Writing Isn't a Paint By Numbers Experience

Last spring I listened to a series of podcasts about writing and publishing. I wanted to hear the latest from some of the writing and publishing industry's thought leaders, and I heard a trend: Don't be scared of writing a book. If you write an outline, it's a paint by numbers experience.

This troubled me. I don't write thorough outlines, and when I do, I don't follow them. The story inevitably changes, and if I insist on following the outline I find myself in a struggle between what I thought would happen and what wants to happen. And struggle leads to stuck.

I felt torn between stubbornly believing in my approach to writing, and thinking that perhaps I was going about it wrong. If that many experts believed in the power of the outline, then maybe I needed to reassess.

I spent the summer and fall really digging into what I believe and what works for me. And here's what I've come up with: 

When you are writing a character driven story (one where a character experiences things, learns things, gets called to grow and change), and when you are writing a story that is deeply personal (it stems from your own life and your most deeply held questions), there will come a point in time when the writing won't behave.

It will insist on going in a direction that you didn't plan on, and you'll hesitate to follow. Perhaps you can't see what happens after that. Or it makes you feel vulnerable. Or it could strike a nerve with friends and family. 

AND NO OUTLINE IN THE WORLD WILL HELP YOU FIGURE OUT WHAT TO DO NEXT.

So I don't believe that writing is a paint by numbers experience. There's there's a flow to it--shitty first draft, revisions, revisions, revisions, revisions--and there is a place for outlines as a way to keep track of where you are. But rather than march through it, I believe that writing requires a softer approach. One where we listen and pay attention as we write, to what's unfolding on the page and the resistance we feel to whatever is happening there.

It requires a certain amount of surrender. A willingness to become comfortable with not always knowing what comes next but trusting that you'll figure out.

My intention is to write more about why and how in the coming months, but before I do that, I want to know what you think:

  • Do you struggle with the idea that writing is a paint by numbers experience? Then feel guilty when you don't finish?
  • What are the biggest challenges you face as a writer?
  • What gives you the most relief?

I would be honored to answer your questions and share your ideas as I move forward. You can post them below, or email them to me at WritingStrides@gmail.com.