Novel outlining methods look so great on paper. Everything is in neat steps. You basically have an organized checklist for writing 50k+ words. But none of them work for me.
A large part of being an artist is understanding your own creative process. If you can learn to work with yourself, your strengths and weaknesses, patterns of burnout and inspiration, your schedule, and work with persistence, there’s a pretty good chance of improvement.
I feel like I have a pretty good handle on my day-to-day creative process. I know the kinds of environments I can do certain kinds of work in, how to get myself at the desk, and so forth.
My long-term creative process has been mysterious–partly because I’ve been mostly in the thick of it for the last couple of years. Can’t see the forest for the trees. That kind of thing. But I’m approaching the finish line (read: my self-imposed deadline because I need to be done with this book) of a long, long cycle of novel writing and revision. I’m getting to the edge of the forest, and I’m gaining perspective on my long-term writing process.
I’m a pantser. That’s writer-speak for: I prefer to write new stuff without planning ahead and discover what’s happening as I go. The opposite would be a plotter, someone who writes outlines, knows how many chapters they’re going to have, and so forth.
George R. R. Martin (A Game of Thrones) has more poetic terminology:
The architects do blueprints before they drive the first nail, they design the entire house, where the pipes are running, and how many rooms there are going to be, how high the roof will be. But the gardeners just dig a hole and plant the seed and see what comes up. I think all writers are partly architects and partly gardeners, but they tend to one side or another, and I am definitely more of a gardener.
Being a pantser/gardener is exciting. It keeps me interested in the project. The problem is that it seems to drastically increase the amount of time I spend drafting. I’m not sure when something is “done” because I have no idea what my goal for any particular scene/chapter/plot line is. I’m the fairy tale character who left the path and is wandering around in the woods, hoping to find the magic whatever to do the thing.
At various points during the writing of this particular book, I got sick of being lost in the woods. I attempted to plot. But very quickly, frustration with being lost turned into frustration with plotting. I never stuck with it very long.
So, slowly but surely, I made my way to the story that’s now in the hands of beta readers (god help me).
I have multiple writer friends who seem to be able to make this linear process work for them, who outline whole books before writing them, who ask confounding questions like, “How many drafts have you written?”
In her book The Heroine’s Journey, Maureen Murdock (quoting Sheila Moon and her book Changing Woman and Her Sisters: Feminine Aspects of Selves and Deities) talks about the creative process as having both masculine and feminine sides. (I don’t think these terms are any more gendered than yin and yang, but I’ll let you be the judge of that.) The masculine side of the creative process involves a linear progression from start to finish. Here are the plotters, the “architects” as George R. R. Martin calls them. Decision-making, forward motion, clear progress.
The feminine creative process moves not in a straight line, but in a spiral. Intuitive. Ever closer to the center, circling, narrowing, nearer and nearer to completion.
The process of my maybe-almost-finished book has a strong spiral shape. It has involved times of great productivity and breakthroughs, and times of waiting, or confusion, backtracking, and starting over. It can be maddening to wait and trust a process that seems circular, without realizing it really is spiral-shaped, and constantly angling closer to the center.
It would be nice if I could write a book from start to finish in straight-forward, sequenced steps. Instead, it’s a murky struggle for understanding. Somehow, though, that feels right. The novel is a long form that tends to be concerned with the way people live their lives, or a portion of their lives. And living, in my mind, involves a lot of murky struggling for understanding. So maybe it’s fitting that my process imitates the very thing the form is trying to capture.
What patterns do you find in your own artistic process? Do you identify more with the feminine or masculine? What process do you wish worked?
As always, love and luck and persistence to you.