Thursday, September 25, 2014

How do YOU Write? Part 3

To outline or not to outline?

Let's look at two authors, one who finds devising an outline for his novels before writing useful, and one with a more haphazard and organic way of forming a story.

A.J. Jacobs is the author of such nonfiction as The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible. He turns his life into immersion experiments and then writes about his experiences and conclusions. Nonfiction likely lends itself better to the outline approach of writing, but still there are fiction writers who do the same.

In a 2103 interview with The Daily Beast, Jacobs had this to say about how he goes about his writing:

What’s your morning routine like?

My kids wake me up. I have coffee (overall a healthy beverage, by the way; delays Alzheimer’s and lowers risk of certain cancers). I make my kids breakfast, take them to school, then come home and try to write. I fail at that until I force myself to turn off my Internet access so I can get a little shelter from the information storm.

Describe your writing routine.

I am a big fan of outlining. I write an outline. Then a slightly more detailed outline. Then another with even more detail. Sentences form, punctuation is added, and eventually it all turns into a book.

Do you have any unusual rituals associated with the writing process?

I used to drink a lot of Diet Coke to keep me wired. But when writing a book about health, it’s hard to justify three Diet Cokes a day, so I had to quit. I still miss it.

Is there anything distinctive or unusual about your work space?

I write while walking on a treadmill. I’m doing it right now. I started this practice when I was working on Drop Dead Healthy, and read all these studies about the dangers of the sedentary life. Sitting is alarmingly bad for you. One doctor told me that “sitting is the new smoking.” So I bought a treadmill and put my computer on top of it. It took me about 1,200 miles to write my book. I kind of love it—it keeps me awake, for one thing.

What advice would you give to an aspiring author?

Force yourself to generate dozens of ideas. A lot of those ideas will be terrible. Most of them, in fact. But there will be some sparkling gems in there too. Try to set aside 20 minutes a day just for brainstorming.

On the other end of the spectrum are authors like Khaled Hosseini, who wrote The Kite Runner and other novels

Describe your morning routine.

I get up and work out. Get home in time to get the kids off to school (on my days—my wife and I trade off), eat, read the paper, front page first, check all news on Afghanistan. Flip to sports page, check for any San Francisco 49ers news. Then I write, typically from about 8:30 to 2 p.m., at which time I go to pick up my kids from school.

What is a distinctive habit or affectation of yours?

I can’t watch TV without eating peanuts. Can’t be done.

How do you conceive of a book?

I don’t outline at all, I don’t find it useful, and I don’t like the way it boxes me in. I like the element of surprise and spontaneity, of letting the story find its own way. For this reason, I find that writing a first draft is very difficult and laborious. It is also often quite disappointing. It hardly ever turns out to be what I thought it was, and it usually falls quite short of the ideal I held in my mind when I began writing it. I love to rewrite, however. A first draft is really just a sketch on which I add layer and dimension and shade and nuance and color. Writing for me is largely about rewriting. It is during this process that I discover hidden meanings, connections, and possibilities that I missed the first time around. In rewriting, I hope to see the story getting closer to what my original hopes for it were.

Do you have any unusual rituals in your writing process?

I write while my kids are at school and the house is quiet. I sequester myself in my office with mug of coffee and computer. I can't listen to music when I write, though I have tried. I pace a lot. Keep the shades drawn. I take brief breaks from writing, 2-3 minutes, by strumming badly on a guitar. I try to get 2–3 pages in per day. I write until about 2 p.m. when I go to get my kids, then I switch to Dad mode.

What do you need to have produced/completed in order to feel that you’ve had a productive writing day?

At least three good sentences. And an idea of what I will write the next day. Cannot go in blank the next day, the seed has to be planted today.

What advice would you give to an aspiring author?

I have met so many people who say they've got a book in them, but they've never written a word. To be a writer—this may seem trite, I realize—you have to actually write. You have to write every day, and you have to write whether you feel like it or not. Perhaps most importantly, write for an audience of one—yourself. Write the story you need to tell and want to read. It’s impossible to know what others want so don’t waste time trying to guess. Just write about the things that get under your skin and keep you up at night. You also have to read a lot—and pay attention. Read the kinds of things you want to write, read the kinds of things you would never write. Learn something from every writer you read.

Personally, I am a fan of outlining. I start with a general outline for the book, and as I write and other bits and pieces of the story come to me and I see the way things are supposed to go, I add in more and more detail to the original outline.

I would be very curious to learn how you other writers out there feel about the topic. Outlines - yay or nay?

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