With more than a hundred published novels and more than seventeen million copies of his books in print, USA Today bestselling author Dean Wesley Smith knows how to outline. And he knows how to write a novel without an outline.
In this WMG Writer's Guide, Dean takes you step-by-step through the process of writing without an outline and explains why not having an outline boosts your creative voice and keeps you more interested in your writing.
Want to enjoy your writing more and entertain yourself? Then toss away your outline and Write into the Dark.
Dean Wesley Smith has written more novels than I can count, and I should be able to count them all, since he and I have been a couple from the day we met 29 years ago this month. Dean has outlined novels to get traditional publishing contracts, but he prefers to write without an outline, something he calls "writing into the dark." Almost every how-to-write book gives examples on how to outline, but almost none deal with writing without any outline at all. Dean's advice is both wise and fascinating. Don't tell him (because it'll go to his head), but I learned a few things from reading this as he was writing it. Writing Into The Dark is newly published this month, but I'll wager that it'll become a classic. – Kristine Kathryn Rusch
"Dean Wesley Smith's blog … is somewhere to see what's going on in the industry and how you can use it to your advantage, a place to hear that it's okay to write and submit quickly, and a blog where hard numbers are discussed. Even if you don't agree with everything that he says, it's worth reading his blog just to think about where and how much control you have over your own career."– Vision Magazine
In almost 150 novels now in both indie and traditional, I have written into the dark on some, done outlines on others, and even did a 135-page "fully realized" outline on one poor novel.
There are as many ways to outline a novel as there are writers. Plus, there are about a million books out there giving you the secret to outlining. In some of the online workshops I help with at WMG Publishing, I even taught a few ways to outline.
But there are very few articles and books on how to just type in the first word and head off into the dark writing a novel with no plan, no character sketch, nothing but pure exploration.
That's what writing into the dark is all about. Pure exploration of a story.
In this book, I hope to help you learn how to have the courage and the ability to just tell a story from your creative side.
SO WHAT EXACTLY IS WRITING INTO THE DARK?
Some call it "writing by the seat of your pants." There are other terms for it that are so stupid, I can't bring myself to even type the names of them.
Basically, writing into the dark means that you decide to write a story without an outline.
Now most short story writers do this automatically. But faced with a novel, the same writer who just had a blast going off into the dark on a short story will freeze down like shallow lake in the Midwest in the dead of winter.
Critical voice takes over the writer's mind, and all the stuff the writer was taught by people who have never written a novel comes roaring in.
In fact, most of us in our early years of writing take all our information and learning from very, very unqualified people.
English teachers in high school may know how to put a sentence together in some grammatically correct fashion, but they have zero, or less than zero, idea how to create a story from nothing.
We are taught how to tear stories apart under the guise of learning, but that's like handing some kid a hammer and telling him to tear down a house. Then when the house is in rubble, you turn to the kid and say, "Now, build a wonderful new home with fine craftsmanship there."
The kid might have been fine at tearing a house apart, but tearing a house down teaches little of the creative process, the building process.
So teachers tear apart a book, then make students outline the book. What that does is make the writer of the book look damn smart, actually. Students come away from the process thinking, "Wow, how did the writer know to put all that foreshadowing in chapter six for what's going to happen in chapter ten?"
So then, later, when the writer is facing a novel, the writer thinks all that idiocy taught in school is going to help the writer with the task of writing. Nope.
In fact, most of that learning from school will hurt the creative writer.
But off the writer goes, spending time and energy outlining and working on the outline and making sure the outline is perfect before ever writing word one. And all that is done from the critical voice, from the voice of a teacher who wouldn't have been able to write a novel on the threat of death.
It is any wonder so many early outlined novels fail, and fail big time?
And actually, most outlined novels never get written. I'll talk about why later in the book.
CRITICAL VOICE VERSUS CREATIVE VOICE
A great deal has been said about critical voice versus creative voice in writing, or in any art, for that matter. Great art is rarely, if ever, created from a critical perspective. Art is never done purposely.
Great art comes from the creative side of our brains. I like to think of the creative part living in the back of our brains. The front part of our brains, the critical part, is what takes in all the information. The creative part has a large filter and only takes in the knowledge it wants and uses.
The creative side of our minds has been trained since we were born, and story has been trained into that creative side since we were first read to by our parents. The creative side loves story.
For most writers, the difficulty comes when trying to get past the critical side of our brains and write from the creative side only. Outlining comes from the critical side by the very nature of outlining.
So the critical side of our minds outlines a book, then we wonder why the creative side often doesn't want to follow the outline. The creative side knows story, knows what needs to be in a story.
So all the way through this book, I'm going to be talking about how to access the creative side, how to trust that part of your mind to create stories, and how to kill the fear that the critical voice will use to try to stop you.
Much, much more on this topic coming up.
WHY WRITE INTO THE DARK?
The first answer to that question is easy. Writing into the dark imitates the reading process for the writer.
All writers are readers. And as readers, we love it when a writer takes us along for the ride in a good novel.
So when writing into the dark, that same feeling of reading is in the writing process. Our conscious mind is just along for the ride. The creative side is making up a story and entertaining us as we type.
Later on in this book, I'll also talk about the many problems that stop outline writers. One major factor is boredom.
Imagine if every novel you picked up had a detailed outline of the entire plot, including the ending, right at the start. Would you read the novel after reading the outline?
Chances are, no. What would be the point? You already know the journey the writer is going to take you on.
So as a writer, why do an outline and then have to spend all that time creating a book you already know?
"Boring" doesn't begin to describe it.
And as I said, I wrote a lot of media tie-in books from outlines. My rule during those days was to write the outline, get it approved by Paramount or some other license holder, then never look at the outline and just write the book.
My memory is so bad that after seven to ten months from the time I wrote the outline to the time I got the contract and wrote the book, I had no memory of the book I had outlined at all. None.
And if the title hadn't been on the contract, I wouldn't have remembered that either.
So I never looked at the outline. Never. I just typed in the title and wrote off into the dark. That kept the book fresh and alive for me.
And no editor or license holder ever noticed the book was different from the outline they approved. Not once.
The key is to make a novel fresh to the reader. If the writer is bored or feeling like the book is "work" to write, you can bet that feeling is coming through the words to the reader.
Here is one more reason for writing into the dark: If you have no idea where the book is going, the reader sure won't either.
NO RIGHT WAY
Please remember, as I work through this book, that there is no right way of writing any particular book.
Or only one way for a writer to always work.
There are as many ways to write a book as there are writers.
Writing into the dark is just another option.
In the Thriller Online Workshop that I offer through WMG Publishing, numbers of writers mention to me each time that class is offered that they are surprised that I suggest character sketches and outlines.
And that I suggest taking another thriller writer's novel apart and outlining it to study.
There are some books, some projects, that would be better served with outlining.
No book is the same, no process is the same.
And I have to admit right here, in the introduction, that I outline in my own way, every book I write.
When I have a chapter finished, I jot down who the viewpoint characters are, what they are wearing, what happened in the chapter.
So as I go along, I outline each book as I write it.
I never outline ahead of the writing, but after the writing is done. That keeps the creative side of my brain in control of the writing.
And the real reason I do that is to keep track of what I have already done. And what a character is wearing. And so on.
It also helps my creative mind see the patterns in the book as I write.
So I write into the dark with most novels these days.
But I outline as I go, after I have written a chapter.
That's just my way. Use it if you want.
Now onward into how to get over the fear and critical voice problems that come with typing in a title and just writing a novel into the dark.