There is nothing efficient about writing. I know. The title of this blog is rather misleading, isn’t it? But it’s important that people accept this simple writerly truth: There is nothing efficient about writing.
Even if you do all the prep work ahead of time, the story will likely take on a life of its own soon after you begin. Don’t get me wrong, I think there is tremendous value in doing an outline, engaging in a bit of research and constructing character profiles. This groundwork can provide you with a sense of direction and it can ease the creative stifle that often occurs when we are faced with the blank page. Taking the time to become familiar with your characters, the possible direction of your story, and the perimeters that will contain your narrative (world/timeline/genre) is a great place to start, but it’s also important that you, as the creator, remain flexible.
If you create a strict character profile and then find that said character is behaving differently on paper, what are you going to do? You could attempt to stuff that character back into their profile, or you could give yourself the creative freedom to see if this new version is better than the pre-constructed one. You’ll probably find that this character is more organic, that it is easier to write from their perspective and that they feel more real.
If your character changes dramatically, then you may need to reconsider your outline. A plot is informed, at least in part, by a character’s decisions. If your character has experienced a lobotomy, then it is unlikely that your original outline will make sense given that your protagonist (or another significant character) has a new and improved personality. Like I said, writing is not efficient. If you encounter this particular problem, you can either redraft your outline or attempt to ‘pants’ the rest of the novel.
I can appreciate that redrafting an outline may seem pointless, “what if I have to change it again? That would be such a waste of time”, but it’s not a waste of time if the outline gives you enough confidence to start writing.
The outlines I do for my fiction and for this blog are very different from the final product, but that’s ok. If an unfollowed outline assists me in the writing of a book, short story or blog post, then I don’t really care if these two documents differ.
Of course, you can attempt to follow an outline, even if it no longer feels lively or authentic. You may be able to write a chapter or a blog post “efficiently,” but what is the real cost?
Potentially, a book that has failed to meet its true potential.
I realise that I make wandering off the path sound like the way to writerly enlightenment, it’s not. There is absolutely no guarantee that following your story’s lead will lead to a better story. It’s dark out there in the forest and you don’t know what traps lay underfoot or how far it is to the next cabin. With luck, you may have a lantern to help you find your way, but if your story abandons you out there in the dark, it can be a long time until first light.
The real question is, why are you so attached to the idea of being efficient? Is it because you don’t want to waste any time? Because you only have so much time to dedicate to writing and you hate the idea of wasting hours of your life on a story that may not work?
In many ways, writing is a waste of time. Let’s be real here, the world doesn’t need another masterpiece; it has plenty of masterpieces. All the stories have been told. Every. Single. One. All the forbidden romances have ended in marriage. The bad guys got locked up. The planet was saved by a group of misfits. That weedy kid no one liked won the gold medal and became a legend. It’s all been done.
Once you acknowledge that writing is (kind of) a waste of time, it’s so much easier to waste time writing. If you give yourself the freedom to wander off the path, to get lost in the dark until you eventually stub your toe on a forgotten lantern, then you may wind up with a good book. And if you don’t, that okay too. The world will not end, and you probably learnt something. If you cling to the idea that writing must be efficient, if you believe that success is a story produced quickly, then there’s a reasonable chance that your work will be mediocre.
I’ve written before about how the go-go mentality of today’s world fails to support creative artists and whether we consciously buy into these external pressures or not, the collective mentality to ‘get it done now’ is clearly having an effect. In the end, you decide how you create your art. You can rush through the process or you can take five years. You can write every day or binge when the mood strikes. You can self-publish or go traditional. The real question is, what happens after you type The End? Is this art something you can be proud of, or is it just another item you can strike off the to-do list?
You get to decide.