Rune Skelley uses an extensive outlining process, predicated on the theory that well begun is mostly done. We devote a large amount of time up front and reap the benefits later. Kent finds this philosophy a natural fit for any kind of moderate- to large-scale project, because it’s a key tenet of best-practices software development: don’t rush into coding, because changes are much more expensive to do in code than on a whiteboard. And there will be changes.
So in fiction, don’t rush into prose. Writing is rewriting, and it’s wise to budget your heavy lifting for the places where it will pay off. Think of it this way: you’d rather spend money on an addition for your house than shoring up a sagging foundation. You expect the foundation to be solid, and if you need to work on it after the house is standing then something has gone terribly wrong.
It’s easy to imagine scrapping an entire chapter, say, once you discover where a story is going. That could happen no matter how detailed your outline was, but it’s more likely you’d be scrapping a line from your outline and never need to compose the chapter in the first place. There are more insidious traps that lack of preparation can create for you, though. Worse than a superfluous chapter is one that’s needed, and has much in it that you’re in love with, but suffers some systemic flaw. The main character’s voice finally coalesces in your head, and now there are passages that simply aren’t in that voice. The subject matter of a conversation needs to change, but you already worked so hard on that dialogue that you can’t hear it any other way.
There are people who extol writing with less structure, and there certainly are writers who have success via a totally unstructured process. Words like “fluid, creative, unhindered,” tend to get thrown around. Just bear in mind these three things:
- a sound plan is not the antithesis of creativity; you still need to make stuff up, and an outline doesn’t breathe life into your characters for you — you still have the opportunity to perform
- in the words of Dwight Eisenhower, “Plans are worthless, but planning is everything,” a phrase which here means your outline will certainly undergo substantial changes once you get started writing, and that’s okay
- given a large enough sample of writers, you could find successful ones following any process imaginable; choose or invent a process that speaks to you, but don’t be swayed by anybody else’s results
We’re not asserting that the best writers never have to throw anything away, or he writes best who writes least. Far from it. In addition to an outline, we often generate many pages of apocrypha, prose that’s never intended as part of the manuscript. It helps us get our ear in for the voices, among other things. A lesson we’ve learned is that it’s better not to use our first chapters as the getting-acquainted phase of that relationship, for the reasons mentioned a few paragraphs ago. It’s a ton of work, no mistake, but it’s a smarter-not-harder scenario. Having a good process increases the rewards, although it won’t necessarily reduce the efforts.
How do you approach the initial stages of a new project? What level of structure works best for you?