Toss It, I Say

Many years ago while driving down the freeway, my son pulled his sock off, opened the window, and held it out. In his mind, the wind would fill the sock like a balloon (which he’d lost out the window earlier) and slow the car. Instead, there’s a little white sock out there on the shoulder of a road, slowly decomposing.

I remembered that today, thinking about my writing process. So picture me speeding down the highway, ripping the following pages out of a rule book and sending them flying.

Writers must outline. Rip, gone.
Characters must be developed before you start the story (or writers must use character dossiers). Rip, really gone.
Keep your theme/premise in mind as you write. Also gone.
Know the motivations of your characters. That one went very fast.
Write every day. Rip, with laughter.
Write a thousand words a day. Rip, with hysterical laughter.

Why am I destroying this rule book? For years I’ve felt guilty that I don’t follow what I perceive to be the laws of writing. On one hand, I know that no writer conforms to all of these. And yet if you read books on writing, or attend conferences, you come away with guilt if you don’t.

I’d like to conform to at least one of the rules. Well, I probably do. Beginning, middle end. Show don’t tell. Eliminate the passives. Okay, quit laughing, those of you who have edited my stuff. I said I conform; I didn’t say I was successful.

Yet somehow I manage to finish a novel length story, and hey, that’s something to be proud of. Well, okay, that story might need some editing, or lots of editing, but at least it’s done.

When I write, I do so as the first reader. I have no idea where the story is going to take me when I sit down and pen the opening line. I have no idea who this character is that I just met. She’ll show me as we go along. I have a vision of the ending, but no idea how to get there when I start.

A good friend of mine calls this organic writing. I think it’s more like jumping off the granite Index Town Wall with no parachute or climbing ropes.

Whatever the process is called, I’m not the only writer out there who creates this way. And I do believe I’m done apologizing to my inner critic. So I’m going to admit it publicly and see if any other writers in the back of the room sheepishly raise their hands and admit the same thing.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying following the rules is a bad thing. A friend who outlines gets her books done much sooner, with a lot less editing, and she’s an incredible writer. But for those like me, let’s quit feeling like rules equal competency, and roll that window down.

Morning Star climbing route

Morning Star climbing route

129 thoughts on “Toss It, I Say

  1. YAY!!!! hear me clapping? Way to go! I love your stories whichever way you write them. You are a story teller deep down anyway, so your stories will always be awesome, even if they need a bit of editing here and there. I never see those parts anyway… 😉

  2. I think of writing rules as “guidelines” that help get across what I mean to say. But that’s only for the second or third editing pass. Even though I’m an outliner, I try not to pay attention to all the picky little “rules” my first time through. The story (although blocked out) is still fluid, and hey! I may change my mind because of something I discover along the way! ….and I’m very thankful no one reads my first drafts but me, too!

    • I love your writing process and it always seems so professional and productive to me. When I get your drafts they are polished and need very little editing work. My analogy is picturing you as a writing CEO and me as a writing hippie. But picturing you as the CEO doesn’t mean that your stories aren’t a blast. Just that I see you as more professional than me. I’ve also learned a lot from you. And of course value your friendship as icing on the cake. Speaking of cake…I haven’t seen your new kitchen yet!

  3. I think it depends on the story you’re going to tell. If you’re on an alien planet and need notes on everything and anything from the colour of the sky to the species on the planet in order to be consistent, following some of the rules might help. But in a world you are more familiar with, outlines aren’t necessary if you don’t want them.

    • Ah, that’s a great perspective I hadn’t thought of. Maybe those writing rules could be seen as genre – specific. I hadn’t thought of them outside of my use of the rules.

  4. Some of those rules sound like a drain on creativity, particularly the ones involving specific amounts of words daily. Some days the creative juices flow and 3000 words or more might just pour out effortlessly. Other days it’s a strain to come up with even one word and anything written that day would show it.

  5. I agree that attitude stopped me from writing. I rewrote the same sentence so often I had it memorized. Finished my first book and now on my second. The first was a serial killer and was a decent read. I got a kick out of writing it. So you go your route and the hell with the confines of tradition.

