Over Labor Day weekend, I attended Dragon Con in Atlanta. Dragon Con is a big convention with approximately sixty thousand attendees and featuring a wide range of activities to choose from, including costuming, gaming, and celebrity panels. Another of its offerings is panels on writing, primarily for genre fiction, and more specifically for science fiction and fantasy, since that’s what the conference attendees are generally interested in.
Over the last two blogs, I’ve posted the advice I heard on self-editing and on pacing. This blog is about various other writing advice I heard from the panelists, who were either authors or editors or both. There’s no particular order or flow to these items. They’re just things that I thought were interesting or useful to pass on for consideration.
Outlining and Discovery Writing
Writers generally fall into two camps: those who outline or those who discovery write. Just to make sure we’re all on the same page (ha!), let’s cover some definitions.
Outlining is when you plan your whole book from beginning to end. They know how the book turns out and where they’re going to have character development before they start writing because they’ve already outlined it.
On the other hand, discovery writers discover how the book turns out and what their characters are like as they go. They may do little to no planning and instead just start writing and see where it takes them.
Generally outliners have a tighter book with their first draft because there was little to no meandering trying to figure out what was going to happen. Discovery writers often describe their characters as talking to them and telling the author what they want to do.
Often, people end up largely leaning toward one camp but end up using a little bit from the other. For example, an outliner may realize three-quarters of the way through that their planned ending isn’t going to work because of some other thing that made an appearance in the manuscript once she was writing, so she discovery writes the rest of it. Or, a discovery writer might use an outline for the first few chapters to figure out how many characters he needs and then lets the writing itself take over. There’s no right or wrong.
On to the advice!
If you’re an outliner, as you write, you’ll learn things that you didn’t know when you did the outline. It’s okay to go somewhere else with your manuscript. But you should go back to your outline afterward and see where things may have been missed and caused a plot hole or lack of character development or where your pacing varied from your plan (too many action scenes and not enough recovery for the reader or vice versa).
Manuscripts often start in the wrong place. According to one author, a short story should start on page three; a novel should start by chapter three. Starting the story in the right place is more of a problem for discovery writers because you’re spending time and words exploring the world and figuring out how things work, but you can discard most of that later because it’s too slow and the reader doesn’t need to know it.
Discovery writers sometimes get stuck in the middle and aren’t sure where to go. If possible, write the last chapter of the story—where you want everything to end up. Then, ask yourself what it took to get there, then you know what you need to write for the penultimate chapter. Repeat this tactic, asking yourself what it took to get to the chapter you’ve just written and writing the one before it, until you figure out what you need in the middle to get you to the end.
For both outliners and discovery writers, revise or create an outline after the first draft. For outliners, things will have changed along the way, so update your outline to reflect what was actually written. For discovery writers, write up an outline at this point, called a reverse outline. Analyze your outline for things that were missed. Does your pacing need some work? Did you start the book at the wrong point and need to start it a few chapters later? Do you have a problem with your plot that you need to fix? Outlines will help you identify these issues at this point, before you start editing your first draft, so you know where you need to focus on big picture areas.
Info dumping is where writers give a lot of information about backstory, setting, world building, character personality, and so on. This typically happens in early chapters and is especially problematic for new writers.
The issue with info dumping is that it slows the story down and is actually a barrier to the reader because they have to muddle through all of these words where nothing much is happening. The reader is highly likely to put a book down in this situation.
Additionally, while the author may need to understand all of the intricacies, the reader generally doesn’t. The reader doesn’t need to know that your character wet the bed until she was thirteen years old and had a middle school crush on a boy named Dave whom she never even spoke to. You, the writer, might need to know that because it affects how you write the character, but if it’s not relevant to the story, the reader does not need to know it. And even if the reader needs to know some of it, it usually doesn’t require more than a sentence or two rather than several paragraphs.
Writers suggest writing an eight-thousand-word story. Cut one thousand words out of the story and see if the plot and character development still stand. Cut another thousand words and check again. Repeat until your story falls apart and no longer makes any sense. Then, clean up what doesn’t work (adding no more than one thousand words, of course), and that’s your story.
This exercise will better demonstrate what information isn’t really needed for your reader to be able to follow your story. A developmental editor can also help you identify where to pull back.
Each writer’s process is unique. Experiment with different techniques. Tweak them. Develop your own. Figure out what works for you and what doesn’t. As long as it gets you a complete book, it’s neither weird nor wrong.
Lastly, ignore all writing advice that doesn’t work for you!