Writing novels is hard work. Everyone who thinks otherwise is either not trying hard enough or has never tried it at all. None of which to say writing novels isn’t fun. It is, with the possible exception of some manga series and Aaron Sorkin’s run of scripts on The West Wing, the most expansive form of fiction a writer can embrace. You get to take all the space you need to tell the story you want to tell. That is incredibly liberating, but can also be problematic for an organic writer like me.
I don’t like outlines. I never have. I used to drive my professors crazy in college with my obstinate refusal to write them. Seriously, unless I was looking at a full letter grade drop on a paper, I just didn’t do them. For me, outlining is a lot like giving myself spoilers for the whole book.
Once I know, I mean really KNOW, how it’s going to turn out, I lose fire for the story. It becomes an exercise in following instructions (even if they are from me, to me) and nothing sucks the joy out of writing faster – for me – than extensive directions.
So, when I go to write a novel, I don’t outline. At most, I try to have an idea of where the novel needs to end, in general, and then I write. Granted, I try to write in a way to aims at that end point, but the rest is a mystery. The whole process becomes one of discovery for me, which I find exhilarating and fun.
Writing a novel that way does, however, pose difficulties. For example, I never know how long it’s going to be, which means I can’t anticipate how long it will take to write. I find out how long the book will be when I write the last sentence. That makes it very difficult to make announcements about when the next book is going to come out, since I have to finish before I know how long edits will take.
That uncertainty proved especially problematic as I worked on the latest installment of my Sam Branch series. I wrote and I wrote and I wrote. The page count swelled to 250 pages. Then it went to 300…350…400. Just before I got to the 400 page mark, I was living in active fear.
I literally didn’t know how the book was going to end or, at least, not how to get the characters there, with over 100,000 words already written. Fortunately, insight hit and I managed to wrap it up around the 450 page mark, but it was still huge. In fact, in my head, it had swelled to monstrous, unwieldy size.
Surely it couldn’t hold the attention of readers at that length. Surely, it must be bloated with useless, unnecessary words, sentences, paragraphs and scenes. Had I, setting out with the best of intentions, spent the better part of a year writing 450 pages of crap that I would need to throw out?
My lack of an outline also denied me the comfort of knowing that I had stayed on task. All the assurance I had were my instincts that the book was written to the length it needed to be. No longer. No shorter. As it turned out, my fears were the only things bloated beyond all proportion or reason. My alpha readers all enjoyed the book, festooned with typos and grammatical errors though it was.
While I firmly believe my novels are better without outlines…since I quite probably wouldn’t write them if I wrote outlines…it makes it hard to play fair with readers. I can’t tell them things they want to know, because I sincerely have no clue. Of all the difficulties of writing organically, I find that one the hardest.