    • Yes. There’s a place for traditions, but when they start holding us back, or confining us, then we need to figure out how to break free of them. Good luck with your work in progress.

    • I love that expression and the imagery, that the story carries you. I think I need to write that down and have it on the desk. That’s how I want writing to be, to carry me away.

  6. It’s true, there are very few set rules when it comes to writing. For the most part, the writers themselves have to develop those rules, and see what works and doesn’t work for them. Sometimes a writer can spend years writing and never find a set rulebook Even then, that’s okay: it means a constant process of discovery, rediscovery, and experimentation. If you ask me, that sounds like more fun than following some rules.

  7. Hmm, organic writing. Just like the pile of pages that ended up on the compost heap in my case. I too never adhered to character dossiers. Ian Rankin was the same. He never knew who dunnit from the outset, the characters slowly began to clue the reader as to ‘Who dunnit.’ I’m also like you in that my stories are born out of an ending. It’s a bit like unravelling a boring scarf and knitting it into a pair of gloves that fit, I guess.

    • Great analogy, the scarf and gloves. But…can you retrieve those papers out of the compost heap? I bet they weren’t as bad as you thought. I used to fill out character dossiers religiously and in great detail. I even compiled my own very long dossier out of multiple lists. Then I realized the only thing I used them for was to refresh my memory what color eyes someone had, that they were a delaying tactic, to avoid just getting started, and that the character never came out resembling the dossier at all. Well, except for eye color. I love discovering the path to the ending.

  8. Despite the fact that you’re obviously a litterbug (kidding) I enjoyed reading this, especially your moment of hysterical laughter as you tossed out “1,000 words a day.” While I am starting to see the benefits of some forms of outlining, I’m happy to know that there’s a chance I may finish this novel I’ve started without one. 🙂

    • Well, there is that sad little sock out there somewhere that would constitute littering! I think maybe outlining needs a better definition after reading a lot of the comments here. Even an idea in our imagination can be a form of a simple outline. Swing back by here sometime and tell me you finished that novel as I’m willing to bet that’s going to happen.

    • Thanks. What’s sad is that it took so long to figure it out. Something so simple. I swear, our inner critics sometimes do more harm than good.

    • Hey, I like that: wild west writers. Though maybe we’re wild northwest writers, so people don’t get us mixed up with the midwest. Waiting for your bridesmaid story…

  9. I love this! There are some rules that you threw out that I would keep, but we all have our own process. My first novel is still in my computer and will be sent to an editor in two weeks. The next will be so much easier. I started another and outlined very simply. It has already taken some twists and turns, but at least no dead ends! I like to write by the seat of my pants and like to see where it takes me just like you!
    Congrats on being Freshly Pressed!

    • And that’s it exactly, doing what works, without guilt because it’s not the way someone else does it, or tells you it should be done. Thanks for stopping by.

  10. Not a bad idea to go somewhere without specific directions. Recently I felt too controling about one story I want to finish and it’s not good. Thanks for sharing your way of working through a first draft.

    • What made you realize you were being too controlling? If I try to force a direction the writing seems to freeze up. I can go back to where it flowed, and usually figure out the wrong direction I headed in. It does seem though, that when we try to control too much, we kill or block the story. Hope you can pick the thread up again.

  11. Rules are never there to stick to aimlessly, rules are there only yo help people out who don’t know where to start. That does’t mean the so called rules apply to everyone, or are even considered by anyone. It is all about what works for you and sticking to that!

  12. Nothing sheepish about this raised hand! The pleasure of writing comes from letting go and allowing the characters to take the helm. In writing dialogue, when two of my characters react to one another and surprise me, I am amazed and thrilled by the process. I write the books I want to read.

  13. Norman Rush, National Book Award winner and Pulitzer Prize finalist, when asked, “Do you map your plots beforehand?” replied, “No, just the characters. But the characters write the plot. Their natures do.” I guess that isn’t exactly free falling off a cliff, it sounds more like abseiling with intent, but it’s a lot more free than constructing a box full of rules you can’t follow. To paraphrase Chuck Palahniuk, “The first rule of write club is, nobody talks about rules.”

