Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Since you don't outline, how thoroughly do you plan out your characters and story before you begin the first draft? Do you do much more than superficially edit as you go?

I get a lot of questions about outlining and organic writing. I’m not sure why people are taught to outline as if it is the right way or the only way to write. It’s such an unnatural approach to the creative that I really don’t understand how or why people go that route.

So, to address these two specific questions, I don’t plan out my characters very thoroughly at all. Instead, I put them in interesting situations and see how they respond. Sometimes they’ll surprise me in how they act or demand a bigger part in the story, so I try to be honest and let them be.

This approach is similar to the way that JRR Tolkien wrote. As he noted one time, "A new character has come on the scene (I am sure I did not invent him, I did not even want him, but there he came walking through the woods of Ithilien): Faramir, the brother of Boromir."

Tessa did this to me in The Pawn. At first she was a rather one-dimensional snide teen girl, but the more I wrote about her, the more interesting she became. By the time I started working on The Rook, she had vied for a bigger part in the story and I had to give it to her.

The key is responding to the story as it unfolds, being honest, keeping it believable, letting the characters act and develop naturally, and go where the thread of the story takes you.

As far as the second question about editing, I continually revise and edit as I go along. Typically I will print out several chapters that I’ve been working on, as well as the new ones I’m writing, and read them through to start my day. I will edit them, rewrite them and tweak them as the broader context of the story becomes clearer.

So, allow your characters the opportunity to flex and adapt and grow, adding quirks and inconsistencies, pushing them to the limit to see how they respond, and then letting the story shape them even while they shape the direction of the story.


  1. The best advice I have ever been given in regards to character development. Thank you.

  2. Steven, I always enjoy reading your advice. I've never done outlines but I do occasionally jot down points that I'd like to cover. Just not all the time. I'd like to think that all of my content is subject to change!

  3. I'm glad you push back against the conventional wisdom of outlining--it is not the only way or the best way to write a novel.

    I'm curious about your perspective on screenwriting, though, in light of your generally negative outlook on planning the story through an outline (or similar) and then fleshing it out. Isn't that what the film industry does all the time--someone writes a treatment based on an idea they had, someone else fleshes it out into a script, the director spins it a different direction and brings someone else on to revise the script, and then the cast infuses the entire thing with life during the filming--and then it all gets brought together in the editing process.

    Can't the creativity and freedom you advocate take place during the outlining process--and continue during the drafting process, provided you keep that mindset--the same way it does (or can) in film making?

  4. Hello Steven, I love these points! :)

    I have a new question for you that I would love answered sometime... I am currently editing my first book...What is your editing process?? What do you recommend other writers to do when editing?