Note: this post presumes general knowledge of discovery writing vs. outlining, but for those who aren’t familiar, here’s a brief explanation: discovery writers (aka “gardeners”) write without the structure of an outline or any ending in mind, letting the story/characters develop organically and dictate what they write next. Outline writers (aka “architects”), obviously, use an outline, and plan their story (and, usually, characters) from beginning to end before they begin writing the prose. Keep in mind that this is a sliding scale, and writers can (and usually do) fall anywhere between those two extremes. For more info just google “discovery writers vs. outliners” or “architects vs. gardeners” and you’ll learn a lot more.
After my post last week about desire, let’s follow things through to the next logical progression: beginning a novel.
I’ll be honest with you: at least for me, *beginning* to write a novel is a pretty easy process. Ideas are a cheap commodity in this business—I have an evernote folder with literally hundreds of ideas for stories, novels, plot points, characters, etc., and I’m constantly adding to it.* Writing those ideas out—turning the flint and tinder and smoke into a candle flame (or a bonfire, or a MASSIVE EXPLOSION [why not follow through with that metaphor?])—is the real work.**
That’s why beginning with any given idea is so easy for me—the idea’s already there, or at least some inkling of it. Unfortunately, this is also the reason why many beginning writers (myself included) make the following mistake: we write the first few chapters, but then get distracted(by a new character or concept that comes up)/bored(by where the idea ends up going at first)/frustrated(by where the story should or is going from that point)/or otherwise disillusioned by the catalyzing idea, scrap the whole thing, and move on to another project that strikes our fancy. That, generally, is the problem that discovery writers face when they want to begin a project: they love to start projects because the idea is what drives them, but often have trouble finishing things because they get distracted/bored/frustrated. They’re stuck writing infinite first drafts.
Outliners aren’t exactly immune to this sort of malady, however—it just affects them in a different way. Outliners, predictably, tend to get stuck in the outlining phase of projects (a phenomenon known as “worldbuilder’s disease” in many writing circles). Their outline grows and grows and grows, they create character ID sheets and maps and histories and magic systems and plot twists and turns, but never actually begin writing.
I’m a discovery writer, and as I mentioned in my previous HIGP post, I’ve started many different novels. At least a dozen were intended to be actual novels, but if you expand that number to include short stories, novelettes, etc., it triples—at least (and that’s a pretty mild manifestation of this problem, based on some conversations with writers I’ve had). But I’ve also seen the worldbuilder’s disease side of things.
The first draft of Duskfall began as a project for a class I took from Brandon Sanderson. It was not the first novel I’d begun writing; I’d say it was maybe my sixth or seventh. I wrote about 20K words of that draft, but then stopped working on it when the class ended. When I graduated and didn’t get into any MFA programs, I suddenly had time on my hands and chose to return to Duskfall, but I knew immediately that it had too many issues to continue writing without major, major revisions. So I decided to scrap all I’d written, and do some worldbuilding first. I created some magic systems. And some governments. And some religions. And wrote some history. And created lots and lots of characters. And, before I knew it, six months had gone by and I hadn’t actually written anything in the novel—I hadn’t even begun it. I realized at that point that I had a problem, and resolved to sit down and just plow through Duskfall, come what may.
That, it turns out, was the most important decision I made. I’d done a good share of worldbuilding and I’d already written a beginning to the novel, but when I sat down to start Duskfall anew, I had to commit. And now, for me, that’s what beginning a novel means: it’s a commitment. I need to make that clear to myself when I begin any project, because if I don’t, the temptation to jump to something else or get stuck worldbuilding is too strong for me to handle!***
So if you’re a discovery writer stuck continually writing first drafts of first chapters, commit to finishing a project. Hold yourself responsible to that idea. Follow through with it, and don’t allow yourself to jump ship to the first fancy idea that comes along. Your first chapters do not have to be good. More often than not, I make serious changes to my first chapters when I revise, if I decide to keep them at all. Just get through them, and then get through the middle, and then get through the end. Trust me, it’s worth it. And if you’re an outliner, let go of the worldbuilding. Some of it is necessary, of course. But at a certain point you, too, have got to commit. Make your outline and stick to it (Or don’t for all I care, I’m a discovery writer! But at least keep writing forward.), and just start writing!
Trust me, it’s worth it. I mean, it’s fun to worldbuild, and it’s fun to pursue all the pretty ideas racing through my head, but there’s not a lot of fulfillment there. Finishing a novel, though—that’s something. And that’s what I’ll talk about next week.
* Only slightly depressing is the fact that I will never get even close to fleshing out every single one of these ideas in my lifetime. It would be impossible in the most literal sense of the word. But I mean it with the “slightly.” Having too many ideas is a pretty nice problem to have as a writer. Way better than not having enough time to write, for example.
** Incidentally, this is why most writers scoff when people say “hey I’ve got a great idea, you should totally write a book about it and give me x amount of the profits!” Ideas really are cheap. If you have a phenomenal idea that you just can’t wait to share with the world, good for you! Go write it yourself and you’ll find out what I mean when I say that writing the thing is the real work.
*** For the recored, I’m still not perfect at this. But these days, if I set aside a project I’ve already begun but haven’t finished, it’s most likely because there’s some other more important project calling my name (in terms of agents/publishers/monies), and I usually have every intention of returning to said left-behind projects in the near future.