I started writing fiction seriously five or six years ago. At the same time I began reading what I could get my hands on about how to write well. Since then, I’ve seen very little that questions the common idea that outlining and writing by the seat of your pants are simply matters of preference. There’s no right way—whatever works for you.
I agree to an extent. The bottom line is, and always will be, a well-told story. How you get there is up to you, and both methods can get there, but I believe one of them is clearly superior for the non-expert.
A novice can stumble blindly through several drafts with determination, learn by trial and error, and eventually put out a well-told story—but I don’t think we should encourage that method.
Does Any Other Job Work This Way?
Does a wannabe architect read a book or two and start telling workers where to place walls? No—she goes to school for years to learn what can and cannot be done. Frank Lloyd Wright’s designs might look like he made them up as he went, but I highly doubt he did.
Even if he did, it was only because he had spent so much time immersed in the world of house building that he had internalized the rules and knew what would and wouldn’t work. Could a novice architect build from the seat of her pants and expect a similar result? Hardly.
Stories, like anything else worth creating (be it house, sculpture, or painting), take a mixture of talent (innate), skill (learned), and sweat (from working both hard and long).
But What About So and So?
I understand that many highly successfully authors don’t outline. In fact, some even encourage others not to outline. Just jump in—the water’s great.
But these authors usually say that after writing dozens of novels or, at the least, dozens of drafts. They’ve poured time into learning what makes a story work through trial and error and the examples of others. They’ve internalized the blueprint, and they know the principles well enough that they can make it up as they go.
I think the mistake we make is assuming that the method used by a master is the secret formula to their success. Stephen King does it that way, so if I do it that way I’ll write like he does. We fail to realize that his years of experience are what enabled him to use that method in the first place.
I’m not them. I doubt you are either. If you want to write a story without planning for your own self-satisfaction, go ahead. But if you want to produce something worthy of publication, you probably need to use a different process until you’ve built a few houses.
Watch, Learn, Apply
Find a master, someone you read with awe. Read her books over and over, asking why it works so well. Read some books on storytelling, like James Scott Bell’s Plot and Structure, or start reading Larry Brook’s blog posts on the same subject at storyfix.com. Learn the principles that undergird a great story.
Then apply those concepts to your own writing. Even now that you’ve put in the time to learn your craft, I still recommend you use a blueprint up front for your first few houses. You’re bound to make mistakes, especially early in your career. If you make a mistake while drafting a blueprint, no harm done. But if you’ve already built the house, you might have to tear the whole thing down before you can build it back right.
Ben Whiting is a full-time English student at the University of Texas at Arlington and co-general editor of the 10th anniversary edition of Marine Creek Reflections. He recently completed his suspense novel, Penumbra.