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Why Process, Criticism, and Theory Can Be Good for All Writers


What’s the fastest way to start an argument with…
The Professor? Advocate an analytically-driven, engineered writing process.
Chris? Advocate process-less, instinctive writing (“Just write!”)

Obviously, this is one subject on which my wife and I disagree. Sometimes quite vehemently. And this is also an argument that I’ve seen writers manifest in the perennial debate over outlining, writing synopses, or just seat-of-the-pantsing it.

Why Seat-of-the-Pants vs Outline is a False Dichotomy

That question, beloved of the interwebs, is bogus. For a story to be effective, it must be coherent on one or more levels. And coherence in narrative results from having a plan. If a story didn’t have an underlying plan, it would be stream of consciousness and word association. And while some few (*cough* James Joyce *cough*) may have pulled it off, most of us won’t. The real question is one of timing, worldview, and brain wiring.

Let’s posit two (obviously extreme) writers: Jane Outline and John Pants. Obviously, Jane likes to map out the events of her story before sitting down to pen some prose. John, by contrast, sits down and lets his characters tell the story. Both John and Jane still execute on a plan. The real difference is when each prepares that plan.

Jane, with her spreadsheets, notes, and color charts front-loads a great deal of the work. Before she writes her opening sentence, Jane knows what her characters will do at each stage of her story. She knows what motivates them, and how they will react to the situations she puts them in. For her, the act of writing is more a question of finding the words to best express actions that she has already mapped out. The events of her story will rarely surprise her, but her execution might.

John, by contrast, sits down with a character, a voice, or a sentence. He has a hook that brings him into the world of his story, but beyond that he doesn’t know much of where the story is going. After he writes that first sentence, or the first paragraph, he lets the character/voice guide him. The story that unfolds might surprise him, though he counts on his facility for language to express that story as it makes itself apparent. If John has a plan, he makes it up as he goes: he knows what will happen in the next sentence, the next paragraph, or the next scene. But he might not necessarily have an end-goal in sight. His plan is gradually uncovered in parallel to the story.

Both plans come from the heart of storytelling in our souls. Those of us wired like Jane might consciously try to tap into that wellspring, while those like John might have to negotiate access on a moment-by-moment basis. But if we want to write at a professional level, we need to develop the capacity to touch that heart of storytelling whenever we need to. Waiting for the elusive muse, or relying on some ritual, is counterproductive and inhibiting. And that is something that the Professor and I agree on. So how can writers – regardless of whether they plan ahead of time or not – develop the capability to build stories? While at its most basic level the answer is practice (or as the Professor tells me constantly: Just write, dammit!), I think the more complete answer depends on how our brains are wired.

Creative Tools for the Analytical Writer

I’m a fairly analytical fellow by both nature and training. I see patterns and systems just about everywhere (whether they’re really there or not). When I sit down to write, I try to think of it in terms of systems and processes. This isn’t to say that I write by the numbers, but I find that I will always try to build a conceptual framework around whatever writing project I’m working on at any precise moment. Sometimes, that conceptual framework manifests itself in an outline, other times in a synopsis, and sometimes (usually when I write short fiction) it stays in my head. But the quality of those conceptual frameworks, and the tools that I can apply to them are actually the result of critical theory and extensive analytical reading.

I try to read as much critical theory as possible. And since I write primarily in the speculative genres, I also read heavily in genre theory. If your only exposure to critical theory has been Derrida (ick) or most of the other post-modernists, then I strongly suggest you take a look at some of the more formalist schools of thought: there’s a lot of value to be found there. I’ve found that useful critical theory expands my conceptual vocabulary, and gives me a way of thinking about story structure, character archetypes, and narrative techniques. Unlike how-to-write books or blogs (which can also be helpful), most good theory isn’t didactic. It’s diagnostic: it describes what the investigator sees in the field, rather than what a practitioner should do.

Why is this helpful? It explains what other authors, schools of writing, or genres have done. If I’m writing a fairy tale, I find that I keep Vladimir Propp’s Morphology of the Folktale close to hand. Not because I slavishly stick to the plot constructions he describes, but because he has laid out a time-tested architecture for fairy tale storytelling. I might choose to diverge from his framework, but if I do so, I do so consciously: I know where I’m diverging and why. When I write fantasy, I keep in mind Farah Mendlesohn’s categories of fantasy (from her excellent Rhetorics of Fantasy). Doing so does not limit my writing, but it expands my awareness of where my story might go.

