To Ask Or Not To Ask

Perusing through Twitter, I saw a post that something to the effect of, “What is the best way to write a novel?” At first, I thought to myself, Self…that’s an impossible question to answer. It asks for a normative response to a subjective question. I’d wanted to say as much, that each writer has their own “best way” to write a novel. Often times writers share traits and routines, but their method of writing isn’t any better than the method another group uses. Some people are outliners, who plot the entire book from scene to scene, beginning to end before a single word in the official story is written. Some people are discovery writers, surfing the waves of their story on an elevator pitch. Some people wake up before sunrise and have a couple thousand words written before other people awaken, but those people are also generally asleep before the other people have started their night.

Which way is the best? Well…that’s what you have to discover for yourself.

I’m a general outliner, which I think stems from my days as a D&D dungeon master. There’s a certain thrill in planning things out, especially when it’s a cunning trap or an especially devious plot twist. I like detailing the minutia for the world for my story—types of pants, religions, races, climate, etc.—which was how I outlined my first high fantasy novel. But that story is part of a series, which I feel necessitates outlining due to a need for continuity between books. For all my planning and time spent writing those outlines, the end result (after about eleventy billion edits) looks almost nothing like the original outline. It’s like coming back to your hometown after twenty years or going to your twenty-year class reunion. It’s the same…ish.

For my current work in progress, I decided to take more of a discovery approach. Instead of planning each and every bit of a scene (where the characters go, what they do, who they talk to and what they talk about, what they see, hear, feel, etc.), I create the potential for a great scene with barebones outlining. I limit my outlines to simple elevator pitches in blocks of three chapters, and I finish writing a rough draft of each block before outlining the next. So far, it’s been a fun ride, but I can already tell that I’m going to have to pay a lot more attention to chapter continuity.

It was while I was pondering that message that I had an epiphany—there is a lot more to those questions of “How do I ___?” or “What’s the best way to ____?” Those types of questions get people engaged. Normally, when we ask them we feel lost and a bit overwhelmed by our task at hand, and could use a bit of direction. The questions help writers engage and connect with their peers, and identify themselves as writers. They almost act as a sort of rite of passage, and their responses weed out those who fail to grasp their meaning—as with every skill, we learn and ameliorate through practice. We discover what works for us by trying it and seeing where it takes us. Asking questions like “What’s the best way to write a novel?” doesn’t have a normative answer; the answers open up new possibilities that the writer that they might not have thought about. I remember first learning about the 5:00 AM writers club. Yeah…it’s a thing. Writers actually wake up at 5:00, or even earlier so they can actually start writing at 5:00. I think that’s amazing! Not for me, but very awesome for them. How do I know this? I tried it 🙂 Set my alarm and gave it a whole lot of nope. But I truly admire those of you that do wake up to see those glorious sunrises and put thought to paper.

There really isn’t a best way to write a novel, comic, screenplay, etc. There might be a best way for you, but not a best way for everyone, and figuring that out is part of the fun of writing.

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