Jeff O'Handley, Author

Jeff O'Handley

The Doubting Writer Finds His Voice

Weekend Update: Change Is Good

If you’ve been reading this space for any length of time, then you’re almost certainly aware that I am a card-carrying member of that subset of writers known as ‘Wingman’. I am not a planner, not an outliner, not a plotter. I plunk myself down at the keyboard and start writing and just let it flow.

Now, you might also know that winging it is not quite as purely improvisational as it sounds. When I’m not writing, I’m thinking. I’m thinking about my story. Not ALL the time, but when I’m driving to work, or showering, or walking the dog, or washing the dishes. Those are great times for thinking of story. And the way I often think about my stories is to essentially have it play out in my head. When I sit down to write, it’s almost like a transcription session, though it often goes off the rails and takes wild turns from what I had envisioned moments or hours or even days before.

My current project is one that has bedeviled (did I really just used ‘bedeviled’? I did, by gum, I did) me for quite some time. The idea first sparked more than a year ago. I wrote the intro in my writers’ circle the same day and was really taken by it. But I was also busy with a revision of one project and a new draft of a another and on and on and on. I also found that, when I did sit with the intention of writing it, it just wasn’t coming the way I wanted, so I left it alone, figuring it needed more percolation time. I sometimes need two strikes of ‘inspiration’, or whatever you want to call it, for an idea to really get going, and that second strike hadn’t happened yet.

At the beginning of September I had a conversation with Carrie about next projects. I had two in mind and we talked them over, and she suggested I work on this particular one–the one that has been giving me fits. We talked over my roadblock with the project and brainstormed some ideas and I walked away feeling a little more fired up, but for the next couple of weeks, I still struggled–and so I changed my approach: I wrote an outline.

Well, I don’t know if it’s an outline or not. It’s sort of an outline. I essentially outlined the broad strokes of what I had actually written to that point (which was a surprising 140 pages, but not a cohesive 140), and tried to fill in a little about what I expected to happen. It was a little muddy, especially the end, but I found myself with a little more confidence to move forward. From there I started taking pieces I had already written and retooled them, while also writing fresh scenes that ‘appeared’ in my head while washing the dishes, driving, &c. (and let me tell you, it’s been good to have those scenes appear; it makes me more confident in what I’m doing)

But I’m also doing something else different this time around. Instead of sitting down and opening up my WiP and just starting where I left off, I’ve started my writing sessions in my outline instead. I’ll start with a broad idea of what I want to write: “Emily wakes with a hangover. She remembered talking with her roommate about…” What’s happening is that after a paragraph or so of ‘outliney speak’, I’m writing a full-out scene with dialogue, description, etc. If I get it good enough, I pop it out into my WiP proper, make some corrections, and I’m good to go on the next scene. If it’s not quite good enough, it stays in the outline. Last night I took less than 200 words I’d written in my writers’ group that afternoon and expanded it by 2000 words. It’s not perfect. Tonight I’ll go back in the outline and revisit it, make it better, and put it in the WiP. And this is something else that’s new for me: in past drafting events, I’ve pretty much left what was written alone until the whole thing was done.

It’s been an interesting approach for me, and one that has made me much more productive. In early October, I told Carrie I had a 6(!) page outline. It’s not 27 pages. The WiP is approaching 20,000 words, half the length of the last draft, but is a better story, I think. Will I follow this new approach all the way through this WiP, and will I apply it to the next project down the road? I can’t say for sure. What I can say is I’m glad I was willing to try something new. It’s working so far.

Have you ever changed your approach to writing? How did that work for you?

6 Responses

  1. I've tried outlining before without great success because inspiration takes me in a different direction and I have to throw out what's left of the outline. But I also know there are some stories that just need more of that. I'm hoping to get some of that done before NaNo starts on Saturday. Yikes!

  2. I've tried a few different approaches and I tend to get something out of all of them, but I haven't found the 'perfect' method for me yet. I definitely prefer to wing it, as long as I have the ending in mind 🙂

  3. I always outline and then spend two weeks writing each 3000-4000 word chapter. But last Jan, I "fast drafted" for the first time. I learned some things about my WIP, mostly what wouldn't work. lol I'm still only managing 2 chapters a month, but I think the fast draft helped clarify one character's voice… Anyhow, it's important to try out new things. Good luck on your outlining/drafting! 😉

  4. I tend to be a thinking writer though sometimes I've drawn up a time-line to help me keep things straight. I guess that's kind of like an outline.

    The biggest change that I have to make is to actually finish something other than a blog post.

    Wrote By Rote

  5. That's certainly a unique approach. I think I would confuse myself with the cutting and pasting. But if you found a new approach that works, stick with it.
    I tend to outline to death. When I realize my outline is starting to read like the actual story, that's when I know I need to start writing it.

  6. -Donna–I know that feeling! At the same time, I think this is a story that just needs a little more 'pre-writing' work than I'm used to. Good luck with NaNo!

    -Jemi–but if you know how it ends, how can you wing it??? *head explodes*

    -Lexa–sometimes, the only way to figure out what does work is to learn what doesn't!

    -Arlee–Finishing is important, isn't it? I've done timelines, too, just to make sure I don't bend the rules of time and space, since I'm not a SciFi writer!

    -Alex–the cutting and pasting isn't a problem for me, so long as I'm writing in a fairly linear way. My first ever NaNo project was written all out of sequence. Stitching it into proper order was a nightmare!

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