    • The characters do write the plot, for me. I’d not thought of it that way. In an odd sense it’s almost voyeurism, watching the characters and writing down what is happening.

  14. So very much how I write. I’ve written quite a few outlines and have never stuck with any of them after the first scene or two. Stifles the creativity too much. Besides, my way makes the journey more fun. 🙂

  15. Happily and readily admit I took the plunge you speak of when I wrote the longest (a mere 26 page) story for my last writing class. Although the thing is a mad tale that must have been a baffling mess to even grade it is done. You are hilarious and you’ve reinvigorated my desire to breathe new life into the crinkled clatter of something beyond me.

    • Wow, thank you. I’ve been feeling the urge to breath new life into a very old story lately, too. When I look at it I laugh at the writing, but the underlying premise is sound. It will take a lot of editing but I think it will be worth it. Twenty six pages sounds like a solid short story to me. Good luck with it, and I’d love to hear what comes of the story. I’m willing to bet it’s not beyond you.

  16. I really liked your take on writing rules. I have never had good luck doing a detailed outline for a story. I do need to have some idea of where it’s going and generally how it will end, but that’s about all. As far as word counts go, that rule too should be tossed. I think that some sort of regular schedule is needed to keep a writing project moving forward, but saying you have to write 1000 words a day is like saying you are going to jog 5 miles a day…some days you might feel like running 10 miles…other days you might not be able to drag yourself out of bed.

    Congrats on the FP!

    • Thank you. I loved spikey1’s reminder above that rules are meant to be broken. And your analogy of jogging is spot on. Oddly, I always know the last line of the story. Before I fully know the characters or the plot or anything. I think knowing the last line, or having an idea of an ending like you mention here, is, to continue your jogging theme, having that end goal in sight.

    • Ha, you’re right! I’d learned that lesson somewhere back in the 80s, running around with purple, orange, and blue hair, but I do believe I forgot that over the years.

  17. You’re not the only one, because I do too. Thanks for voicing that. Oh, and no more apologies or guilt. I quite like your attitude and style – it’s very…human. Way to go!

    • Thank you. I thought more people would tell me I wasn’t a writer because I didn’t follow the rules to guarantee I’d be published in ten days…I’m sure you’ve heard that view before. I hate walking away from conferences feeling like I have to keep my head down. Not that I did, but the feeling was still buried there!

  18. I long ago concluded that every writer works differently. At least the ones whose work interests me, the ones who really have something new to say.
    In my experience, I’m tempted to say every work has come about differently, too.

    • Now that’s interesting. Each piece coming about differently. Do you find you write/follow a different process depending on the story you tell? So the process matches the material?

      • In a couple of cases, I used a very rough outline, but usually I’m a “pantser” — that is, seat-of-the-pants to see where the original impulse or material leads.
        Beyond that, I’ve sometimes found photos helpful in shaping or reshaping the material; sometimes, it’s been journal entries or letters. Sometimes it’s even been collage or outtakes from earlier works. Once it was even an elaborate search-and-replace structure for a novel, which then led to a host of revisions to give it better flow.
        The one commonality has been an insistence on deep and repeated revision over time.

      • I have heard of writers who create a mandala for each story out of materials related to the story. The idea fascinates me and it sounds almost like what you do here. Something tangible for a story that is not yet tangible.

  19. Rules are made fro breaking! Writing in a way and style that enthuses your muse is the best way. It might not be the ‘proper’ method but if it works stick with it. I ‘free flow’ write (organic write) and have not had a problem creating characters, plot arcs or placing the begining, middle and end in the right order. An idea will form and I go with it letting my subconscious guide my finger tips. Enjoy your freedom, it allows us to discover new and different paths.
    Happy writing

  20. You know, I was well into a YA novel when I went to a fantastic workshop on the advance planning involved in writing a novel. The outcome of attending that workshop (6 months ago) is that I haven’t worked on my novel since. Hmm. Time to open a window…

    • Many years ago I attended a well known, huge writer’s conference. I left feeling like I wasn’t a writer and didn’t write for months. Eventually (thankfully) words bubbled back up. I decided then I would try to never do anything that destroyed creativity in another. Advanced planning works for many, but not all. Wish there was a wand I could wave to erase that experience for you. The words will come back.