Analytical reading is a way of consciously constructing my own conceptual vocabulary. When I read a story, in particular when I’m reading something for review consideration, I’m always asking myself what techniques the author used to manipulate the reader’s perception. I examine their effectiveness, and the reasons driving it. In essence, I’m creating my own internal critical theory that then informs my writing and affects how stories get constructed in the deeper recesses of my brain. A big part of this blog is actually my attempt to further systematize this nebulous personal critical theory and deepen my conscious awareness of it through its articulation.

“Theory is Boring, Didactic, and Risky,” says the Instinctive Writer

Our theoretical John Pants (and The Professor, and a who’s who list of amazing writers) would probably disagree with everything I just said above. They would say that theory can be inhibiting, leading us to write by the numbers. And yes, this is a real risk. Just consider all of the dross produced on the back of the Campbellian monomyth. Instead, they would probably suggest that people should just read extensively and analytically, and write, write, write.

And that is absolutely true. But extensive reading (whether consciously analytical or not) has the same ultimate effect as reading theory. Have you ever found yourself reading extensively in a particular time period, or genre, and discovered that you’ve picked up habits (sentence construction, pacing, plot) from your reading? Even if we don’t consciously dissect our reading material, the act of reading still builds our internal critical theory. Consciously, analytically, or through osmosis, the act of reading assembles our conceptual vocabulary whether we want it to or not. Whether we can ever consciously articulate that theory or not doesn’t matter: it’s still somewhere in our brains. And it percolates there, and then leaks out to flavor our writing. And the more extensive our internal critical theory, the wider assortment of narrative tools we have in our writing workshop.

I admit, I’m not one of these instinctive writers. But I suspect the biggest challenge for such writers is to work through the moments in their writing when their limited conscious plan peters out. “Where do I take the story from here?” is a question I suspect many struggle with at some point. Which is why they say Broadway is paved with excellent first acts. The exhortation that writers force themselves to write, come hell or high water, is designed to train us to smoothly access our conceptual vocabulary – whether we’re conscious of the process or not. And the wider our reading, the broader and deeper that conceptual vocabulary becomes. This then lets us avoid such dead-ends, or to more easily identify them so we can backtrack to fix them.

Process vs Ritual: The First is Good, the Second is Bad

We writerly types are fairly idiosyncratic. Like athletes, we all have our little habits that put us in the zone. Whether it’s a particular chair we love to write in, or a particular time of day to write at, or a particular process that we go through before setting fingers to keyboard, we’ve all got our little rituals. And rituals are bad. They’re crutches that over the space of a career are just not sustainable. Because life generally is not conducive to ritualized work processes. Sooner or later, our favorite chairs break, mugs get lost, schedules get all mixed up. Life just gets in the way. And if we’re beholden to our rituals, then our writing will suffer.

Imagine if John Pants lands a three book deal, with a national book tour (okay, I realize this isn’t likely in the modern world – but for illustrative purposes only, bear with me). He’ll be on the road for eight weeks plugging the first book in his trilogy, meanwhile his deadline for book number two is rapidly approaching (if it hasn’t already passed). If he’s addicted to his favorite writing chair, or to his cat lounging on his feet, he’s going to have a lot of trouble finishing book two while on tour.

I find that I struggle with a variety of rituals in my writing. For example: when I sit down to write a short story, I like to write a complete draft in one sitting. Silly, but it’s just a little ritual or idiosyncrasy that I’ve got. Or if I’m working on a long form work, I like to write a complete scene, or a complete chapter. As far as rituals go, this isn’t that bad (the upside is I usually finish the stuff I start). But it still means there will be times when I decide not to write because I know I won’t have time to get far beyond a single sentence or paragraph. If I don’t have an hour or two to focus, I might just wait for later. And that’s an inhibiting habit that I’m working on breaking. It’d be nice to be able to write effectively at any time of day, whether I’ve got five minutes or an hour to do so. With the Professor’s exhortations (and mockery) I’m working through this, but it’s something that takes – and will continue to take – work.

