Many beginning writers are curious about the writing process and what works, and what doesn’t work, for other writers. The problem is, however, that writing processes are as numerous and varied as are writers themselves. Ask ten writers about how they write and you’ll get ten different answers.
Oh, sure, there are the two basic camps known as “Outliners” and the disparaging term, “Pantsers,” which comes from the term “flying by the seat of your pants.” An expression that probably came from the Outliners’ side suggesting that writers who don’t outline are somehow directionless and create a first draft that meanders aimlessly.
I much prefer the terms that George R. R. Martin uses: architects and gardeners. The former do pre-write, create blueprints, timelines, character bios, and intricate world building. The latter are more organic, free-flowing, and free-thinking, adding a little water and fertilizer here, pruning an unruly branch there.
Suffice to say, that even with two camps, the processes of each writer within still vary tremendously. Some even straddling the two.
Despite the arguments to the contrary, one style is not superior to the other. It all comes down to “what works for you is what’s best.”
In my own case, I’m a gardener. I often think its a condition of my ADHD, although I’ve heard others who also suffer from that disorder claim they are architects because of it. Maybe. Or maybe they also suffer from OCD, since often if you have one disorder, you’ll have another. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
In my case, the ADHD manifests as an inability to organize and a sudden loss of interest in a project. I’ve found that pre-writing or planning — the creation of an outline — makes my mind believe the story is already written. So when it comes time to do the actual writing, putting the notes and outlines together, my mind wanders because it thinks “I’ve already done this” and it’s off exploring a new idea, a new project.
So my gardening process has to be immediate. I have to plant the seed and water it ASAP. I have to take the idea, which often isn’t even fully formed, just a shadow of a hint of a fragment of an idea, and run with it. The sooner I start to write, the better. If I let the idea percolate in my head, growing and forming into a story, I might lose it. My mind once again goes, “I did this already.” so I have to strike before the iron even gets warm.
It’s an odd process, but it’s what works for me. I’ve tried all sorts of “methods” from different writing books, but none of them were helpful. Again we’re back to “what works best for you.”
For instance, I started a new short story yesterday. I had no idea what I was going to write. Just a vague idea that it would be a fantasy set in a 17th century-style world where they still had swords and firearms were in the early primitive stages.
But what to write?
Ok. The word “highwayman” popped into my head. Fine. But what about him? Other writer might sit and try to develop this character first. Or create a situation to put him in. Possibly they’d start world-building. Even plotting. At the very least, they’d give their character a name.
But not I. I stare at the paper as the word “highwayman” bounces around until he dislodges some other words. I need that first sentence. Nothing can follow until I’ve laid out that first sentence. It is the light in the dark. The first sentence illuminates the second. The second begets the third. And so on until the story is pouring out of my fountain pen one sentence at a time.
It’s rare that I think ahead. some writers need an ending and use that as a homing beacon to direct their story through the darkness. But I never think that far in advance. I rarely think more than a few sentences ahead of what’s going on paper.
And yesterday, the highwayman found companion words. An opening sentence formed. Good, bad, ugly, or indifferent, the first sentence’s quality isn’t important in this case. The important part is getting it down so others can follow.
The sentence I finally wrote down on paper was anything but groundbreaking, except in the strictest sense of the word. It broke ground for everything that followed.
The sentence was:
The highwayman stepped out from his hiding place to confront the lone traveler.
“So now what?” you say. Well, after that I continued to write, sentence after sentence, and a story slowly formed. Yesterday, I managed to write 7 hand written pages relating to that one word, “highwayman.” Which I think translates to about 1,700 words.
Today, I’ll continue writing. I still don’t know where it’s headed, but I like where it came from. And I have a good feeling about it.
Many will probably ask, “How can you write anything worthwhile like that?” To which I say, I have no idea. All I know is it works for me and I know of no other way to do it.
Some outliners will think that with such a haphazard approach, I probably go off track a lot, or I end up having to trim a lot of excess.
And they’ll be surprised when I say, No. Not at all. I hardly ever go off on a tangent. I can usually spot a wrong turn within a sentence or two, and then I turn back and follow the correct path. And I rarely end up pruning excess.
Which doesn’t mean I don’t edit the hell out of it. I do. I still polish it to a fine luster before I submit it.
My advice, however, is Don’t try this at home. It’s not a method for the faint of heart. I’ve suffered through years of angst over it. Why can’t I outline? Why don’t I get ideas like other writers seems to: by the dozen and all fully formed?
It wasn’t until I was finally diagnosed with, and went on medication for, ADHD that I came to terms with my process and accepted how my brain works or doesn’t work.
So my advice for writers trying to find “their process” is, go ahead and sample around. Try what works for other writers. Mix and match. And don’t be surprised if you find that what works for you is totally your own and doesn’t work for anyone else.