual lands.
There are notes about the colors of their clothing and what those notes mean to their ranks, because for me, these things are not things that come naturally, and — as in eye colors, even of people I know very, very well — they leave.
Worldbuilding suggests story elements to me as I go – but I don’t write those down; I think about them. Anything that is going to be strong enough to sustain a novel, I won’t actually forget. And anything that isn’t, while it might be a great idea, I let circle my internal thoughts like butterflies, or pieces of things that have not cohered.
Worldbuilding is context. Character exists inside of that context, for me. Base characteristics blend with the cultural surroundings, but the latter are necessary.
I tend to think about a story, to look at its boundaries (say, it has to have a dragon. Or a cat. Or a dog. Or something that fits a theme). I often have a feeling, a tone, when I sit down and start to write. The number of set boundaries will change with the length of a work; the world that’s built to support it will define many of the elements that later come into play.
I don’t do exhaustive worldbuilding when I’m writing a short story (more on that later). In a short piece that’s not attached to a world, I’m looking for a tune, not an orchestral piece.
I once worked on a collaborative short story with a friend. Our process differs, and I didn’t realize how much of a difference this would make – but we learn from these moments, we become more aware of what we need, and of what we can, and can’t, do.
(I am not one of nature’s brainstormers. I know people who are practically electricity and lightning when they’re brainstorming: it’s pie-in-the-sky, anything goes, where ideas can be thrown into the mix with rapid and excited abandon.
I’m the wet blanket.
Because I have learned this, I don’t brainstorm. I can listen to other people brainstorm, but I don’t tend to participate, because most of my participation is of the, “but, wait, that won’t work.” or “but what about this? Won’t this break your idea?” You get the idea =/. I can sit on this and keep these words on the inside of my mouth, but sometimes it’s hard.
I think that brainstorming in theory is really cool, and you can also work backward from it: you have a great idea, and all of the things that would prevent it from working are the things you then need to fix or iron out before you start. I do them both at the same time, but… I don’t consider it a dampener on the inside of my head.)
We agreed to write alternating scenes, and we did discuss what we would be doing with the story, and story beats. This was difficult for me; it was probably difficult for my partner of the time.
But at one point she had an idea about cats (story had to have cats), and I said, “no, we can’t do that, because structurally and symbolically the cat in the story we’ve written has always been in this location, and …” Michelle began to rifle through her subconscious because the response was so immediate and visceral, “he’s inside because of these three things.”
All of this was true. None of this had been discussed prior to this point. I understood, without that discussion, what structural role this one cat played and what it meant — but not consciously.
This is the way I often approach story. There are elements that will end up on the page as a big surprise – but while I didn’t plan them, they have a tone and texture that is absolutely part of the weave of the particular story.
If I am on chapter six and someone says that something doesn’t fit, I can tell them how it fits — but only then. I don’t question the things that feel right. It’s like I’m afraid to poke the story; I want to write it all down before I lose it.
But… tone and voice define what those surprises are. There will be no clowns that randomly prance across the stage when fighting a dragon, for instance. The “anything goes” is not actually anything. What enters the story from stage left has the right tone and the write shape for that story.
When I’m writing I listen, for want of a better metaphor, for the voice of the book. When I start a West novel, for instance, I can start it multiple times, write up to a chapter, and hesitate. There’s always a bit of doubt: is this the start of the book? I will choose an event. I will shift viewpoints. I will move forward in time by a bit, or backward in time.
But when I actually find the start of the book, there’s no doubt. This is it. This is where the books starts. Once I have that start, I write pretty continuously until I reach the end. I will break to research things I didn’t consider before I started (like, say, how to move 50k troops. How to feed them. Where to house them, or where to tent them. I honestly did not know), and I hate having to do that — it breaks the flow of the story for me. It’s why, with the West novels in particular, I did a lot of worldbuilding — I wanted to just know what the characters knew, so I wouldn’t have to leave the book to find out.
Sometimes people don’t like to discuss their process because it sounds new-agey. Or it sounds pretentious. Or it sounds self-aggrandizing. Or it sounds lackadaisical. Or it sounds … well, you get the picture.
If I have to describe my writing day, I would say I start by listening to the voice of the book. (See what I mean? What does that even mean, Michelle?)
There are many, many voices that can interrupt that process. If I am writing while hearing the voice of my fear, it’s not the book. I stumble. I can’t find the viewpoint. I can’t reach that story itself; there’s too much in the way. If I write from a place of fear — say fear of judgement — I keep walls between myself and the book, because who wants to be vulnerable? Who wants to expose those vulnerabilities so that people can judge them?
Writing takes a lot of vulnerability, regardless. Authoring takes armor. Writing takes honesty, a kind of truth, even and especially when writing fiction.
Many people have put it another way: You need to be able to turn your internal editor off while you’re writing.
I am trying to describe how I create story, how I write it, how I make it work. Sometimes, when listening to other writers talk about their process, I feel entirely inadequate; I feel as if I should be doing what they’re doing because it seems so impressive from where I’m standing.
This has… never, ever worked out well for me when I have made that attempt. No matter how unimpressive my own process sounds to me, it’s the one that works for me.
I know writers who outline. Some write twenty thousand words of outline, and then fill in the spaces between those words. Some write twelve page outlines. Some write outlines at 1 page per 10 book pages. I know people who pants their way to about 2/3s of a finished book and then outline.
Most of them are writers you’ve probably heard of; all of them have found a metric that works for them. I know people who started out writing the way I do, and lost a book because they’d written themselves into a corner; they learned the hard way when and how to outline, because it was necessary. All of these differing processes have produced novels. All of these have produced good novels.
There is nothing wrong with outlining. Outlining, like every other part of writing a book, is a tool. There are still some writers who write their first draft by hand. I can’t imagine it. I know it works for them. Drafting by hand is also a tool.
Not writing with an outline is not superior; there’s nothing about the process that should be judged as inferior/superior. You are not better for outlining. You are not worse for pantsing. And vice versa. It’s entirely about what works for you, and what you can make work for you.
I like process discussions because it’s like the blind men and the elephant. I feel like we’re all groping in the dark, and we’re all grabbing onto the greater sense of story, and we’re all describing the parts we’ve found, and… process discussions are kind of like trying to get a grasp of the entire elephant, to me. Even if I can only grab its ear.