  21. Great post, and I love the image of the sock left to rot:-) I’m definitely an organic writer, which fits with the rest of my lifestyle so I feel at peace with it. Not as efficient perhaps, I agree, but efficiency and competency are two different things. You’re not alone! H xxx

  22. I’m a teen who sort of kind of considers myself a writer, but have just written from a very early age and never knew any rules, but got nowhere. I have recently started to feel a bit guilty about it and have attempted to go with the rules but haven’t gotten anywhere. This makes me feel a lot better! Thanks so much!

    • Rules or no rules, the important part is writing. I think the longer we write the more we learn what our personal process is. I started writing very young and those stories were basically a daydream I wanted to read. They usually featured me and whoever my crush was at the time. I went on a lot of adventures with Huckleberry Finn. I think the thing to take away from this, is to find a way to release the guilt. Why should we feel guilty when we are doing something we love, just because someone might not approve the way we do it? I hope you listen to those stories inside you that want to be told, and tell them in the way that is right for you.

    • Thanks for the kind words. I hadn’t thought about the results of breaking rules but I think you’re right. All inventions, creations, new theories, new discoveries…at some point someone had to break a few rules.

  23. Following rules writing has always held me back (may be why i struggled in high school english classes..). Nothing feels better than having no limitations while expressing yourself, rules take away from my expression. Just think about the most famous works of art in history.. Not sure if Edgar Allen Poe followed rules or instructions..? Great post

    • Thank you. I can see rules as a foundation or formula as one person mentioned here, for specific genres, but not as an either/or, where if you don’t follow the rules you fail, or you’re not a writer, or you can’t play in the sand box. A foundation is to grow from and improve on and shouldn’t hold us back or limit us when it comes to creativity. Too bad we can’t ask Poe his opinions! Hope you’re writing in spite of the English class…

  24. I supposed somebody, sometime, must have written an SF story where reality is changing all the time so there are no worries about consistency of location, character, plot development, or whatever. Give yourself a rest. Try it. Fred starts as President, continues as Alfonse on Skid Row, has a period as Bertie in Heaven, back as the farm dog named smelly… Erm… OK, you write, I’ll read…

  25. I just write and get on with it,the story just unfolds.The only thing I keep in mind is the theme or themes but they are not usually set in stone.I can change them or introduce new ones.I wouldnt plan a novel before hand,that is scary.My debut book in an autobiography of interlinked short stories.I wouldnt tell you how it will start or end.I am just writing each of them to the best of my ability.The rest will come later.All I know is it is a unique arrangement and there are no rules anywhere.It is not bad to rewrite rules.

    • And to rewrite rules gives us new ways of looking at things that we might not have thought of before. Then I end up with one of those ‘why didn’t I think of that!’ moments. I’m intrigued by your interlinked stories and hope that works for you. It sounds like it would be interesting reading.

  26. I favor the assassin’s creed when it comes to writing: Nothing is true. Everything is permissible. My preference for privileging plot and characterization over all other considerations is just that: preference.

  27. Somehow, this is a relief! I’ve tossed those rules aside after my first attempt to write a novel stopped halfway through chapter 1. That was four years ago, and now I am working on my first novel. This time, I just sat down and let the words flow. It might need a lot of editing, but I’ve passed the 50,000 word mark. (I haven’t had time to write the last couple weeks either, so the everyday thing definitely doesn’t work for me.) Since it’s a YA novel, the end is almost in sight!

    I’m glad I’m not the only one tossing the rules. It makes me feel a lot more hopeful about the future of this first novel. Thanks for the great post.

    • That was the whole point I was thinking about when writing the post: to just write. To let the story come out and the words flow, and not worry about anything else. After all, isn’t that what writing is all about? I’m very glad you kept on with your storytelling in spite of the rough start. Like others have said here, rules are foundations, not the whole structure. Good luck with your novel.

  28. I tend to write in what I think is an “organic” fashion – I have a general idea of where the story is going and how and why and let it have its’ own head from there.

