Making it up as you go along — or not!

It is Labor Day so I guess it’s appropriate that I labor over a blog entry!

Returned not long ago from a hike up Mt. Pisgah, with my dog, my second such trek in two days. The day before it was Spencer Butte. I think today’s hike made a mockery of Register Guard columnist Bob Welch’s contention in his Sunday piece that blackberry season is over. It may have been a short, late season, as Bob suggested, because of the strange weather and late-starting summer. But I know places along obscure, little-traveled Mt. Pisgah trails where most of the blackberries are just now coming into their own. Where many were perfectly ripe today, and most of the berries on the vine are still red and will become perfectly ripe in the next 8-10 days with the right amount of rain and a few more sunny and warm ones.

I usually take the main trail to the top and back, but sometimes, like today, I take less-traveled paths, which provide more privacy and quietude for thinking and pondering, something good writers do a lot of, since good writing is hard work, even if you have some natural ability. And I spend a lot of time thinking about my writing.

This past week was the first meeting of Willamette Writers in Eugene, after the usual summer hiatus. The speaker was a local author, Miriam Gershow, who has written a book called “The Local News.” Her talk was entitled “Novel Structure — The Limits of Making it Up as You Go Along.”

Basically, it was a on one hand/on the other hand kind of talk in which she both extolled and criticized the virtues
of making up one’s book as one goes along, versus having an outline. She argued that making it up as you go along promotes creativity, even if it means lots of rewriting because you write yourself into dead-ends. I wouldn’t argue otherwise, but I also like outlines. When I started my book, “Crashing Through the Underbrush,” I didn’t have an outline. I wrote several more-or-less random stories that ultimately became chapters, but after four or five or those I realized I had to be more organized about it if it was going to end up as a real, and readable, book. There had to be plot and continuity, it had to make sense, there had to be recurring characters the reader could come to care about as the book progressed. After about 25,000 words I was having trouble remembering characters, where they last appeared, what they had done or experienced that might lend itself to further development. At one point, about a third of the way through the book, I realized I had referred to something in about chapter eight that didn’t actually happen until about chapter 12, so it wouldn’t have made sense to the reader. Fortunately, I caught that breach of writing etiquette and fixed it by adding a sentence or two to an earlier chapter to pave the way. But I also decided I needed a comprehensive outline to guide my path for the rest of the book.

I took a week’s vacation from work, rented a room at the cheapest motel I could find in Yachats, and squirreled myself away with my dog, my laptop, and about 32 pieces of paper. By the middle of the week I had those 32 pieces of paper spread out on the sofa, each representing a chapter and one or two to several paragraphs summarizing what that chapter was to be about, how it connected to the previous chapter, how it would connect to the next, and what the highlight of the chapter would be. An outline. Since I still had a few days left in the week, had paid in advance, and had no other plans, I wrote 3 or 4 more chapters, about 10,000 words, and spent the end of the week relaxing with my wife, who had come from Eugene to join me. It was perhaps the most productive week I’ve ever spent and it made me a believer in outlines.

But, ultimately, a writer must write in the way that works best for him or her, and if writing without an outline works best for Miriam and others, then more power to them!

About GaryC

I'm a retired mental health worker, a returned Peace Corps volunteer (South Africa, 2012-2013), and a writer. I live in Eugene, Oregon with the world's best dog, Carly. My card describes me also as "Jack-of-few-Trades, Master of Some", non-profit supporter, friend, grandpa and world traveler.
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2 Responses to Making it up as you go along — or not!

  1. GaryC says:

    And can you say WHY it’s so interesting?

  2. GaryC says:

    OK, thanks. But could you be more specific? WHY were you “forced” to reply to my post? Are you being held hostage?

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