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

The Pact

Recently a man I’d just met asked me about outlining. He’d heard how one author he likes outlines using post-it notes. I told him how some writers outline extensively, some outline roughly, and some are more organic, not outlining at all but allowing the characters and plot to unfold, so that the writer is also the first reader. He was fascinated by the idea that characters take over and have a life of their own. So the conversation then moved on to how that’s true for all writers, whether they outline or not. Outlines don’t always guarantee the story will move in the plotted direction.

Which got me thinking, of course.

I don’t outline, and have posted about that before. This conversation though, made me realize that by not outlining, I place a great deal of trust in the characters. I’m not saying that I don’t have a rough idea in my mind about who they are, and I always know what the last line of a story is before I start, so that the plot is actually discovering the path to the ending. But I trust the character to know what they want, to tell me if I’m going the wrong way, to tell me their story, and to be able to carry the plot.

People who outline also trust their characters, but it seems to me that the trust is tempered with a strong foundation. Rather like parenting, when you send your child out into the world, trusting them to do the right thing, and knowing that you have given them a strong compass. Outlines, to me, must be like that compass. Whereas, with me not outlining, I just nudge the characters off the edge and go along for the ride as they fall, or soar. (I don’t parent like that, by the way.)

Then there’s the trust between a reader and the characters. As a reader, I trust the character to be believable, to make me care about them, to make me cheer them on, and to make me live vicariously through them. I want to go along on the adventure with them, not simply be an observer, as sometimes happens in books when characters are not fully developed. To me, that problem is usually a result of the author telling me too much, and not showing me the character. So, I put a lot of faith in both the writer and the characters, when I open a new book. And there’s nothing worse than having that trust betrayed and discovering the anticipated new book is boring and flat.

Finally, there’s the pact between the reader and the author. I trust, when I pick up that new book by a favorite author, that I’m going to spend some time with old friends. That I am going to meet some new ones I’ll care about, that I’m going to be placed in a world as real as the one I live in, and I’m going to go for a great ride. I hate when that pact is broken, especially when it’s an author that I have followed for a long time. Yes, it’s unrealistic to expect someone to put out a book at 100% every time, but then I never said my trust was realistic. Especially when it comes to my favorite authors.

This makes me realize how much there is between writer, reader, and characters. I knew it was a strong bond before, of course, but I just never thought too much about it from the trust angle.

So do you feel that sense of trust in the author or characters when you pick up a book? Why do you trust, or not trust? I’d love to know as it will help me as a writer.

Soaring with feet on the ground

Soaring with feet on the ground