But there is a difference between ritual and process. Process is an outgrowth of how our brains are wired, and so if we need to write an outline to tell a story, then I say go for it! But we cannot let ourselves become slaves to that process. An outline is one process that is particularly suited to those of us with an analytical mindset. There are others (synopses, notes, mind-maps, and yes – even just winging it, etc.). If we say we absolutely need an outline to write, and then we get stuck in the outlining phase, that might mean our process has broken down for a particular project.

If our process has become a ritual, we might get stuck. But if we have the flexibility to switch to a different process, the odds of bogging down fall dramatically. The last three long works I’ve drafted (one fantasy novel, one graphic novel script, and one alternate history novel) all used a different process. The first had a detailed outline before I ever started writing it. The second had a loose synopsis. And I winged the third until I got about halfway through it, then built a detailed scene-by-scene outline from there. Much as I like process, it can be a crutch. And here my wife’s aversion to analytical writing is dead on: At some point, crutches always break. Which is why having the widest possible assortment of processes in our writing toolkit makes good analytical sense. It is always good to push our own boundaries as writers, to play and experiment with different tools, techniques, and methods.

So what processes work for you in your writing? What techniques would you recommend? What techniques have you tried that didn’t work for you?

9 Comments Post a comment
  1. I just was having this debate with myself today. I think this might be true of many of us. I am Jane and John. very funny, by the way — those names.

    October 25, 2011
    • Thanks! And I’ve got a feeling I’m going to be debating these issues with myself on a near daily basis for the rest of my life. But at least it’s an interesting and fruitful debate to have!

      October 26, 2011
  2. The Professor #

    It’s more of a ‘shut up and write’ than ‘just write, dammit’ – but if we’re going to paraphrase Sidney, we might as well quote him:

    Thus, great with child to speak, and helpless in my throes,
    Biting my truant pen, beating myself for spite–
    “Fool,” said my Muse to me, “look in thy heart and write.”

    October 26, 2011
  3. Great post Chris! As always, helpful and interesting.

    I have to say that I like the partial plan approach myself. At least, that’s what I’m doing at the moment, but I guess part of it is, as you say, not getting bogged down in rituals and trying to keep your processes fresh. I can’t stand the idea of needing a psychological crutch in order to be ‘able’ to write, so that’s what spurs me to change things up as often as I can.

    October 26, 2011
    • That’s a great way to keep things fresh! I also find that different processes work well for me with different projects – though sometimes it might take me a while to find the right process for a specific project.

      October 27, 2011
  4. I’m a non-outliner, so I really had to find my own way on techniques. A lot of things that people recommend as being helpful for non-outliners don’t work at all for me. The biggest thing I think is to be willing to experiment even if other writers think its weird or a waste of time. I explored time management as a solution to the problems I was having with writing. Other writers told me not to do that and to go back to writing solutions, but time management was where I found the solution.

    I am going to be experimenting with plot grids though. James Scott Bell mentioned this in his ebook on writing. After writing the story for a week, stop and record a few sentences about each scene. If it doesn’t work, I’ll stop doing it.

    What so didn’t work: Both researching before the story for things I thought the story needed and not researching before the story. When I researched, I often ended up not using it once the story began to develop. But I ended up doing massive setting research in my final revision. So, next time, I’m doing broad research just on the setting before I start writing.

    October 27, 2011
    • @Linda: Yeah, research can be a rabbit hole that it’s very easy (and fun) to fall down. I know there are some writers who take copious notes when they’re researching: Greg Egan wrote over 80,000 words on the physics laws he developed for The Clockwork Rocket. I’ve also heard that Tim Powers’ research notes are often longer than his books end up being. In my case, I find that much as I love research, I rarely take a lot of notes. Instead, I’ll just read everything I can find on a given subject, let it sink into my brain, and then filter down into the story I’m writing. Not taking notes and just trying to absorb as much as I can makes it seem less like work.

      October 27, 2011
  5. Munk #

    I admit I’m with the professor on this one.
    Decide on a world, grab some characters, throw in a theme, and plot-or-not… shut up and start telling lies.

    October 28, 2011
    • @Munk: I like the “Start telling lies” aspect! That’s half the fun, after all.

      October 31, 2011

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