The Discipline of Writing


Writing demands discipline. Inspired binges in a fever swamp of productivity may satisfy that occasional artistic lust, but a true relationship with writing is more than a series of one-night stands. It takes commitment.

What particular processes a writer uses is less important than the necessity of having a process to begin with. I don’t think it is correct, as some believe, that all processes are equal or equally valid, but I do believe that all attempts at foregoing any process at all are equally bad.

The big debate when it comes to process seems to be over outlining. On one extreme, you have the “organic” writers, those who eschew all but the vague-est notions of what comes next as they forge ahead with their story. They are the anti-outliners, convinced that characters need to be free to act and react without the stultifying confines of a preordained plot. These writers sit down with an idea of where they want the story to go, give the characters a gentle nudge, then chronicle what happens as it unfolds before them on the computer screen (or paper, for the really old-fashioned ones).

At the other extreme, you have the meticulous outliners. These are the writers who plan out every thing that happens chapter by chapter, maybe scene by scene, before they begin the actual writing. Some always start with the ending and work backwards. Others painstakingly plot each step. These writers almost always know exactly what they are going to write when they sit down to write it.

Most writers, I would venture, naturally gravitate toward the organic. The outliners, however, have distinct advantages when it comes to plotting and structure of their novels. Experience tells me writers who outline stand a far better chance at seeing their work published.

My own process involves outlining, but not in great detail. Envisioning a general storyline and creating characters are things I don’t think I have any significant problems with, but outlining doesn’t come as easy for me as I’d like. I admire people who can outline every aspect of a novel before they begin, but I know I would end up spending more time revising my outline than I would writing the book. I tend to plot out the story by major scenes with only minor detail, the point of the outline being to establish what each scene is intended to accomplish in moving the story forward. If a scene doesn’t move a story forward, it probably shouldn’t be in there. I measure the progress by what I call milestones. These are major plot events or twists. It’s sort of like planning a road trip from New York to LA, and listing out the major stops along the way that determine the route you take. You know that your last leg of the journey will start in Phoenix and end in Santa Monica, but you don’t necessarily know precisely what interstate or highways you’ll be using then.

The primary culprit in instilling a resistance to outlining is probably the short story. I’m sure it was for me. Short stories, while arguably demanding more focus and unity of purpose for each word than a novel, more economy, if you will, are not nearly as restrictive in their form. Since most writers cut their teeth writing short fiction, the freedom of not necessarily having all the details of the story planned out ahead of time and allowing creative juices simply to flow becomes the familiar way of approaching the craft. It’s not that short stories can’t benefit from outlining, it’s just that outlining provides less of an advantage for them. The good news is, for those who hate the process of outlining and feel the need to write free, those same short stories provide a wonderful break from novel writing. The beauty of the form is that pieces of short fiction vary tremendously in length and structure, and don’t always have to follow traditional notions of beginning, middle and end. Any story of up to moderate length can also be revised and massaged extensively after the first draft much more easily than a novel, so it provides a convenient way for a writer to indulge himself or herself in the art with the knowledge that the entire end product can be chiseled and polished—or even started over from scratch—until it’s exactly the way the writer wants it. A major attraction of the short story to me as a writer is that you can just about see the light at the end of the tunnel from the moment you type the first sentence. But that is also the problem. Writing a novel is a different undertaking altogether, and what works for one does not necessarily work well for the other.

My approach to short-story writing differs significantly from novel or novella writing. I may start with nothing more than a situation, or a character, or even a title. From there I tease out ideas of where to go, often while I’m starting the first draft. The length of a short story makes it manageable enough that I’m confident I can make as many changes as I want at any point without being overly concerned with continuity issues, since making major revisions to a work a mere few pages long is not that daunting. The longer the piece of writing, however, the harder that becomes. Sometimes I have almost the entire story plotted out in my head when I start. Other times, I don’t even know how the first paragraph is going to end (my most recent short story, set to appear in Horror Library Volume 4, was that way). What matters, of course, is how the end product reads.

The bottom line is, while everyone has their own approach to writing, I submit that there are definite advantages to outlining (if nothing else, with an outline you keep updated handy, you’ve already complete most of the work you need to do when providing the always-asked-for synopsis publishers want to see). With short stories, however, you can accommodate the organic writer in you if you absolutely must.

But all writing, novel or short story, is work. Satisfying, perhaps even wonderfully enjoyable work, but work nonetheless. Labors of love aren’t just about the love, they’re also about the labor.

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