Wednesday, October 19, 2011

I WROTE it My Way!!

Back in the late 60's Frank Sinatra had his signature hit song, "I did it My Way." One cannot deny that the "Chairman" did it his way throughout life. Sometimes that worked out for him. Other times - not so much. But the point he made in the song is relevant to writers as well as singers with questionable associations. You have to find a process that works for you.

As I have been preparing lessons for the Write Your Novel by Valentines Day - Your Way! course which begins November 1 at the Education Wants to be Free Learning Space. I am struggling to make it student driven, rather than instructor driven. By that I mean that I want to help the student approach the job of writing a novel in a way compatible with his or her own unique personality and still produce a quality product by the end of the course.

Over 30 years of teaching writing students, I've seen many who are confused about the "right" way to write just about anything. This is understandable. We all want to do things "right." However, we something confuse the "right" product with the "right" process.

Let me give you an example from a totally unrelated field - Magic. Back in my youth, I studied sleight of hand, card tricks and the like. In one popular trick, the magician displays a pack of cards to his audience. He asks a member of the audience to come forward and pick a card from the deck and show it to the audience and replace it in the deck. After some hocus-pocus, he lifts up the top card to show it is NOT the chosen card, then lifts it again to reveal the card has magically changed into the card picked by the volunteer.

You have seen this various times, often with a variation on how the card is revealed. The core trick, though, is bringing the card to the top of the deck. The interesting thing about this is that there are about 5 ways to do this. No, I won't tell you what they are, you can get the magic books and learn them yourself. Or maybe down the road, I'll teach an online magic course for beginners. But even an amateur magician doesn't casually reveal the secrets to the trade.

The point is that one book tells you one way to bring the card to the top of the deck. Another takes a different approach. You buy the trick at a magic store and you have yet another method. And so on.

The same is true of writing. The end product - a novel, short story, article, nonfiction book - must have certain characteristics when finished (the card must rise to the top of the deck regardless of the technique used). However, how you get there depends greatly on your personality.

 Reading books on writing, though useful in many ways, can simply add to the confusion. I've read probably 50+ writing books over the last 30 years and if I include articles in Writer's Digest, The Writer, on blogs and websites, I probably read the equivalent of another 50 or 100 books in the 45 years since I first decided I wanted to write things other people would publish.

I've learned from each of them. I have also been confused by many of them. One book was all about plotting and the "proper" way to do that. Another I read, said "plot is an illusion." According to that author, plot is merely "the accumulated actions the character takes in resolving a problem." Hmmm... Sounds like a plot to me.

Most require very long and very detailed plot outlines, although the nature of those plot outlines varies greatly. Some look like snowflakes, some like wagon wheels, some are meandering paths, some are written on cards and shuffled, some are pages in a notebook. Each author has his "one-and-only" way to write an outline. Interestingly enough, I've been reading a book about novel writing by a fellow academic. She was discussing at great length about how important a detailed outline was to writing a novel, and if you didn't want to write one, then you simply should stop trying to write a novel. I was intrigued, since I write fairly limited outlines, and decided to look up and read one of her novels. To my amazement, she had not written a novel. In fact, aside from three short stories in literary journals and a handful of essays she had published nothing except this book on Novel Writing. Not only did a reputable company publish the book, they also sponsored her in an online writing class that has a $500 price tag!

Sometimes it is good to see the credentials of the person before you buy into their method. However, even established writers vary in their approaches to writing. I've read about some novelists who simply sit down and start writing with only a vague idea of where the story is going and produce best sellers. Others have massive, detailed outlines that they don't waver from. One author said he uses a slash-dash approach. He sits down puts a slash and a short description of what he is about to write and a list of things that need to be in that scene preceded by dashes. For instance:

/Carolyn and Mike join Jason for dinner
- he talks about his passion for lunar history
-he shows them his artifact collection
-alan shepherd's golf ball
-gives the collection to the college. 
Then he writes that and creates another slash-dash block and that's how he writes a novel.

I guess the basic message is to be sure you find a technique which is right for you. Over the next three days, I'm going to talk about three common techniques for planning a novel, their advantages and disadvantages and how to decide which one is right for you.

BTW, in the shameless plug category. If you want a course that will help you optimize your own method of writing, consider Write Your Novel by Valentines day - YOUR WAY!  being offered by Education Wants to be Free Learning Space. This 13 week course will take you through the process of writing a novel giving you a variety of options at each stage to find your own pathway to success. Plotters, Pantsers and Explorers will each find help in making their own personal approach work best for them. 