    • To me, letting your story have it’s own head is showing respect to the story that wants to be told by you. We should design some green logo for ‘organic writers’.

  29. I love your first paragraph. And I very enthusiastically wave my hand if we’re raising them to show rule-tossing! I’ve just recently realized that when I think about the rules, I don’t write as much, so I’ve decided to chuck ’em too. Whee!!

    • Wow! I’m in the same boat with an artist! I always assumed you’d tossed rules a long time ago. It seems like a painter would have to. One of these days (after how long chatting now?) we’re going to have to meet up for tea and cookies. Those dark chocolate ones you posted recently…

      • Oh, I’m an inveterate rule-follower. One of the things that first attracted me to Erik is that he has an instinctive conviction that some rules don’t need to be followed all the time (or ever); I was explaining to my best friend that this part of him constitutes the “bad boy” every woman is supposed to be attracted to. ;b I feel like a huge part of my creative journey is just learning to be the same way — throwing out the rules that don’t serve. I suppose my first big rule-breaking was choosing to write or do art in the first place. 🙂

        I would adore to meet sometime!! Now to figure out the teleportation machine… although… I don’t want to jinx anything so I won’t explain in too much detail, but there is a possibility I will soon have a family member in Seattle. Which, if it comes to pass, will definitely get me to WA at some point. 🙂

  30. I only write short and I guess I’m glad. It takes so much less planning and relies so much more on reflex. Reading your post, though, suggests I might do well to plan more and think a little deeper. Good read. Thank you!

    • I like that you read the post and are going to do the opposite by planning more! Each time I start a new story I tell myself this time I’m going to outline and plan ‘like a real writer does’ and then of course the opening sentence makes a liar out of me. Which is why I’ve chosen to quit trying. I am amazed by anyone who can write a short story. You have to value each and every word. Well, so does every writer, but you know what I mean I’m sure. It’s the same with songs. That a songwriter can give a complete story in three minutes, and it takes me 90,000 words to do the same thing. Plus I think the market for short stories is just swinging wide open. Good luck to you.

      • I mean really short. Like 500 words. My favorite thing to do is a story in 33 words. I got hooked on this by Trifecta Writing Challenge which is now, alas, gone out of business. I so admire writers who can do long.

  31. I’m glad to know I’m not alone. I write as the story comes to me, almost completely stream – of – consciousness. First Draft is always extremely rough, but I write till I have no story left to tell.

    Ha. Then I edit, rearrange, edit again… lather, rinse, repeat.

  32. heh, I dig the premise and perspective of your blog. A good story is a good story, whether it follows the “rules” or not in my opinion, yet… not all stories are good ones. I’m a strong believer in individuality, so it stands that “process” would be different for each writer. Not all processes are good processes… I think throwing old socks out the window is a good thing along with “killing your darlings”. I’m sad to see so many people chasing popular writing trends, not the least of which is Fan Fiction writing. I know there is a market for it, but to me, it kills fresh, original writing. Move forward, tell the story good, be individually original.

    • Thanks for the great comments. Interesting perspective on fan fiction. To me it seems to fill a niche for new writers who don’t have the confidence in their skills yet to do a story ‘on their own’. They don’t have to create an original plot or setting, and rarely characters. I see fan fiction as being done by new writers until they gain confidence or until they start feeling restrained by the plot of another. Kind of like writing in a safe environment until they gain the courage to step out on their own. I think the problem would come from never reaching that point. As you say, move forward, be individual and be original.

    • I’d never heard that before. As a kid, I would go down the library rows looking for the thickest books because I hated them being over too soon.

  33. AWESOME!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! This is how I always start my writing: “organically” ;D I can’t believe how some one can write when everything is “planned” and they have to follow that… It must be awful :/

    • I know a good friend of mine who outlines, but she always goes into it with the understanding that her ‘plan’ may get thwarted by characters. I like her balance of being organized and yet letting the story take over. But even liking her process I still can’t do it. To me, that story is floating around begging to be told and doesn’t care what form the telling takes. So if I outline the story has been told and it goes away and I’ll never write the actual story. Took me a long time to figure that out! I’m glad I’m not alone in the organic writing.

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