Going Freeform

With nonfiction, I’ve always been a fairly organized writer. I never made a formal outline but I was always conscious of the shape of my work.

Usually this began as writing down a list of all the ideas I wanted to cover and then deciding how they chunked into groups. For an article or a chapter, these would be subtopics; for a book, they would become the chapters. Once I’d written some of the subtopics or chapters, I might see a better way to organize things, but until I had the basic structure worked out, I never got far with the writing.

I always assumed fiction would work the same way for me—I would need to work out the basic plot and sketch out the major characters before I could seriously start writing. It turned out, though, that until I started writing, I didn’t know enough about my characters and how they thought and behaved to figure out what they’d do until I’d written a couple dozen thousand words.

I’ve always liked that line about writing to think: “in order to know what I think, I have to see what I say.” Fiction, it seems, is a magical variant of the same idea: I have to write my characters in order to see what they’re like, and then, suddenly, once they’re down on paper, I can see what’s right about them and what doesn’t work and needs fixing, and as I write and rewrite, I see what has to happen.

I’d never have guessed I’d turn out to be a non-outliner.


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