Shelley Widhalm

Writing Organics, or the Case of Outlining or Winging It

In 52 Writing Topics, Shelley Widhalm, Writing, Writing Processes on December 2, 2012 at 11:00 am

There are two types of writers, those who outline and those who don’t.

The outliners plan out each chapter, as well as the entire structure of the novel from the beginning to the end. Their planning can include character biographies or sketches, storyboards of plot elements, and research notes of setting, character identity and the other elements of fiction.

Organic writers write as they go, letting the characters or storyline lead the way as the telling unfolds.

I’m an organic writer who needs a rough outline.

For my novel, “The Fire Painter,” which I am editing, I came up with an idea spark as I was sitting in a coffee shop nearly one year ago. I had thrown away a doggie piggy bank my late grandmother had given me because it had a crack, and then I had grieved the loss of a gift coming from love.

I took out my laptop and began writing about a character losing more than just one thing, but everything she owns in a house fire. I wanted to explore what she would do to retrieve her lost things and wrote out some random ideas on one page of paper.

A couple of weeks later, I began to write without knowing exactly where I was heading. A quarter of the way in, I figured out a possible ending without knowing exactly how I’d get there.

Halfway through, I wondered what I could possibly write next. I experienced the middle-of-the-novel slump that outliners, I believe, probably do not encounter as frequently or as deeply. They know where the novel is heading, as well as the purpose of each chapter that carries the plot to the ending.

Unlike the pure organics, I do some planning. At the end of each writing session, I sketch ideas for a few chapters, using the rough notes I initially wrote and add to them as well.

With outlines or rough notes, I find it best to think of them as a suggestion. I want to make sure to think through my main characters and plotlines, so that the story can be sustained over the span of a novel.

I basically want to get from here – an idea of the piggy bank – to there, or my 90,000-page rough draft that I finished in early December. It took me 11 months to turn a visual image into a story that, for me, means so much more than the gift from my grandmother, now that I’ve recreated it in words.

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  1. Congratulations on finishing the novel!! Can’t wait to read it.

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