Tuesday, April 27, 2010

To Fish or Cut Bait

Since I started writing fiction, I've been studying the art.  I started in the library and checked out several books on writing, some of which resonated with me, while others did not.  The first one I read was "No plot, no problem".  Before I realized that it was also the manifesto for National Novel Writing Month, I found some great advice starting with "just get started and let your characters do the work for you."  (That's not an exact quote, just my takeaway.)  More recently, I read Stephen King's "On Writing" (brilliant, by the way and probably my favorite book on writing) and just read a passage in Dean Koontz's book "Relentless" that both eschew the practice of outlining.

I come from a software engineering career, which I still work at, and there are similarities to the way I like to work.  I have never enjoyed long spans of planning before implementing my software.  If I did, I always ended up finding a better way once I got started, so planning exhaustively seemed a waste of time.  That's not to say that a little planning wasn't useful, I just never found it of value to do all of the planning, then all of the implementing.  I'm a creative person, so I always thought of more creative implementations and often better functionality than was originally planned.

I'm finding the same thing is applying to my writing.  I do a little planning, then some implementation.  If I've planned ahead, I often find that when I'm writing, I come up with something better than my original plan.  If I run into a block, I take a walk and let my mind wander for while.  Often, something occurs to me that's way better than my original plan.  The subconscious mind is a magical thing.

I have a good friend who's the planning type.  We had lunch and I asked how his book was coming.  He told me that he'd been outlining it (over 100 pages of detailed outline) for 6 years.  In addition, he'd been working on improving his writing skills.  While I'm looking forward to reading his book one day, I can't help wondering where he'd be if he'd just started writing it 6 years ago.  In less than one year of writing fiction, I already had two drafts of my first novel.  It may take me another year or two to get it right - I know my writing has certainly improved since the first draft - but I have something to show for my work.  I have something reviewable, workable, and can take pride in it.

When is the last time you bought a software specification over working software?  When is the last time you went to the bookstore and bought an outline instead of a finished book?  I'm not saying that outlines are worthless, for some people they are essential.  For me, they are a way to get started.  The key is to be unafraid to start.  Once you do, you have a chance to finish.