Alas, my friends, I’m here to admit that I was wrong (gasp!), which is probably something my boyfriend would be shocked to hear me say—so let’s not tell him. Last November, all of the contributors at The Poetics Project decided to join together in a pact to complete our own NaNoWriMo projects. We failed, miserably, but along the way we wrote about our failure and our writing processes. I wrote this little gem about how I hated the idea of outlining an entire novel. It’s much better to dive right into the unknown, right? Wrong.
You see, I didn’t actually say I didn’t see the need for an outline. Instead, I said that I prefer to write a shitty rough draft before wasting my time with one. After all, the stories that form in our minds as we excitedly conjure them up at the most inconvenient times—in the shower, in the car, or, you know, in the throes of passion (yep, that is how you spell throes)—are not entirely formed. And diving, as it were, is not a horrible idea. A little free writing can help spark connections in your developing plot and help you feel out the direction you want to take things in.
What I was wrong about, however, was the value of prewriting.
To be frank, I still hate outlines. Even as an undergrad, when every week there was a new paper to write, I preferred researching my subject, taking notes, and then staring at said notes until I began to see an idea—a spark. I’d seize it and hope the momentum wouldn’t end, piece the paragraphs together, and then revise until it all made sense. This method was usually combined with vast amounts of Red Bull and procrastination.
But when it comes to prewriting, there’s more than just outlines. Instead, think about your characters. Last month, my six-month internship with a local editing firm ended. I’d meet with the owner for coffee near campus every week, our aluminum laptops and steaming cups barely fitting on the small, round table. We’d catch up, she’d give me assignments, and I’d pick her brain about storytelling. On one particular afternoon, she said something about characters that stuck: “Your characters drive your plot. What are their motivations? You have to know so you can anticipate what they would do.”
I’d probably heard it before somewhere. The fact that characters drive plot (or, at least, that they should). It wasn’t that the concept was revolutionary to me, but something inside just clicked. I realized that’s why none of my stories had ever gotten very far. I didn’t know my characters at all. I assumed they saw the world the way I did, and that the same things that I wanted out of life would be true for them. Even when I did create someone new and different, they were composite characters. Bits and pieces taken from people I knew or had known—my father’s worn hands, my brother’s aimless spirit, and other scraps I’d gathered over the years. Their motivations, hopes, and fears were not their own.
Looking back, I don’t know how anyone could start writing without having undergone several rounds of intense character sketches. How many of my own choices and memories were formed by being stubborn, by just deciding that I wouldn’t set limitations for myself? Would I have left California and headed to Portland for grad school? Despite the fact that I had never actually set foot in Oregon, or that I had no one to fall back on, no one to pick me up when it all fell apart. It’s hard to distinguish whether or not our choices make us who we are or whether who we are shapes our choices. But they are a part of us. Another person in the same shoes would likely make different ones.
If you don’t know your characters, your storytelling will suffer. Your characters will conform to your plot, rather than shape it.
So I was wrong. And lately, before I begin writing a single word of the actual story, I sit down and think about my characters. Beyond the basics, like their appearance, where they live, or what they do for a living, I jot down their nervous ticks, hobbies, what their families are like, or what they’re afraid of. And only then do I find that whatever initial inspiration came to me starts to make sense. That I can begin to thread the pieces together. I’m no longer forcing things, like a puzzle piece that clearly doesn’t fit. The process takes more time, but there’s less bumps along the way.