You will be able to browse through the course materials for free during the course which begins November 1 as a guest. However, you will get the most value if you opt for either the Deluxe course (9.95) or the Premium (19.95) With the deluxe course you gain access to the instructor and other students through a discussion board and email. You also receive feedback on up to 25,000 words of your novel and a proposal. In the premium course, you will receive feedback on all assignments, 50,000 words of your novel and a proposal.


  1. I wrote my first novel without having read a book on writing, visiting a blog or joinging a readers group. I didn't know critique groups existed and I still don't really know what a beta reader is.

    After my first book was finished, I jointed a writers website where I met a handful of extremely helpful and friendly people. I also was introduced, via the website's bookstore, to the many hundreds of books on writing. So I started reading. And reading. And reading.

    I did get some valuable advice. I learned more about myself than I did about writing. I don't use outlines. I don't use flashcards. I DO use the slash and dash method, although before this post I didn't know it had a name. I guess I haven't gotten to that book yet. :) Probably most importantly I've learned to spot - for the most part - ideas that won't work for me.

    The problem I have with the writing books sitting on my shelves is I was spending so much time studying them I wasn't writing. Now I limit myself to one book at a time, instead of the ten I was trying to read, and one chapter a day.

    Slow and steady wins...well, you know the saying.

    Great article,
    Concilium, July 2012

  2. I read about the Slash-Dash method in an article in Writer's Digest Magazine. I have since thought it to be a perfect planning tool for "pantsers." You are just working a little ahead of the story and it is so temporary looking you don't feel tied to it.

    Now, some people just plain need the security of a fully plotted novel in detail before they start writing. That is the assumption brought to the table by most writing books and writing teachers. That is fine as well. I'm somewhat like that with nonfiction. With fiction I find it to be more fun to sort of discover the story along with the characters, but I do like to have a few destination points along the way to keep me minimally on track.

  3. Terri, great article and so true. This also holds true for marketing. With the internet it's so easy to proclaim your authority, whether in writing or marketing, and whether or not you actually walk-the-walk and not just talk-the-talk.

    Karen Cioffi Writing and Marketing

  4. Very good insight Terri. Thanks for sharing this. There is such freedom in your approach.

    I'm glad you wrote this and I found out about your novel writing course. I had a student finish my "How to Write for Fun and Profit" writing course and I wanted to be able to recommend a course on fiction writing since she is writing novels.

    She needed basic writing skills but now she needs to know fiction techniques so I am excited about the timing of this course and your level of insight. I love, love, love your approach. It's so healthy!

    Thank you for being brave enough to set people free. :-)

    Sharon Gibson

  5. Thanks to all of you. When I called this "Education Wants to be Free" I was boldly borrowing from the hacker credo that information wants to be free. A lot of people misunderstand that statement. They thought hackers were talking about money. They weren't. At least not entirely. They were talking about how information tries to seek its own level and get out from the restraints set around it. They were also talking about the freedom that comes when information is freely available (whether or not that includes a fee).

    The same goes for education. Education, done well, should liberate the student and help that student succeed more or less on his or her own terms. It means helping that student find his or her unique path and then helping them use that path most efficiently.

    It is easy to become dictatorial as a teacher when you discover a technique that works for you. It is even easier for someone who is not a teacher since teachers, if trained well, know that everyone learns differently and have been trained in accomodating those differences (and then they enter the world of public and private education and have to deal with fixed curricula and NCLB regulations which assume a standardized student).

    I wasn't so upset that the individual had not written a novel as I was at her lack of writing experience across the board. I was even more upset that a major publisher had given her a platform for not just a book, but a course.

    We will be setting people free to write their novels their way beginning in November. Maybe by Spring, I'll also have my own book written on the subject.

  6. Terri, when is the deadline to sign up for the course?

  7. Gatekeeper-- The course begins November 1. I'll take enrollments up until November 8. If there is a reason, they can't enroll by that date, they can email me and let me know.

    Enrolling just involves going to clicking on the appropriate course and then following the instructions to register with the website. When that is complete (verification by email) they will be directed to the page for enrolling in the course. If the course asks for an enrollment key it is vipaccess


We welcome comments. Just be courteous to others. BTW, if you have a website or blog feel free to add the URL to your message.