Friday, August 16, 2013

Plot Freeballing: Writing Without an Outline

Conventional wisdom dictates that when you write, especially a longer work, thorough plot outlining is as necessary as water wings on a swimming toddler. Without, you will surely drown, flailing about and choking and turning blue. But here's what I have learned: Fuck conventional wisdom.

Now, I don't mean that you should just do everything the opposite of what your peers, mentors, advisers, and inspirations suggest. Obviously that's stupid and if you so much as thought it, then you're the same kind of asshole I am. However, I have learned that writing is an intensely personal experience and that the second you let conventional wisdom get in the way of your intuition, you're going to be abandoning yet another story 12 pages in with what you were sure was a novel's worth of plot.

Writing is different for everyone. Some people write barely coherent sentences, churning out thousands of words in an hour and rely on later edits to make it something people would want to read. Others pore over each word, slowly drizzling out first drafts that would make Shakespeare set down his quill and nod approvingly. Some people draft outlines that could themselves be published as short fiction, and others let their characters determine the next bit of action. (By the thesis of this article, I'm sure you've guessed that I fall into the latter camp.)

The key is to keep writing. If you are actively writing anything more substantial than a grocery list, congratulations! you're doing better than probably 90% of people who say they are writers. Too many times I've tried to take a conventional wisdom approach and once failure started to creep in, I abandoned the story altogether.

So here's a list of the top 5 things I've learned about writing without an outline:

1. No Outline Doesn't Mean No Idea

Just because you aren't formally plotting out your story shouldn't imply that you have no idea what's coming. It's still going to be helpful to at least have a sense of what challenges your protagonists are going to encounter, who the antagonists are (if there are any), and what's going on in the world at large. If your plot is going to be guided by the protagonists' action, give them something to react to, or they'll end up slouched back on the couch using their stomach as a mousepad to play Minecraft like me on a Saturday.

2. Roleplay

When you're freeballing your plot, you're counting on your characters to guide the action of the story. You're not going to end up with a Dan Simmons-esque masterpiece plot of Deep Blue precision, but you can come out with something that feels natural and doesn't leave your readers staring at your arm protruding from your character's ass. But the key to this is to understand the character. And there's no better way to understand your character than to be your character, for a little while. Whether it's an RPG like D&D or WoW, improv acting, or a roleplaying writing website, if you are having trouble letting your character guide his or her own actions, there is no better way.

3. Take Notes EVERYWHERE

Open plots can take inspiration ideas from pretty much anywhere. Movies, conversations, drug trips, you never know where something will cross your mind that would just fit perfectly into your story. That is why I have a Google Document I can access from my phone for the sole purpose of jotting down ideas to add to my stories, but if you're the Moleskine type that works just as well. Later, when I'm stuck for some action, I pop open the document and see "Sigourney Weaver Nazi Kitten Army" (<-- Actual note I actually wrote for my story DreamMaker.) Not everything is going to fit, but it sure beats staring at your screen trying to figure out if you can add the blinking cursor as a villain. (Note to self... Blinking cursor villain?)

4. Take Your Time

The more sparse your plot points, the more has to happen between them. Working with a barebones plot means that a lot has to happen between predetermined elements, so don't be in a rush to hit the next one. Let something go wrong between elements. Fuck, let everything go wrong between elements. Going to the store for milk is like Feivel Goes West to your characters.

5. Be Prepared to Second Draft

You can't expect to shit out gold without studying a little alchemy first (and even then there's all kinds of Equivalent Exchange bullshit you have to deal with). On your first write-through, there are going to be some things that don't make much sense, or are too slow (or fast), or just stick out for whatever reason. That's fine. You'll fix it in the second go.

And there you have a few things I've figured out the hard way. Now get off the internet and get back to your writing! Kids these days...

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